At the top of an exceedingly long and winding dirt road in Monrovia is a secluded artist’s retreat where Susan Delaney practices the sophisticated ancient technique of lost-wax casting. Also termed glass casting, cire perdue (lost wax in French) and more currently kiln casting, it involves creating a finished glass piece through use of wax and plaster molds and molten glass. The process features an intricate series of steps beginning with sculpting a wax image, then making a plaster mold around it, melting out the wax, placing the mold upside down into a kiln and melting glass into the void. Pieces often stay in the kiln for days in order to go through the various temperatures needed to melt, anneal and finish the piece. The resulting creation has a somewhat milky or cloudy tone with soft, delicate and ethereal features.
Delaney, a retired Frederick County kindergarten teacher, most recently at Green Valley Elementary, has been an artist most of her life. Fascination with glass began when she was about 18 and started creating stained glass windows and lamps. She acquired a kiln 20 years ago and began melting glass, eventually arriving at the lost-wax casting and later fusing processes.
“When my daughter was born, I realized I needed a regular income—a real job,” Delaney said. “I liked being around little children.” She had been studying music, but she went on to earn her teaching degree. “Teaching young children meant I could still do art and music,” she added.
Delaney is also an accomplished classical and jazz guitarist. Up until nine years ago, she and her husband, a painter and metal artist, entertained other artists and friends with art and music shows in their wooded hilltop home. The amazing, museum-like house is filled with stunning art, musical instruments and CDs and is quite an unexpected discovery against the rather stark rural surroundings. Teaching full-time, Delaney had summers and weekends free to work on her twin passions.
Several years ago, the house next door was abandoned and went to auction, and she and her husband bought it. The home now houses her studio.
“The cost of lost-wax casting pieces is pretty much cost prohibitive,” Delaney explained. “It takes many hours of work with carving molds, melting and calculating the amount of glass necessary. Kiln hours can be up to 30 and the mold is a one-time use.” Getting the firing temperature correct is a challenge—one has to have the experience with temperature and how glass behaves to get it right. The work is done in the kiln to ensure a constant temperature and keep the glass fluid. Pieces anneal at 900 degrees for four to five hours. “I enjoy doing it—it’s very beautiful and I like the end result,” Delaney said.
Recently she has been doing more fused glass, which is much more forgiving. She also works with powdered glass in her pieces.
Delaney devotes about half of her time to art and half to music. She performs with several groups—notably one in Baltimore and one with members from Frederick. Individually and with the groups, she plays at weddings, private events and Sunday brunches.
She does not show much anymore. “I like being in my studio. It takes a lot of time to prepare. I have a lot of stuff now and am thinking of making a gallery space,” she said. The upcoming project will allow her to showcase her work in one venue and also invite artist friends to show theirs.
Delaney said that a friend refers to her studio as ‘”my playhouse—I put on music and play with wax.” Her current project is casting and fusing tiles for a new bathroom shower area.