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Andrew Fox

Work begins on Plymouth’s giant bronze sculpture

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Cultural leaders behind the plan to create a giant bronze sculpture in Plymouth have come face-to-face with her in foam form as work gets underway.

Craftsmen have begun the lengthy process of cutting, moulding and casting ‘Bianca’, as she is commonly known, in to what will become a unique and striking piece of public art for the city.

Around 150 individual sections will be cast in bronze and then welded together to create the eye-catching sculpture depicting a dynamic and powerful woman.

The finished sculpture will measure seven-metres (23ft) tall and nine-metres (30ft) wide and is scheduled to take up residence outside the Theatre Royal Plymouth in late 2018/early 2019.

Cornish-born artist Joseph Hillier was commissioned by the Theatre to create the dramatic sculpture to complete its £7.5million regeneration project.

Plans were approved by Plymouth City Council in February and work on the project began last month.

Joseph and Adrian Vinken, chief executive of the Theatre Royal Plymouth, recently visited three factories involved in creating the sculpture to see Plymouth’s new resident taking shape.

First stop was Bakers Patterns Ltd in Telford where ‘Bianca’s’ face was carved from a giant block of polyurethane foam in order to make a mould.

John Baker, company owner and managing director, said that Joseph’s 360-degree Computer Aided Design (CAD) of ‘Bianca’ was broken down into more manageable sections before each part is then carved into foam using a giant machine with a jumbo drill bit revolving at 7,000 times a minute.

The foam sections are then glued together to create larger chunks, which are then hand sanded to ensure the perfect finish.

John said: “Essentially we programme our cutting machine to carve out a design into blocks of polyurethane foam. It’s a bit like carving the contours of a map.

“We are so excited to be working on this project because of the sheer enormity of it, and because it is a piece of public art which will become a part of people’s daily lives.”

Other major projects Bakers Patterns Ltd have worked on in the past include creating the prototype stealth helicopter which exploded in the Osama bin Laden film Zero Dark Thirty, and a model of the MI6 building which was blown up in the James Bond film Skyfall.

As he watched Bianca’s face slowly take shape in the foam, Joseph said: “It is really exciting to see Bianca emerging at last in real material having previously been a tentative model on a screen.

“There’s something like 14 million polygons in the whole sculpture and I wanted the digital part of Bianca to be apparent. But that has been a bit of a headache for these guys who have had to individually hand sand finish each triangle carved into the foam to retain the crisp edges.”

As Bianca’s face was given a final clearance check, Adrian appeared visibly taken aback by the result. He said: “We always knew we wanted this piece to be really big but it is only when you come here and see a small section of it, and see the excitement and pride in the guys working on it here, that it starts to really dawn on you just what a big undertaking the project is and how many people are involved in bringing it into reality. It’s a bit overwhelming really.”

Each finished foam section is then carefully transported to Liverpool where Castle Fine Arts Foundry create silicon moulds. These are then taken to company’s foundry in the tiny village Welsh village of Llanrhaeadr, where the bronze casting process begins.

Chris Butler, managing director of Castle Fine Arts Foundry, said: “It is our job to turn the foam pattern into bronze. First we make a silicon rubber mould to take a negative version of the pattern, which is then hand-painted with layers of wax. A shell of ceramic is built around the wax. This is fired in a kiln, which burns off the wax but leaves behind a hard ceramic surround.”

Ingots of bronze are then heated to 1200 degrees C before the molten metal is poured into the new ceramic moulds.

Chris added: “When we break away the shell, we’re left with a bronze version of the original pattern. This process will continue over the next seven months before the individual panels of bronze will be fabricated together to create the final sculpture. It really is fantastic to see, bit by bit, this amazing structure slowly come to life.”

As Bianca takes shape over the next few months, Theatre bosses will be exploring how to bring this iconic piece of public art from Wales to her new home in Plymouth in time for the official unveiling sometime next winter.

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