Art From the Forge

Finding new sources for inspiration

May 29, 2003
By: Dona Z. Meilach

Those of you who are busy fulfilling commissions for gates, fences, staircases, and the myriad items that keep food on the table might want to look at artwork created by people whose backgrounds are based in the arts. Metalworkers often are so tuned to traditional designs that they are unaware of a swelling modern movement that could generate new ideas, new visions, and new clients.

It's been happening gradually over the past 25 years, but in the past four or five years, art from the forge is finding outlets in fine art and sculpture galleries, as public art and even jewelry. These motifs, techniques, designs, and objects are heading ironwork in new directions. Much of it is being inspired by ideas you may never have associated with ironwork. Many include familiar themes but with a new twist.

Frederic Crist. Memorial bench forged steel and granite 60 in. by 84 in. by 36 in., 1995.

Sure, ironworkers altered their visions during different historical times. The pendulum swung from the austere designs of the Renaissance to the ornate designs of rococo and Elizabethan structures. At the turn of the 20th century a change occurred, inspired by the fluid, simpler floral designs of art nouveau. Then followed the more geometric designs of art deco, inspired by the Mayan sites discovered in Central America in the late 1920s. What has happened since then? Not much until the past two decades as people trained in art discovered the potential of the forge for expressing their ideas.

The seed was planted in the 1970s when a few art teachers brought forges into jewelry and sculpture classes and students embraced the blacksmith's techniques as another medium for expression. Innovative, one-of-a kind artwork emerged from small forges in people's back yards, garages, and classes. Soon artists were designing and making gates, sculpture, furniture, jewelry, and items that could be made with minimal equipment. Not surprising, in time the artists outgrew those facilities and began producing on a larger scale.

Russel Jaqua. Gates memorial sculpture. "Leaf Wings", 17 ft. high by 1 ft. wide by 1.66 ft. deep. Photo, Robert Gibeau

And what they are producing today can be an eye-opening adventure to anyone anxious to keep up with the industry. Their ideas, and what they produce, are beyond essentially linear, flat designs. They're making everything that you're familiar with and maybe more, but with a cachet that is catching the attention of builders, designers, decorators, architects, and art galleries that may once have associated ironwork only with 2-D, functional gates, fences, and railings.

Frederic Crist of Metalsmiths Inc. has been creating unique architectural commissions in his shop in Waynesboro, Va. Crist, who has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in sculpture, said; "Forged ironwork must have a form beyond the linear designs. It needs to be considered in three dimensions as a sculptural object having depth, width, and height, as well as surface texture."

For inspiration, Crist refers to history in art and design fields. It may be anything from stone or ceramic work that is thousands of years old to contemporary works in glass and metal. He believes that inspiration is everywhere; one has to see as well as look for it.

Russel Jaqua of Port Townsend, Wash., applies his sculptural background to a variety of commissions, including light fixtures, security doors, railings, fountains, and complex public art projects. Nature is the primary inspiration for his 17-ft.-tall "Gates Memorial Sculpture" composed of leaf wings.

Nature often is an important theme in works. While traditional grape forms, acanthus leaves, and similar motifs have been pervasive through the centuries, many smiths now tackle more complex forms in 3-D relationships.

Lars Stanley and Louis Herrera. Zilker gates. Photo courtesy of Atelier Wong.

Lars Stanley Architects and Artisans of Austin, Texas, has created the Zilker Botannical Gardens gate, which showcases natural forms that also serve as a theme for the gardens. Instead of 2-D leaf shapes, the plants on this gate appear to be growing within and in front of it just as they might grow in a natural garden, thereby introducing a third dimension.

Jan Pearson's buffalo gates tell a story and depict a historical subject. They are 3-D in both actual rendition and in perspective and involve a variety of techniques attesting to the virtuosity required to produce unique works of art. For his third dimension that results in rounded shapes front and back, he puts the metal shapes together, leaving a small space for an air hose. Then he pumps air between the layers, creating a pillowlike form and a third dimension that is equally rounded front and back.

Dimitri Gerakaris. Woodside Continuum© railway panel detail. Photo courtesy of Gerakaris.

The themed commission can challenge the inventiveness, imagination, research, and techniques of any blacksmith shop. Dimitri Gerakaris' commission for public art was realized in a seven-panel fence in the railroad station in Woodside Station in Queens, N.Y. Gerakaris, also trained in the arts, explains that the artwork springs from a stock medallion motif used by the MTA rail system. The panels are somewhat impressionistic sketches in steel designed to engage the viewer's imagination. They relate some of Woodside's history and the relationship between community and rail transportation. They provide details for commuters to ponder as they wait for a train. Ultimately, they are an attempt to make Woodside Station a place people would want to experience.

Jan Pearson. Buffalo hunt gates. These rounded forms are created with a blown steel technique so they are 3-D and rounded in front and back. Photo courtesy of Pearson.

Some artist blacksmiths are creating incredible objects using more modest facilities than are required for fences, gates, and rails. Boxes, furniture, candlestick holders, fireplace screens, even jewelry tempt the creative ironworker fired with inspiration and enthusiasm.

Valerie Ostenak often scales down ideas used in her fences and railings for smaller commissions such as religious chalices and personal jewelry. Her inspiration is the flow of water building up around rocks and boulders. She said, "I am drawn to things of a fluid nature—roots, vines, and water—each a visual reference of change and strength. Vines alter the direction of growing saplings. A simple stream of water can create massive canyons of incomparable beauty. Water, though not living, is a visible life force. Whether it is a raging river changing the landscape or an ocean stirring up shadows in the sand, it allows creation and transformation to the extraordinary. I wish for my pieces to transform the wearer and the viewer in the same way."

Valerie Ostenak. Rapids neckpiece. Photo courtesy of Ostenak.

Themes, historical influences in various media, plants, animals, mythology, and symbolism often become the inspiration used by today's artist blacksmiths. If your output consists mainly of linear elements and scrolls, look to different resources for inspiration. Taking a new approach to your work could result in broadening your designs and your customer base while creating ironwork that is artistic as well as functional.

Dona Z. Meilach

Contributing Writer
Carlsbad, CA
Phone: 760-436-4395
Dona Z. Meilach's early book, Decorative and Sculptural Ironwork, was a driving force in the renaissance of modern ironwork. Her more recent books include The Contemporary Blacksmith, Architectural Ironwork, Fireplace Accessories, and Direct Metal Sculpture, all published by Schiffer Books.