Master Made in Arizona takes a look at the people and places behind our state’s iconic Soleri windbells.
By Rebecca L. Rhoades | Photography by Brandon Sullivan
In the mid-1950s, Italian architect Paolo Soleri, who had previously spent time in Arizona working with Frank Lloyd Wright, purchased a 5-acre plot of creosote-covered desert in Paradise Valley. Abhoring the expansion of cities and their excessive use of land and resources, he named his retreat Cosanti, a portmanteau of two Italian words, “cosa,” meaning things or matter, and “anti,” meaning against. To support his family while slowly replacing the property’s small wooden house with a compound of innovative concrete buildings that would serve as his home as well as his architectural and craft studios, he began creating and selling “earth cast” ceramics, including windbells.
Made of clay excavated from a site near Globe, the bells were cast from freeform molds dug into the ground. “This was Soleri’s genius—his ability to make something out of nothing. His ceramics were real art objects made of dirt,” says Jeff Stein, former co-president and board member of The Cosanti Foundation.
By the early ’60s, Soleri began producing bells made of bronze. A large foundry apse was constructed at Cosanti, where two propane-fired furnaces were used to heat ingots into molten bronze that were then sand-cast into dozens of shapes and sizes of bells. Individualized with designs recalling Soleri’s sketches, these metal creations, like their clay counterparts, retained a brutish, rustic character that evoked the architect’s experimental structures and the desert landscape from which they originated.
Today, eight years after his death, Soleri, who was named a Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner in 1996, is still known locally for his windbells, the organic forms of which grace thousands of area homes and gardens.
Whether your preference is for clay or bronze, patinated or burnished, Stein notes, “It’s important to remember that the bells and other items are still being handmade by individual craftspeople day in and day out. They’re a product of Arizona and of one of the most creative architectural and design minds of the 20th century, and how and where they’re made is an important part of Arizonan and American history.”
Maria Soleri has been crafting clay bells at Cosanti for more than 50 years. The architect’s sister-in-law moved to the Valley with her husband so he could work with his brother. She has lived on the property since 1976. “I was a city girl in Turin, Italy. When I came here, there was nothing. At first I was afraid to go into the desert, but now I love it. It’s so peaceful.”
Soft-spoken and humble, with sparkling eyes that indicate a vivacious charm, Maria is a one-person ceramics department. From a small workspace hidden just off the dome-shaped ceramics studio, she works alone, crafting clay bells from raw material to finished product. Plaster molds are used to create the form. The designs she carves are her own, although they are influenced by Soleri’s work.
“They come from my soul,” she says of her art. “If I am upset, I cannot carve. But I am always happy. I like making faces; they talk to me. I also like fish, because to me they represent freedom. They are free to swim.” She holds up a bell carved with an abstract female face. “This is my Picasso,” she says, smiling. “I call her the three-eyed woman.”
Using an array of knives, including special blades with three notches in them that Soleri himself made, she digs the images out of the dry clay, her hands moving swiftly and smoothly, as if her skills were innate. “When I came here, I knew nothing about ceramics. I worked in fashion,” she notes, recalling her move to the desert. “My husband knew the clay better. I didn’t. I still don’t. Everything I do is by instinct.”
In 1970, Soleri began construction of an experimental community in Mayer, about 70 miles north of Phoenix. Based on “arcology,” a term he coined that combines architecture and ecology, the concept was to create an urban yet ecologically low-impact environment. Built on a south-facing hillside, the structures were designed to take advantage of the sun’s heat and light—their shape admits maximum sunlight in the winter and minimal light and heat in summer. A ring of apartments surrounds social and work spaces, such as an amphitheater and office complex, as well as a foundry and ceramics studio.
“The idea was to build an alternative to the flat suburban sprawl that we see in Phoenix but on a very small scale,” says Roger Tomalty, co-president of The Cosanti Foundation. Tomalty, an architect by training, was hired by Soleri in 1970 and was one of his assistants on the project. He and his wife, Mary Hoadley, who also worked on the development of Arcosanti, still live at Cosanti.
The bronze bells produced at Arcosanti are created from molds that can be used over and over again. While there is an on-site gallery where visitors can purchase the bells, most are shipped to Paradise Valley. “Cosanti is where we sell the majority of bells,” says Tomalty. “And all of the one-of-a-kind signed assemblages are always made there, too.”
During his lifetime, Soleri had hand-carved hundreds of molds for panels and artistic links of polystyrene foam, engraving his name in each piece. “You pack that foam into the foundry sand, and when the molten bronze hits it, it just vaporizes,” says Tomalty. “So you get a one-of-a-kind bell because it destroys the mold in the process.” The pieces are used to create massive hangings, known as special assemblies, that comprise multiple bells and panels. “They have a much higher price and in the art world—and certainly for appraisers—are considered art, whereas the smaller bells might be thought of as craft,” Tomalty adds.
It’s early—about 6:30 a.m.—and the foundry at Arcosanti, situated on the hill below the ceramics apse, is already bustling. Foreman Andy Chao is coordinating his team’s schedule for the busy day ahead, which includes three bronze pours before the daily meeting and lunch, beginning at 11:30 a.m. “We try to get all of our heats done in the morning because it gets really hot in the afternoon,” he says.
Chao has been living and working at Arcosanti since 2007. After graduating with a degree in architecture, he came to Arizona from Kentucky for a workshop and, like so many before him, found himself drawn to the community and its setting. “After my workshop, I did various projects in the graphics department for about three months and worked in the bakery. Toward the end of my graphics internship, I found out that the then-manager of the foundry was recruiting, so I signed up, and this is pretty much where I’ve been ever since.”
On the eastern edge of the foundry is the furnace, in which silicon bronze ingots are heated to 2,400 degrees. “Silicon bronze is nice to work with because when it’s molten, it flows very well,” Chao explains. “You can get a detailed sculpture with it. But when it’s solid, it’s got elastic properties, so if you’re making something that needs to vibrate, such as a bell, it’s a good choice.”
Aluminum molds are placed in special two-piece boxes known as snap flasks. The boxes are then filled with sand, which is tightly compressed around the aluminum mold at about 150 psi, creating both a positive and negative bell form. The design of the snap flask allows the workers to separate the two sides and remove the mold, leaving them with a block of sand with an air cavity inside that is the shape of what is being cast. A small brass tube is used to cut a tunnel through the sand, creating a hole into which the molten bronze will be poured.
How and where the bells are made is an important part of Arizonan and American history.”
––JEFF STEIN, former co-president and board member of The Cosanti Foundation
“We pour about 280 to 300 pounds of bronze every day,” says Chao. “Obviously, if you’re making tiny bells, you can get a lot more from a pour. Our largest bell takes about 60 pounds of bronze, so you don’t have much left after that.” On most days, rows of curious tourists line up to watch the process.
Prescott native Taylour Courtland has been working in the foundry since January 2015. “I just started getting good at pouring,” says the 22-year-old. “It is such a tough process, and I struggled with it for a long time because I had so much anxiety about it. You’re working with 2,000-degree molten metal—if you spill it, everyone gets hurt. Conquering that fear was a huge deal for me.”
After cooling, the bells are finished in two ways: For the popular verdigris, or patina, finish, they’re soaked in a tub of muriatic acid and water. For a shiny burnished look, they are baked in an oven or heated with a torch.
“Growing up I didn’t know much about Paolo Soleri or the bells,” says Courtland. “My mom had a bronze Arco bell that hung in our backyard, so in a way, they were always a part of my life. Now I think they’re really cool. They’re not only pretty, they represent something a lot bigger than themselves.”
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