Usually my writing alternates between arts one week and technology the next. This time it’s about blacksmithing, which recast itself from dead technology to art in the last century.
Smelting ore into metal, then shaping it into useful things by heating it in a forge and hammering it on an anvil was the killer app of the ancient world, enshrined in every culture’s mythology and a day-to-day mainstay of economies and militaries around the world. In developed countries, the industrial revolution gradually replaced the beefy guy pounding on an anvil with various kinds of machine operators and foundry workers.
By the time Eric Smith was born in the 1970s, blacksmithing had hit bottom as an economic necessity and started making a comeback as an artisanal craft. He first encountered it working at a Boy Scout camp in New Mexico the summer when he was 25.
“That was where I first had the experience of actually hammering on hot metal,” he said. “I vividly remember thinking to myself, ‘I have to figure out how to do this for a job.’”
After receiving a BFA in metals at the Appalachian Center for Craft in Smithville, Tenn. in 2003, he spent five years smithing in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, then moved to Chattanooga two years ago to be closer to family in Atlanta, where he grew up. Within three months he organized Artifact Studio, a shared studio space with several other artists.
He knows he’s out of step with the mainstream. Trying to put his artisan work in context relative to a culture that seems hell-bent on replacing every technology as fast (and profitably) as possible, I start to ask him, “What’s it like being...” and he finishes my sentence: “A dinosaur?”
But his work—mostly wood and metal furniture and useful things like garden tools and meat cleavers—is getting noticed and appreciated. He recently received a highly competitive Individual artist Fellowship from the Tennessee Arts Commission. And last year he won a MakeWork grant. In June, he quit his day job in an industrial welding shop.
So now he’s a full-time blacksmith and hooked on making metal do what he wants.
“Moving metal like that, it’s basically the heat and the physicality of it I love, but also being able to make anything that I need or want, just having that freedom,” he says. “I can make stuff that will be around for a long time. I just really think that’s something special.”
He also loves that he is making useful things from reclaimed materials, like truck axels and leaf springs.
“Before the industrial revolution, every nail in your house was made by hand, by a person,” he says. Nails were so valuable then that “Pioneers, if they decided they were going to move, would burn their house down and pick through all the ashes to get all the nails back. Now we just go buy another box of nails. And who’s going to keep nails, except for me.”
He crosses to the other side of his shop and brings out a box of very old nails he plans to reuse. Unlike contemporary nails, which are round because they are cut from machined wire, these are square and tapered, showing they were handmade under the hammer of someone like him.
“These are all from New Orleans, from a neighborhood that was built in the early 1800s,” he says. “All this stuff was so precious, but now it’s all junk. I try to counteract that by reusing this stuff and turning it into objects that people can use.”
Despite his increasing recognition, he knows his craft is obscure.
“In the past, if your town didn’t have a blacksmith, you didn’t have a town,” he says. “Also, the doctor and the blacksmith were the two most wealthy people in the town. I am not wealthy by any means, and nobody knows what I do. They understand welding and they understand cast iron, but I don’t cast iron. I forge it. I’m hammering that metal into a new shape.”
Despite struggling to find his niche in the world, he says “I’m staying true to the basic idea of a blacksmith, but I like to do it in more of an artful way now than maybe it would have been done in the past.”
Blacksmithing’s passage from technology to art was surely a one-way trip. Short of an economic collapse or a zombie apocalypse, it’s hard to imagine returning to a time when the smith’s forge could meet everyday needs for an entire economy. But it does make me wonder about smart phones. Hand-forged iron and steel goods were more ubiquitous in their day than cell phones. When wearable computers have replaced mobile devices—a shift that is on lots of to do lists in Silicon Valley—maybe someone like Eric Smith will revive the phone as an art form.