It may be hard to understand why someone would choose to work with iron, the old-fashioned way. Smithing is hot, noisy, dangerous, hard work. Nevertheless, there must have been a lot of such folks at one time, and they must have been proud of their profession: Smith is still the most common last name in the English-speaking world, miles ahead of Miller or Baker or Potter or Mason.
But the industrial revolution required objects and techniques way beyond the capabilities of individual forges — immense girders, millions of miles of railroad tracks, huge iron warships, and the like — so, except for a few that did horseshoeing, small repair work, and some high-end ornamental architectural designs, the village smithy largely vanished before the juggernaut of huge industrial forges and mass production.
Now, however, they’re coming back with a vengeance. More and more folks, it seems, are getting hooked on the art of shaping something useful or beautiful (or both) out of a piece of rusted, seemingly lifeless metal — using only fire, a hammer and their hands.
The Artist-Blacksmith Association of North America has grown from 20 members to more than 4,500 since its inception in 1973. The nonprofit seeks to promote the art of blacksmithing, and to that end, they stage a convention every two years, with forge demonstrations, classroom presentations and exhibits. This year — ABANA’s 25th anniversary — the convention is in Asheville, on the UNCA campus, running now through Sunday, June 21.
In the spirit of Colonial Williamsburg, ABANA has built an entire working forge, which will remain on the campus as a “legacy in brick” — a gift from ABANA to the UNCA community. Organizers expect thousands of serious artist/blacksmiths from at least 35 different countries to attend the various demonstrations, workshops, presentations and lectures. Most will be for conference attendees only, but the Members’ Gallery — showing pieces by convention demonstrators and ABANA members — will be open to the public. And anyone can (and everyone should) visit the mind-boggling display of mostly 18th- and 19th-century African ironwork called Life Force at the Anvil: The Blacksmith’s Art in Africa, at the Ramsey Library. Proceeds from the sale of the exhibit’s handsome catalog will go to a fund to buy books on African iron art andmetalworking for the UNCA library, and to a scholarship fund for new research on nontraditional and nonwestern metalwork.
There will also be a public auction of fine-art metalwork that should be of great interest to collectors. “The auction will be a great chance for members of the community to pick up some wonderful art at great prices,” says conference Director George Dixon. “There are knives, for example, that’ll probably go for four figures here, that would easily get five figures in New York.” The Friday-evening auction will be in the UNCA Health and Fitness Center (previews start at 7 p.m.). And because ABANA is a nonprofit, a portion of the purchase price of catalogs or metalworks may even be tax-deductible, in accordance with federal law.
To complement the conference, a number of official or informally affiliated exhibits will also be mounted around the area. The Penland Gallery at Penland School of Crafts (about 15 miles east of Burnsville) is showing Implements of Construction: Tools Made or Collected by Iron Workers (call (828) 765-7389 for information). Metalworkers apparently spend a considerable amount of time and effort either making or searching for specialized tools — hammers of certain weights and dimensions, or anvils shaped just so. This eclectic, occasionally whimsical collection features powerful yet delicate objects whose forms are deeply and obviously wedded to their functions.
Artist/blacksmith/ABANA board member Elizabeth Brimm showed me around the exhibit (she’s a staffer at Penland, and also a convention demonstrator), and later took me to see Penland’s forge. Brimm began her career making prints and working with clay, then tried her hand at jewelry. The need for a particular hammer sent her to the forge, where she found her calling. “It’s so straightforward,” she told me. “You keep it in your hands the whole time (unlike clay, which goes into the kiln to be finished). And unlike jewelry, the raw material is cheap — what makes a piece valuable is only what the artist puts into it.” Brimm’s work tends toward the conceptual, often recreating in iron objects normally soft or feminine — a tuffet, a camisole, a spring hat (all on display at Blue Spiral I Gallery in Asheville, as part of their Forging New Boundaries exhibit — call (828) 251-0202 for details).
“I was brought up to be prissy and ladylike, and then I started working in iron,” she said with a laugh. Her work has been called “hardware for the bedroom,” but “that’s not what it’s about,” she explains. “It’s like dressing up: I run around in overalls and boots, dirty and filthy all the time, and the pieces are like ‘The Life She Should Have Had'” — which is actually the title of one of her works (a pair of fringed high-heeled shoes).
In the past few years, Brimm has pioneered a technique whereby she welds two pieces of metal together at their edges, heats them up, then forces air in between, puffing the piece up like a balloon.
Look for two such iron pillows at the Asheville Art Museum’s Women of Iron show (call (828) 253-3227 to learn more), which showcases the range of artistic possibility available to artist/blacksmiths. The long, slim, vaguely industrial shapes by Christina Shmigel contrast with Cathi Borthwick’s whimsical “animal utensils.” Erika Strecker’s ambitious “Sedge Triptych” appears to be an attempt to paint with steel, and Susan Hutchinson’s music stand is a fine, ornate variation on a practical theme (see, too, her bench at Blue Spiral). I asked Hutchinson over the phone how it feels to be a female blacksmith. “It’s surprising that, in all the art mediums I’ve worked in — pottery, woodworking, drawing, painting, a little of everything — blacksmithing is where I’ve felt most welcomed,” she observed. “Blacksmiths are a real open and sharing bunch of folks; it’s almost bizarre how supportive and encouraging the community is. I guess because it’s such a hot, sweaty, noisy thing to do — you don’t hang in there unless you really love it.”
The Folk Art Center (at Blue Ridge Parkway milepost 382, just east of Asheville — call (828) 298-7928 for information) is hosting a largely retrospective exhibit titled Samuel Yellin Metalworkers: Three Generations, which traces the history of one of the nation’s most prestigious commercial forges for decorative ironwork. Yellin, a Polish immigrant, apprenticed in Europe before opening his forge in Philadelphia in 1909 (it’s still in operation today, at Bryn Mawr, Pa.). These are not quirky, individualistic works of art, but finished pieces and exquisite sketches for large-scale commissions, such as the metalwork for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and the intricate iron gates of Yale, Princeton and Harvard universities. Completed by teams of, at times, more than 100 master smiths — under the direction of three successive generations of Yellin perfectionists — even these massive projects are rife with subtle decorative touches, the fruits of the hands-on artist/blacksmith’s obsessive attention to the details of the craft.
Iron is a timeless medium, and if the treasures now on display are any indication, artistic ironwork is in the early stages of a genuine renaissance. That’s reason enough to check out the goings-on. But maybe the best reason to visit some of these galleries, and to walk the convention grounds, is the infectious excitement and high spirits of the artists and organizers themselves. It feels good to be around them. Hot, dirty and hard the work may be, but it’s obvious that they love it — and you will, too.