Saturday, September 22, 2012

Oakland 7/11 – 12/11

Oakland, California is where I spent the majority of my year off, and the first artistic community I have ever felt a part of.  This is where I first learned what it is like to work in a blacksmith’s shop, how to conduct oneself, how to channel creative excitement into the learning of skill, reconciling the free exercise of design and the hard truth of craft, and dealing with frustration and difficulty.  

Me striking for Jim Austin on a viking axe
My mentors and greatest friends in these months were Jeff Pringle and Jim Austin.  Jim Austin owns Alchemy Metalworks in West Oakland, and is one of the few traditionally-trained professional blacksmiths in the nation.  The company name is apt: he is an alchemist, a renaissance-man, a student of many disciplines, not ruled by logic but set free by it, using it as his tool and knowledge as his strength, as much as his tools and strength are hammer and arm.  
Jeff is a man to whom I really owe everything, but he would never take it.  He is a pioneer and a master in the fields of historical swordsmithing, pattern-welding, and archaeo-metallurgy, and though an unsung hero in the academic world at large, in his field he is an absolute authority.  He is the first swordsmith I ever met, and my greatest personal inspiration and professional role model, as well as a true friend.  

Jeff and Nazel, Jim's more stately of two forge-cats
My first stint in Oakland began with a few random projects in Jim’s shop, with Jeff around working on his own.  I was alright with a hammer, I could make shapes, but a true eye for lines had not begun yet to develop in me; indeed it is still developing every day.  I had begun to explore design and proportions visually (I keep a sketchbook), drawing and meditating on swords and related styles of art and craft, but the process of making them out of steel was alien to me.  At first, it feels like a completely different way of thinking.  I often thought that perhaps my passion for swords should only be expressed on paper, that steel was not my medium.  But I did not give up, and slowly, over many months, I have come to realize that they are not as different as I once believed.  

A study in 11th century Ringerike style-ornament from my sketchbook
Forging is very much the same as drawing, but a much slower process, with much more time for meditation and processing, and with many more dimensions to consider and control: depth, volume, heat, force, time, weight; there are even dimensions that cannot be seen, dimensions which must be “sketched” obliquely: chemistry, crystal structure, microstructure, molecular bonding, decarburization, partial changes of state, and more.  But in the end, I am using flames to prepare my canvas and hammer to paint my lines.  

Matching my forged seax to my soapstone sketch

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