Hephaestus and Hers

Blacksmithing's not just for horses anymore

Sep 18, 2002 at 4:00 am
If you could see the sweaty hammering and forgework the 25 artists of Exquisite Scrap have done to create their sculptures at Craft Alliance, you would be especially impressed. This weekend, you can do just that.

The new show of fine ironcraft is opened with a literal bang when acclaimed artist Elizabeth Brim hosts a blacksmithing demo on Friday. Brim, who is also Exquisite Scrap's curator, will briefly show how she shapes metal. The public will be fascinated by her technique, which moves from crude hammering to painstaking detailwork and welding. The safety goggles, gloves, anvil, orange-hot iron and clanking noises have a way of turning curious onlookers into future blacksmiths.

The title of the show refers to a requirement for participants: All the art you'll see was made from recycled scrap. Many of the pieces will sit in the gallery next to photos of the actual spikes and slabs of rusty iron and steel that became the different works. The complete transformation of this heavy-metal junk from trash to objet d'art is no small feat.

The show, which features the works of artists from throughout the country, includes Rick Smith's puzzling monolith "Pylon," Celia Gray's cute little pyramids on wheels and Marc Maiorana's "Dibble," which appears to be a long metal dildo with a handle for a second person. Perhaps the most compelling piece in the group is Hoss Haley's "173 Dorchester House," a pale, eerie dollhouse that lacks fenestrations, made from sheet-formed appliance skin.

Not long ago, blacksmithing was a needed skill, says Brim, but these days it's largely become the domain of metal artists. Now that we have machines to turn out our silverware, bayonets, hammers and doorknobs, people fire up the forge to express themselves, mainly (and to make horseshoes).

Brim is something of a celebrity in the subculture of blacksmith artists. She has headed a seven-member metalwork faculty at North Carolina's Penland School of Crafts -- a program with a perpetual waitlist of students clamoring to be accepted. Her reputation comes from her unusual metier: She creates life-size replicas of feminine objects such as tiaras, pillows, hats, aprons and ribbons from black iron that are realistic to the last detail. In the Craft Alliance show, visitors will see "Rachel and Her Soldier," a lady's pump inscribed with the text of a love letter Brim discovered in a garbage dump, and "Roots," an exquisitely detailed steel zinnia propped inside an empty bottle of Miller High Life.

Brim's tuffet pillow was made with the use of an air compressor to force air inside a sealed pocket of hot steel, a technique the artist developed. Brim has also used a vacuum pump to suck the air from such a pocket to create an emaciated effect. In the end, she shows off her ability to make hard metal look like soft felt, cotton, flower petals and lace.

"My teacher told me you don't need brute strength to be a blacksmith," Brim says. "What you need is finesse."