Photographed by Edwina Richards
Looking at this image I think, is that even me? Is that really a blacksmith or just someone mucking around with a bit of wafting flame? It is of course, both. Edwina has captured me play acting in a place I am deeply engaged. Yet, even after decades, I cannot take it too seriously, all those tools and soot and rust. The absurdity is so present, that of eking out a living; searching for fulfilment through an ancient craft of heavy materials, simple tools and hard labour. The future is technology I hear, and it looks like it is but there seems something a little absurd about that too.
I got into forging steel as a young teenager interested in bush skills, knife making and probably simply enjoying burning things. This lead to an apprenticeship as an industrial blacksmith. Which in turn, sparked years of travel as a journeyman learning some of the creative and diverse ways of working with metals from craftswomen and men all over the world. There was fire welding and pouring molten lead in England, forming delicate bowls in Japan, collaborative forging in the Ukraine, making sculpture in a castle in the Czech Republic, crafting huge toilet door hinges in America, throwing traditional techniques out the window in Russia, and getting all dirty and excited in numerous other places. The best parts of it were the strange and lovely people I got to forge alongside, stimulating creativity and bringing out our humanity.
Today, I practice my craft back here in the Hunter Valley. I’ve set up a workshop in an old weatherboard building with sloping floors. It used to be a hand milking dairy run by my Grandparents. My rudimentary office is up the end with the old hand cranked milk separator in the corner. Looking out to the hills in the late afternoon, it really is the most beautiful place.
Contemporary blacksmithing is still a pretty rare thing, it’s almost an anachronism. But these days, there are more Australian doing really creative and exciting things with steel. There is an active Artist Blacksmith Association in NSW and a multi-day festival in Melbourne every few years dedicated to contemporary blacksmithing. Even the community engagement I have seen at the few open days I have held at my workshop, one making steel poppies and another repairing broken tools, has really shown to me the positive human benefit small scale craft can bring to all of us.
I’ve received huge amounts of support from many people to enable me to make a go of this craft. In particular my wonderful parents and my old boss Phil Johnson. He died a few years ago. He would often have a go at me for making too much “artsy fartsy shit”, but would always be happy for me to use his big machinery and workshop to complete whatever project I had going. Usually because the thing being made was well beyond the capacity of the little coke forge, powered by a vacuum cleaner on reverse, that I used for a few years.
There is more to this craft than the physical metalwork. If it wasn’t, I think I would have stopped years ago. There are the constant unresolved tensions that insert just enough excitement and anxiety to keep me curious. Particularly how to arrange aesthetics, environmental impacts, meaningfulness and fulfilment within a world guided by economics, practicality and fundamental physics. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s worth it.