Blacksmiths bend minds with new creations
By Jenn Watt
Published May 31, 2016
In the heat and the noise of the Peel Building, amongst the fiery ovens and worn blacksmith tools, a shark emerged from a flat square of mild steel. As the day wore on, fish came to encircle the predator, darting from one panel of metal to the next.
The work, a collaboration created by the students of the blacksmithing master class at Haliburton School of Art and Design on the May 14 weekend, was an exercise not just in stamp making and metal work, but in opening pathways of the mind.
“It’s quite nice to do something using traditional ideas, but approaching it in a modern way,” says instructor Rebecca Knott.
It’s uncommon for blacksmiths to create stamps in contemporary work, she says, and by asking the students to think about creating a picture using a new method, it helps the artists think in a different way.
Knott and her father Terrence Clark are two renowned blacksmiths from the U.K., who came to Canada in May to teach the class and also to continue their work on Clark’s ambitious project: Ypres 2016.
Commemorating the centennial of the First World War, Ypres 2016 is a seven-metre-tall cenotaph designed by Clark, which will be installed in Belgium. Along with the towering memorial to those who fought on both sides of the conflict, Clark has solicited 2,000 steel poppies created by blacksmiths around the world.
In Canada, he and Knott travelled to Guelph, Ont., the home of John McCrae, the author of the famous poem In Flanders Fields. There they worked with Canadian blacksmiths on making the poppies for the memorial.
During their trip to Canada, the duo was struck by the newness of Canadian culture in juxtaposition to the longstanding traditions and knowledge of blacksmithing they came from in England.
That tradition has allowed the British to become some of the best blacksmiths in the world, but in the past it also led to secrecy.
Clark said there was a time when most blacksmiths would not share their ideas and techniques, but that has changed. It is a benefit to everyone when people open up and share.
“Knowledge is the road to knowledge,” Clark argues. “It’s knowledge for everyone.”
Clark should know. He has been creating works big and small for more than 40 years. He started his career as a welder/fabricator and made good money, but felt that something was missing. When he was 27, he was asked to do some decorative ironwork and it whetted his appetite for blacksmithing.
“I’ve been poor ever since, but quite happy,” he laughs.
His daughter was three years old when she held her first hammer and has been working with metal ever since. At her shop she will create “anything except horseshoes and swords” – a common misperception about the profession.
Among her works: wedding rings, light fixtures, kitchenware and gates.
On May 15, HSAD’s Peel Building was bustling with a dozen blacksmiths of various skill levels hammering out their ideas on metal. Each artist ground and sanded their stamps to their concept of a fish, which was then applied to the hot metal.
The pieces were then assembled into one hanging work.
The shark – a more advanced piece – was created with a technique called repousse. The shape of the creature’s body was pushed out of the metal with a series of tools, its body surprisingly smooth given the violent origins of its creation.
“It’s been really wonderful working with everyone – to see them get what you’re trying to explain,” Knott says.
To read more about the Ypres 2016 project, go to ypres2016.com.