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The Whole Shaped The Parts

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What is it for? I love it when someone asks that question about a piece I have made. Yes, what is it for? Why did you make it? At first I was happy just making things. Things that have an obvious function. But blacksmithing is an unusual craft. It is a skill of discovery. The metal will do almost anything. It is incredibly strong. It will take the form of skin, bones, water or stone.

Steel is made up of carbon and iron. Carbon is the forth most abundant element in the universe by mass. It is a common element of all known life, the second most abundant element in the human body. Carbon is the ultimate shape shifter. It is responsible for the hardest and the softest natural materials known. It is stardust. Iron is the most abundant element on earth by mass. Dig iron ore from the earth, apply enough heat and it becomes metallic iron. Different processes and different eras dictate its strength, softness and texture. 

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In a mechanical system the parts shaped the whole while in an organic system the whole shaped the parts. goethe

I walk around outside and I see all of this beauty erupting everywhere. How intentional is it? Does a tree concentrate on the fibonacci sequence when it sends out leaves?  No, it just happens. Call it what you will, it is life on this planet. I am life too. I must have, inherent in myself,  the ability to create beauty. We all do.

I want the iron and carbon to show me that I belong here. That I am part of the natural system. But I am a form of life on this planet that has intention so I have to assume that my intention, my determination, my purpose is going to play some part in the beauty or interest that I generate.

Yes, you must take the next step.

No matter where you are or what you have done, your only option is to take the next step. Steps and stairs are mysterious, exciting and troubling. I have begun a series to explore this idea. In this series I am making the steps so that they are removable and can be rearranged. You must take the next step but you do have some options as to where and when. These two examples combine pieces of steel in its manufactured state with forged connections. I want to couple the ingenuity of industrial steel with my basic instinct and the material's natural reaction to my hammer.

 

 

 Click here to see more of these sculptures

 

First Step

First Step

Second Step

Second Step

The Artist Blacksmith

In the steep meadow, trees cast long shadows across the path in the early morning light. Far off, below an abundance of blue sky, three black cows walk away from me in descending order by size.  They walk on the path through the broad field of tall golden white brittle grass followed by a hanging cloud of brown dust.

I could have taken a picture. There was something beautiful about the scene. I was riding my bike and thinking about different ways of communicating. The wind flowing over me on a warm summer day, I didn’t want to stop. I can take a picture with words. We speak the same language. I can put words together from my memory that will describe the scene. But will you see the scene as I saw it? 

I am a blacksmith. I forge items from iron and steel. How do I talk to you through a three dimensional hand forged object? Asking this question defines the artist blacksmith. Taking the step from communicating with words to communicating through an object takes observation and intention. In thinking about this picture in my mind of rolling hills, of dry grass, I realized that it was the grass itself, the oat straw, that always caught my eye. The long thin stalk bending with the weight of the oat seeds catches the light and seems to defy gravity. This is where I begin. With an image and a feeling. From there I go to the anvil.

 

 

Keep Craft Alive

In December I was interviewed by Fine HomeBuilding Magazine. It is a great honor. I have read Fine Homebuilding for 30+ years and was thrilled to be part of it.

Below is a copy of the interview and a link to the piece that they ran.

Did you feel called to be a blacksmith?

I have always enjoyed making things. I get great satisfaction from watching people use something that I have made. I also love it when I watch a person have an emotional reaction to something I have made. I began working in metal as a fabricator. One day we had a job that involved making some rings and scrolling. My coworker dragged out and old forge made from a truck wheel, filled it with coal and started a fire. At 2000 degrees steel becomes like clay. It is fun. It is exciting. Your job changes from connecting reshaped bars together to one of squishing andstretching and shaping totally new forms. The options suddenly become endless.I had the door cracked open into blacksmithing. I wanted to explore it. Once I gained the freedom make my own shapes in metal I knew that was where I had to go. 

What is it like or what does it mean to be a blacksmith in the 21st century?

Few people really know what a blacksmith is. They wonder if I shoe horses or if I am involved in civil war reenactment. Part of my job as a blacksmith today involves helping people to understand what the blacksmith does.

Most of us played with clay as children. We understand that a piece of pottery was once a lump of clay.  The word clay makes us visualize that lump. Today all steel is manufactured. For efficiency, the industry decides the shapes that we see. When most people think of the word steel they visualize an I-beam or flat bar or tubing. They don’t see the source. I take a bar of steel, heat it to 2000 degrees fahrenheit and suddenly the possibilities for shaping it are exposed; tools, swords, hinges, but also flowers, feathers, skin and bone. Iron has always offered the blacksmith an opportunity to shape and build anything. Humans have been blacksmithing for well over 2000 years. Just like they did in the first century, the blacksmith in the 21st century moves metal. Even though I now have access to many modern tools, like all blacksmiths in history my mentality is one of finding my own solutions. If I am given a task in my shop I solve it. If I need a tool I make it. Modern industry has taken away much of the necessity for the blacksmith. To be a successful blacksmith today you either have to do reproduction work or contemporary artistic work. Iron and steel possess incredible strength. This offers the artist blacksmith an opportunity that does not exist for glass blowers or ceramicists. Although all three artists work with a plastic medium, the strength and stability of iron allows for a great variety in design regarding connections and balance. This presents a rare opportunity to create pieces of function that can surprise and provoke the observer.

What have you produced for homes?

hoods, railings, gates, glass fireplace doors, pot racks, hooks, brackets, chandeliers, commercial sign brackets, trellis’, large decorative timber brackets and tables of various sizes. 

 Do you have full creative control? (Is your process collaborative? And who do you design with?) 

I do have full creative control. I work alone and develop all of my designs. I encourage the client to give input. I want to know what their interest are and tastes. I want to make a piece that fits into their life. When I design a piece I first look at how the design will fit into the environment. Then I concentrate on the over all flow and balance of the piece. Although I started as a fabricator, at this point in my career I am a pretty strict blacksmith. I follow the techniques and skills of blacksmithing, forging , forge welding and joinery. My work focuses on forging the metal and on making interesting connections. Because of this, the design of the piece is largely dictated by my blacksmithing process, this creates a certain look. I work for clients who want that look. 

 How is your smithy powered?

My house and shop are “off the grid”. My husband and I live about two miles from the nearest public utility so we generate all of our power ourselves on site. This does change how we do things a little bit. We are very aware of how much electricity we are using and we never leave a light on. But, I think you would be surprised at how normal we live. We have all of the typical household appliances and I have a fairly well stocked metal shop. Our power comes from solarpower in the summer months and hydro power in the winter months. We have a 25 kilowatt diesel generator that is used for backup between seasons or if I run a welder or plasma cutter. The generator runs less then 150 hours in a year.

Most of the time my shop is run with the renewable power. All of my fans, blowers, forges, lights and small power tools run without the generator. I have a 155 Big Blu pneumatic power hammer. It is powered by a 6 1/2 hp gasoline powered air compressor. Blacksmithing is a very energy intensive craft. Getting the material up to temperature takes energy. To heat the material I use a small propane forge, a coal forge or an oxygen/ propane torch. When you have an alternative power system, during certain parts of the day, you will most likely be dumping power. Your batteries will be full and your usage low and so the system bleeds off the excess. This is inefficient so we are always looking for ways to use that power. Here in rural California bottles of oxygen are expensive and hard to come by. I have to drive two hours to exchange an oxygen bottle. I did some research and discovered that I could make oxygen right here using the excess power from my solar and hydro systems. I got an oxygen generator. It fills a 155cf oxygen cylinder in about 24 hours. I only run it when the system has excess power so it basically makes oxygen for free. Oxygen greatly increases the flame temperature of propane. This in turn lowers my fuel use and costs. Our solar power comes from 21, 230 watt photo voltaic (solar) panels. These panels charge 16 L-16 batteries and a 4000 watt Xantrex power inverter. In the winter months the system is supplemented by a micro hydro system that charges the batteries at rate of 12 - 20 amps at 24 volts depending on rainfall and water flow. The power from the hydro system is created by a small 8 inch diameter pelton wheel. The wheel is fed water through two tiny nozzles that vary in size from 3/16th to 1/2 inch depending on water flow available.

What traditions do you draw inspiration from?

I am greatly inspired by joinery. When I work up a design I like to focus on the places where the pieces will join together. There are many beautiful joints in the tradition of blacksmithing which I use but I am also attracted to joinery in other crafts. 

I began as a wood worker. I studied Japanese joinery and timber framing. Both of these traditions have influenced my blacksmithing. Often I explain blacksmithing as the timber framing of metalwork. My work, like timber framing has substance and joinery. It blends a visual connection to the raw material with connections that portray the human energy used to make it into a functioning piece. Like Japanese joinery the attraction and beauty of the finished product are largely created by the process. Getting the metal yellow hot. Pushing and shaping it with a hammer and hand tools. This process is evident in the finished work. Although all of my work is held together tightly while in use, many pieces are like puzzles and can be taken apart. I enjoy making items that tempt people to touch them, play with them and try to figure them out. Concentrating on the beauty of each segment of a piece, my goal is to create a finished item that will be as pleasing to run your fingers over as it is to look at

Do you work everything out on paper first?

Yes, I try to draw when possible. Blacksmithing when you weigh 125 lbs involves a lot of thinking about efficiency. I like to lay out a project to scale and from all angles before I forge anything. Mostly I draw to get an idea of the over all design and flow of the work. How it will look from all directions. These drawings become an outline. I then start working and refining the details. I work out many of my forms and experiments with joinery in modeling clay. I use my hammer and tools in the clay just as I would with the steel.

 

Blacksmithing seems like a craft of extremity.

It is extreme. I love watching people when they first come to my shop. There is always that slight hesitation before entering. Take a look at my apron. It is a thick pigskin. The light brown leather is stained black with coal dust, rust and the oil that comes off of new steel. This creates a sheen that is decorated with lines and shapes that were burnt into the leather at random spots as I used my apron to shield myself from the hot metal, scale and flying wire brush fragments. But there is incredible beauty there too. Early in the morning the air is crisp and first light is just reaching through the trees, touching the cracked cement floor and turning the shop into pixels of metal dust. The smoke of a freshly lit fire curls up into ghosts and dragons who then get sucked up the flue. I put a lot of faith in the medium. Steel and iron are so soft when they are hot. They are supple and pliant, stretchy and malleable but the material is not relaxed. The medium is hot, super hot. The atoms are bouncing against each other as they get hotter and hotter they move faster and faster until they have enough energy to break free and melt. But I don’t want the steel molecules to melt so I am holding them at a temperature just before melting. This creates some tension. When you are blacksmithing you are playing with this tension. When I am struggling with some profound question. When I am frustrated and saddened by the news of the day I can always feel better making things. Blacksmithing adds to this an ancient alchemy. In this harsh environment, when the metal is yellow hot I get the feeling that if I hit it hard enough and pay close enough attention I could find the answers. And if I don't find the answers I will at least feel better and maybe have made something to set my beer on.

 

http://www.keepcraftalive.org/monica-coyne-blacksmith/

My Blacksmith Shop

When you walk into a blacksmith shop the first sense alerted is smell. Iron and steel smell like earth and fire rolled together. The acrid smell of cold cut steel is blended with the sweet smell of red hot iron.  2200 degrees is hot. Most everyday things in its way will burst into flames. Refractory clay strains to keep its composure. The steel  that was used to make the forges and tooling expands and contracts with relentless repetition day after day making the air sharp with the tension. As with many harsh environments, there is great  unexpected beauty in a blacksmith shop. There is an inherent grace in the act of blacksmithing and the beauty created when the metal moves. When heated, this rigid material softens and opens itself up to be moved. When it is cold it becomes steel, frozen, unbreakable and impenetrable, yet it still portrays the energy and power that was used to change it.

 

Why I am a Blacksmith

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Why I Am A Blacksmith

A carpenter friend of mine once told me that no matter how hopeless things looked he could always feel positive because he had a skill. He was useful.

I needed a job and I decided I also needed to try to become as proficient as possible in a skill. I answered an ad for an apprentice welder and got the job. This led to blacksmithing. The first time I moved the metal it made me feel different, hopeful.

The rhythm of the hammer on the anvil .When it is quiet and you are really focused. You get your nose close to the work as it turns from yellow to red. The sound changes pitch and there is a sweet smell in the warmth coming off the cooling steel.

Sometimes it is hard to be hopeful. Humans, what we do to each other and to our world.

Metalwork is a skill that comes with a measure of violence. Working in this environment helps me to redirect the feelings I get when I read or watch the news. I put my head down and work.

I pick up a piece of steel and light a fire.

Why iron and steel? I understand why people ask me this question. Iron and steel are cold and dark and often creepy. They are devoid of color unless they rust which they always do. Rust is decay.

 I work with this medium because it gives me hope. It helps me to control my fear. I can pick up a cold , hard, plain piece of steel and by some crazy primitive alchemy I can change its form. Steel is not inherently beautiful like gold or copper. The beauty is created by work and expectation. Working steel helps me to believe that other things in life can be changed by intention and diligence. I am not so naive to believe that I can change life's course but perhaps as with steel I can make it manifest some beauty. It never loses its temperament completely but maybe by changing its form I can distract myself from its despair.