Reflections of a Curator and a Metalworker
I consider my material: about 14 inches of 3/8″ round, hot-rolled steel. Hot cut on both ends. I decide I will upset one end to build a mass for the head of my spoon.
I have been making spoons during most of the days that I work at the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park blacksmith shop. Why? For Alloy: the Malleability of Metals, a show I am co-curating with Natasha Seedorf at the Launchpad Gallery. The show hangs through October.
As curators, we are exploring The Question. (If you’re familiar with “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”, by Douglas Adams, then you know the answer is 42.) Might the question be something about the ultimate relationship between art and craft? When the perfect balance is achieved, magic is spun. The resulting artifact is imbued with a timeless resonance that reaches right into an observer’s being—it makes us feel, deeply, that we are a piece of the whole picture.
Alloy brings together seven Colorado artists who work in metals both noble and base: Halley Bates, Ira Sherman, Mark Cesark, Alison Finn, Matt Haugh, Natasha Seedorf and me, Olivia Pevec. My passion lies in making new objects from of old ones. Seedorf works primarily in jewelry scale, in steel, but also in silver, gold and found objects.
Seedorf and I proposed Alloy to Carbondale Arts a year ago; it has been 10 years since there was an all-metals show here and we all agreed it was time. The artists were chosen to show the “malleability of metals” in a literal way; their work embodies a spectrum of materials and methods, reaches a high degree of craftsmanship and transcends the purely functional to ask questions about the nature of the human experience.
Finn, Haugh, Seedorf, Sherman and I all come from a blacksmithing background, which in essence means forging hot iron. Most American blacksmiths, including many Alloy artists, can trace their involvement in the craft back to Francis Whitaker, a blacksmith who spent his last four decades in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Finn was honored to finish Whitaker’s work and use his touch mark after he died. Haugh is now the master of Whitaker’s shop at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School.
Many readers will remember Sherman’s exquisite forged and fabricated work from the Green is the New Black Fashion Extravaganza. Cesark makes “paintings” from pieces of reclaimed painted steel. Bates is a professor of metalsmithing at Colorado State University who works mainly in silver. Her work inspired one of the key focal points of the show: a wall of spoons created by artists from all over the country and the world.
All summer, I have begun creating these spoons by isolating a mass for the head and then drawing out the handle. I don’t have a particular vision for this spoon. I aim to track its progress and retain a strict discipline in how I set up for the next heat. It’s easy to get carried away while forging, and maintaining this discipline is reminiscent of trying to remain lucid during a dream. There’s a lazy pull toward relaxed standards.
In my wildest dreams, I will not need to file at all, I want to see the steel react, the energy of each blow clearly captured when the metal cools. I use a ball pean to spread the spoon, starting in the center and following the heat, pushing material outward to the edges. I keep my hammer blows consistent and move the steel to locate the blows. I watch the shape emerge, making decisions while the hammer is suspended about where the next blow should land.
But this is all craft. Where is the art? I find it where imperfections occur. As Bob Ross, the iconic host of PBS’s “The Joy of Painting” tells us, “there are no mistakes, only happy accidents”.
I am coming up consistently with lopsided shoulders. I have not yet learned enough craft technique to correct them. (Perhaps these are all self portraits?) But I have discovered that accentuating that difference makes for a very interesting shape. I see a juxtaposition of line and shape that gives me that tingly feeling that tells me I’m on the right track. I am in love with a particular forging that echoes this shape; it pleases me in a way I have difficulty describing.
Is that art? Come. See for yourself. That is what the artists of Alloy are doing: forging, forming, welding, casting, joining, and shaping The Question.