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An Eruption of Art and Science

The Lava Project

There are few places in the world to watch a flowing stream of lava. Hawaii and Iceland come to mind. Add Syracuse to the list.

Lava pours from a cauldron as researchers look on in heavy protective clothing
Professor Robert Wysocki pours lava outside the Comstock Art Facility. Photo by Steve Sartori.

Okay, there hasn’t been a volcanic eruption here lately, but in the environs of the Comstock Art Facility, the lava is flowing. In a collaborative project, sculpture professor Robert Wysocki and Earth sciences department chair Jeff Karson are exploring the possibilities of the molten igneous rock as an art form and a natural phenomenon—one pour from a crucible at a time. “Watching it flow is remarkable,” Karson says. “It’s just endlessly fascinating.” 

Through more than a dozen pourings, their intrigue with the magmatic material’s properties has only grown. After all, Karson has spent decades researching the structural geology and tectonics of ocean floors, which are covered in basalt, the cooled product of lava. Basalt is the most common bedrock of the Earth’s surface and is also abundant on the Moon and Mars. “Most lava flows are products of eruptions no one has ever seen,” says Karson, the Jessie Page Heroy Professor of Geology. “They took place in the past or in very remote places, so there are many questions about the shapes of the flows and what they tell us about the physics of the flows.” 

Robert Wysocki wearing heavy protective clothing and holding a piece of lava with blacksmithing tongs
Photo courtesy of Robert Wysocki, holding a glowing hot piece of lava.

Karson, who recently explored lava formations from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano that erupted last March, has only seen an active lava flow once, years ago, in Hawaii. The Comstock pours provide a treasure trove of information for Karson’s research group and have allowed him to conduct a series of experiments, studying the flow at different rates, temperatures, and angles; observing its interaction with different surfaces, such as water and ice; and even examining the minute details of how bubbles form and grow as lava slides down a slope. A pour on an inclined ice surface, for instance, vaporized the ice. “The lava was basically on this cushion of air and just rocketed right off the slope,” he says. “There’s nobody else out there in the academic world melting and pouring lava, making lava flows at essentially a natural state.” 

Eventually I’d like to create a continuous lava flow in an art park or in the desert, some place where it doesn’t belong.

For that, thank Wysocki. Long interested in sculpting large-scale natural landforms, he traces his enthusiasm for recreating landscapes to his marvel for the Sierra Nevada foothills in California where he grew up. “I consider myself to be a landscape painter,” he says, “but I don’t paint.” Instead, he often wrestles with Mother Earth’s own materials, and was turned on to working with basalt by a fellow artist. “Eventually I’d like to create a continuous lava flow in an art park or in the desert, some place where it doesn’t belong,” says Wysocki, who has made several pieces from the pours. 

Close-up of glowing lava pouring from a crucible
The last of the lava empties from the crucible. Photo by John Dowling.

When Wysocki first pitched the idea of creating lava flows, Karson envisioned what he might encounter in a research lab—a scientist melting bead-sized pieces of basalt—never imagining he’d see hundreds of pounds of lava come glugging out of a crucible after it had been heated to upwards of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Throughout the pours, Wysocki has refined his techniques, polishing the mechanics of the pour and learning the most efficient way to stir the molten rock and distribute the heat so the lava doesn’t glob up like a giant popcorn ball. He also credits the team of sculpture students Katie Behrens ’12, Daniel Biegler ’10, Phillip Evans ’12, and Noah Hausknecht ’13 for their assistance with the pours. 

In fall 2010, Wysocki elevated the project to a new level, unveiling a refurbished furnace and larger crucible. The gas-fired tilting furnace can produce about 500 pounds of the liquid hot stuff, and Wysocki learns more about its capabilities with every pour. “It’s like a hot rod, a muscle car,” he says. 

As Wysocki and Karson both note, the project’s interdisciplinary nature stretches from the arts and sciences to education and community outreach—and everyone from physicists to schoolchildren may find watching lava flow to be quite the learning experience, especially after catching that first look at it. “It’s like the sun coming up,” Karson says. “The radiant heat is unbelievable.”

Jay Cox

This story was published on .

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