Retired mold maker recalls work atop skyscrapers, in subway stations

‘I want to stress to young women that it is possible to live out your dream job no matter how impossible your ambitions seem.’

Diane Smith

Diane Smith

The sky is the limit for Federal Way resident Diane Smith, who has been atop many skyscrapers as a retired ceramic and mold maker.

The Mirror asked Smith the following questions about her work and message to girls who aspire to be in her field, as the Mirror highlights women in the community in recognition of International Women’s Day and Women’s History month.

Q: Tell us about your work.

A: I am a retired ceramic model and mold maker for decorative, sometimes structural, historic architectural pieces and decorative bas relief tile. I have sculpted many replacement architectural pieces such as brackets, baluster rails, gargoyles and more for historical societies in cities all over North America.

I also worked with the Transit Authority in New York City to replace 100-year-old bas relief ceramic murals and mosaic subway station signage. The original pieces were usually damaged by rusting rebar that held them in place, expanding to the point of breaking the terracotta. Or, from damage due to construction accidents or fires. I also created a few pieces for new construction in California. That job was unusual, and especially fun because I got to design the decorative sections of the brackets and plaques to be inspected and approved later by the architects.

Q: What was a typical day in your job like?

A: I have been on many skyscraper roofs, balconies and have hung out of windows to photograph and measure pieces needing to be replaced. I also would go on construction sites at 3 a.m. in the New York City subway stations to take measurements, do rubbings and get color samples from damaged mosaic signs. The timing was always in the early morning hours and rushed because the power to the rails was turned off for the duration. I was always pleased when the scaffolding was already in place on those long days.

Usually, I received a crate of broken terracotta pieces that I had to put back together like a giant heavy 3D puzzle. Those photographs, if available, really helped in the process. I would take precise measurements and subtractive sculpt the replacement architectural model from a giant poured block of plaster using an assortment of chisels and other tools on a reinforced shop table. I would need to know the shrinkage rate of the terracotta to be used in the mold, so I could increase all model measurements by the correct percentage. Terracotta generally shrinks 6-12 percent while drying and being fired in a kiln. After double checking for undercuts, areas of the model that keep the mold from releasing properly, the model would be sanded and sealed.

I would then begin creating the locking multi-sectional plaster mold later held together by huge locking straps. Later, mold packers would extrude special terracotta with different sized reinforcing grog to a precise thickness and then fill the molds and build out the backs like concrete blocks for support with new rebar holes, all done by hand. The terracotta body may have been stained and/or the final pieces glazed and then fired to match the surrounding artwork on the buildings.

Q: How did you get into this type of work?

A: After receiving a bachelor of fine arts in visual arts with concentrations in sculpting and printmaking at State University of New York at Purchase, I applied and received the sculpting job listing in New York Times. I worked in this field for more than 20 years, but the large heavy work became too difficult for me physically. So, I designed and produced my own bas relief tile and mosaics for custom jobs for many years after.

I really enjoyed my job. It felt like a continuation of my studies at college, but I was being paid. To this day, I am most happy when I am creating new things. It can be a wall mural or a vegetable garden, I just want to see something visual that wasn’t there in the beginning of the day.

Q: What is your message to young girls who hope to be in this field one day?

A: I want to stress to young women that it is possible to live out your dream job no matter how impossible your ambitions seem. One thing that I will never forget, was the confusion on people’s faces when I walked into a job interview or subcontractor meeting and they saw I was a woman doing such demanding work. I would be asked to do ridiculous tasks to prove myself, such as lifting 100 pound bags of plaster or asked if I even knew what steel-toe boots were or if I owned a hard hat. Questions and tasks they certainly didn’t ask my male counterparts. Go out there and find the job that makes you happy and proud.

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