Artist forges reputation for smithing
LINCOLN — Ask blacksmith Brian Anderson, and the South Starksboro metalworker will tell you that a cool, hard lump of iron and a soft piece of clay aren’t as different as you might think.
Sure, you may have to heat iron to 2,500 degrees before it becomes malleable — and malleable only with the force of a hammer and tongs. But at that point, he said, the distinction between hard and soft, clay and iron, all but disappears.
“It becomes malleable, like clay. It’s hard for people to grasp that they work the same. There’s an extreme of forces, but they move the same. It’s quite plastic,” Anderson said.
Samples of Anderson’s metalwork is on display through the end of April at the Lincoln Library, where Anderson will also be discussing his work as an artist on April 5 at 7 p.m.
The intricately shaped items — which range from the function to the historical to the whimsical — come from Anderson’s more than 40-year career as a self taught blacksmith.
Despite his blacksmithing skill, Anderson, 71, came to metalworking — indeed, to his life as an artist — accidentally. Though he’d shown artistic leanings as a child, he hopped in and out of college for years in his 20s, and put in a stint with the military. He eventually trained his sights on a career as a psychologist, and threw himself back into his studies. It wasn’t a satisfying decision, but Anderson was determined to make headway.
But then he opened his newspaper one morning to find a large picture of a familiar face staring back at him. The article described a gallery opening slated for that evening in Minneapolis (where he was living at the time), and the painter profiled just happened to be a woman from the same small Minnesota town where Anderson had grown up. They’d attended school together, and though they hadn’t been close they’d shared the distinction of being the two artistically minded pupils in their class.
Anderson struck out for the gallery to see the paintings for himself. In the end, he helped his acquaintance hang her show, and then marveled as familiar faces from his old hometown marched through the gallery that evening. No one recognized Anderson.
The coincidence, and his brush with the faces of his childhood, startled Anderson. After the show, he spent a long night wandering through Minneapolis, thinking about the direction his life would take. He remembered the time he’d spent in a harness shop as a child, tinkering and learning to fashion things from scraps of leather. He recalled how he’d sold sandals to scrape by while he was unsuccessfully hunting for a job in San Francisco.
Something clicked. He needed to make things.
He set out for northern New Mexico, where he spent close to 50 years of his life.
Anderson came to metalworking gradually. First he worked in stone, and fashioned jewelry from silver and gold. He also made a living as a professional cabinetmaker. It was then that he began to gradually dabble in blacksmithing.
“The iron came because I needed some fittings for some wooden furniture,” he said. “What I discovered is that the iron work included all of the techniques that I was used to using. They all applied.”
At the time in the 1960s, though, blacksmithing had all but died out. Anderson explained this his parents’ generation had valued automation over handwork, and the age of hand-sewn clothing and hand-built implements had given way to mechanized factories.
Because of that, Anderson is a largely self-taught blacksmith, though he found mentors and teachers in unusual places. In some ways, he said, the fact that he came of age as an artist in a time when blacksmithing was still uncommon worked to his benefit.
“I came into a time that opened up to what I could do,” he said.
What he does is work that is curious and wide-ranging. Anderson likes to say that his artwork is driven above all else by his interest in “human motivation,” which fueled his interest in religious and military implements from bygone eras.
“At some point I realized that historically and culturally, the best work has gone into religious and military objects,” Anderson said.
His display at the Lincoln Library hints at some of these interests. Nestled among intricate spoons forged from brass and iron are 18th-century tomahawks, a functioning iron Scottish pistol, and a conquistador’s helmet modeled on 16th-century designs. He’s also experimented with Viking-era iron knives and daggers, time consuming and intricate designs that are as much expressions of art as they are of war.
Anderson developed a stellar reputation, particularly for his work on function fittings for homes. In his New Mexico studio he forged everything from cabinet handles and drawer pulls to the massive frames of king-sized beds. In one of his most notable successes, his design for an iron gate was selected by the Smithsonian Institute, where the gate now adorns the crypt of James Smithson, benefactor of the institution.
His work has also wound up in homes and galleries around the world, including in Europe and Japan, though Anderson is bashful about making the claim.
A CERTAIN FASCINATION
He said that widespread acclaim comes in part because a blacksmith’s work has a certain fascination for many people.
“Iron is such a static material. To make something out of it, to manipulate it, has a magic to it,” he said. “Our culture has very carefully weeded the magic out of everything.”
Anderson considers himself lucky to have been working as an artist when that began to change. By the ’70s, he said, people were beginning to rediscover handwork as something “weird and wonderful.”
And he was there, at his forge, while that happened.
Now at the beginning of his eighth decade, Anderson said he’s not working as hard as he once did, though he still has a shop in South Starksboro. He made the move to Vermont four years ago, after meeting his wife, musician Lausanne Allen, while Allen wintered in New Mexico.
Anderson said there’s nothing he hasn’t made yet that he’s yearning to make — he trusts that new projects will simply turn up in their own time. He focuses mostly on functional objects, which he calls an excuse to have fun with decorative elements.
“I have a favorite way to work, and it’s just to be working,” Anderson said.
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected]