November 17, 2005
by KATHERINE ALMY
"Clang, clang, clang ... Pshhhh." A cloud of acrid-smelling steam billows up from red hot-metal as it's dunked into cold water. Everyone should try blacksmithing once in life. It's an amazing experience, to change the shape of steel. It was a lot different than I expected when I tried it. The metal doesn't get soft and gooey and bendable when you heat it, as I had imagined. You heat it to a red-hot glow and then it's less hard and will grudgingly change its shape if you whack it enough with a very heavy hammer. It's quite a feeling.
Left: WENDY LAWRENCE HOLDS UP THE FORK SHE'S MAKING.
Wendy Lawrence tried it for the first time about 10 years ago at a Blue Ox class. "I was smitten by the blacksmithing bug," she says. At that time, she was a woodworker and she thought it would be kind of cool to forge her own woodcarving tools. Instead she got so interested in blacksmithing that she hasn't gone back to woodworking (at least not yet). After that first class, it was another four or five years before she had any more experience with the craft. But she was so taken with it that she kept up her interest, reading every book she could find on the subject, until she found the California Blacksmithing Association in 2000. With them, she was able to take more classes, find tools and eventually got to where she is now, teaching classes herself at the Fire Arts Foundry.
It's pretty amazing that we have a foundry in our small community. We don't have a Nordstrom's in town, but you can do a bronze casting or learn how to make your own pliers. The Fire Arts Foundry came about because of another person bitten by the metal-working bug: Peter Brant. Peter's pretty well known around here as an electrician, but what he really loves to do is tinker, and he especially likes things that require heat. He was instrumental in the formation of Fire and Light Glass, is an accomplished potter and, of course, a metal worker. He wanted a place to play, so he started the Foundry.
The Fire Arts Foundry (which is not, by the way, connected to the Fire Arts Center, other than that the two businesses share a lot) offers classes in various metal arts and does some commissions locally. Wendy teaches beginning blacksmithing and holds special classes for teens and women. There's also knife-smithing with Chuck Richards, welding with Dan Walker or ceramic shell metal casting. The Foundry also does small fabrication jobs and restoration work. They've done some work for the Shelter Cove Lighthouse restoration project, reproducing bronze door pulls and steps for them.
On Arts Arcata! nights you can watch a bronze pour or see a blacksmithing demo. A bronze pour is when they heat up a cauldron of metal until it's liquid and then pour it into a mold. When it's that hot, the whole thing glows. It kind of gives me the creeps to think about pouring out a bucket of molten hot metal, but Wendy's eyes light up when she talks about the adrenaline rush. I went to the blacksmithing demo last Friday night and watched as Wendy made a fork with a graceful twisted handle.
The difference between metal artists and the rest of us is that they don't see the lack of the right tool as a frustrating problem but an exciting opportunity to make something to get the job done. I got to witness this process in action when I went down there to chat with Peter and Wendy. Someone was working on a job and needed a special tool to tighten a drainpipe in place. Everyone forgot about me and jumped into the project -- Peter had some ideas, and Wendy drew a quick sketch. Peter ran off to find some metal to manipulate, and pretty soon they had what they needed and the plumber got his drainpipe screwed in. This was a fairly simple project, as it didn't require any heating of metal, but you see what I mean. We're so used to standard-size tools that if something doesn't fit, we figure the job can't be done. But someone who works with metal and understands where tools come from knows that anything can be made, one way or another.
Peter and Wendy see themselves as crafters rather than artists. Wendy says, "I like to make cool stuff that people can use." But we've covered the line between art and craft here before, along with the issue of the art that goes into creating something useful. Mind you, a lot of metal work can be placed squarely in the realm of fine art. Metal sculptures often entail welding and metal heated and poured into molds. If you're familiar with The Blacksmith Shop in Ferndale, you've seen how artistic blacksmithing can be. But I also find the artistic spirit in the eagerness to design and create a tool to solve a problem, as demonstrated by Wendy and Peter. "I see life as art," says Peter.
What fascinates me about the craft is its self-sufficiency. The first things you learn in blacksmithing are how to make the tools that you need to make all kinds of other things. Those who feel inspired to try their hand at metal work can look into the Foundry's classes, or you can get involved in the new metal workers guild, the Humboldt Flaming Hammers (who can resist, with a name like that?), which meets monthly at the Foundry. Wendy, who instigated the guild, envisions, "a group of creative people who come together to share ideas, work on projects and pool resources for materials and fuel."
The Fire Arts Foundry is located at 520 South G St., Arcata.
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