contemporary blacksmithing and metal design symposium at Bryn Athyn College



Two years ago at the SNAG conference, I was sitting at the hotel bar with John Rais, David Clemmons, and Paul Sacaridiz. Warren Holzman had given a presentation that morning about the unique forged monel at Bryn Athyn.

We were talking about the differences between NCECA and SNAG, and more broadly, the dearth of academic or commercial presence of forged metalwork. Ceramics, Paul said, had experienced a huge boom in recent years, specifically interest from and for the international art world.

Why, he asked, did we think blacksmithing had never experienced similar widespread attention?

Now, it was late, and they make a good Old Fashioned in New Orleans, so I think I said something blasé about “the market”, tossed off some complaint about academia, and the conversation moved on.

Here’s what I could have talked about:

I could’ve said, “Blacksmithing doesn’t lend itself to the kind of intuitive improvisation that clay offers.”

I could’ve said, “Forging has an industrial heritage, while ceramics has had a place in sculpture for centuries.”

I could’ve said, “Forging equipment requires a significant investment, and the need for returns has shorted some of the experimentation we’ve seen in ceramics. For $10,000, you could outfit a decent - if simple - ceramics studio for yourself. For $10,000 I bought a decent - if simple - power hammer. Used.”

I could’ve talked about the impact Peter Voulkos, Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada, et al., had. And how there simply aren’t similar figures in blacksmithing, whose public personae created interest far beyond their field. The social and critical framework they worked toward has paid dividends that blacksmithing hasn’t seen.

I could’ve talked about how all these factors have stifled academic interest, as budgets shrink and the costs of mitigating noise and ventilation, not to mention equipment maintenance, continue to balloon.

But, I should have talked about the future.

I should have talked about the metalworkers I know who make inspiring work.

I should have talked about the incredible versatility that forged metal design offers.

I should have talked about how the industrial heritage and equipment needs of blacksmithing present opportunities that aren’t available to most other media.

And, I should have talked about how, after two degrees in metalsmithing, 17 years of professional experience, and countless, countless similar discussions at schools, conferences, and galleries, I DON'T KNOW.

Which brings us to this symposium; what is it, and why are we having it?

By chance, John, Warren and I all ended up living in Philadelphia about 6 years ago. And we started hanging out. A lot. We’d have dinner or drinks, and the conversation would pivot to metalwork. We’d talk about what we loved, and why, and what we didn’t love, and why. And we’d have long, loud, mostly genial arguments about the field, about technique, tiny minutiae, and macroscopic trends we saw, or thought we saw.

We never really arrived at any concrete answers. That wasn’t the point. The discussion was the point, because we didn’t see it happening on a national scale. And about a year ago Warren suggested we get more serious about engendering these conversations, and John and I leapt in.

This symposium is meant to jumpstart a dialogue. We’re not trying to start a new organization, or a recurring conference event. We want to get a bunch of metalworkers together, and have some arguments, have some discussion, ask some questions. We’re not going to arrive at objective answers. We don’t want to. We want to talk about what blacksmithing and metal design is in this country, and, looking forward, where it might be headed.

Essay by Mike Rossi