May 24, 2018
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Bond forged over blacksmithing at UMaine

By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff

Metal began flaking off the glowing orange steel as it cooled. The student wrenched the bar sideways around a spiral jig until it faded to gray and creaked in protest.

“Cool,” said Hannah Grenier, 22, of Oxford Hills, as she walked back to the forge with a half-completed steel spiral.

“She thinks it’s cool,” said blacksmith Robert Adams, 75, of Winterport. “The end result will be cool. For now, it’s hot.”

University of Maine sculpture students and passersby gathered around a forge and three anvils Sept. 17 as guest artisan Adams led a blacksmith workshop on the creation of steel crosses and spirals he refers to as scrolls. They set up shop by the sculpture building in the Collins Center of the Arts parking lot.

As he instructed Grenier in completing her scroll, he asked for another volunteer to start heating metal in the forge.

“I like them to make stuff,” Adams said. “That’s how you remember.”

Students heated a tapered metal rod, hammered the end into a small hook and formed it around the anchored jig, a pre-made scroll used as a guide for creating identical shapes.

Grenier’s completed steel spiral sizzled and steamed as she moved it back and forth in a quench tub full of water.

“Generally, visiting artists come one time,” said associate adjunct professor of sculpture Greg Ondo. “But Robert’s personality — the students reacted to him — we wanted many people to meet him. It’s good stuff.”

It made sense to call in an expert to instruct students and staff on UMaine’s new equipment. The $740 forge was purchased during the summer with stimulus funds allotted to the sculpture department for the 2010 fiscal year.

The atmospheric forge runs on gas and doesn’t require electricity. Set up for the workshop, the fired-up forge had “hot” written in chalk on all four sides. The inside glowed vibrant orange at approximately 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.

Years before, the UMaine sculpture program used a homemade coal forge.

“The homemade forge got students trying blacksmithing and gaining interest,” said Ondo. “And sure enough, fire and students go together.”

“The fact that there was a forge [at UMaine] really swayed me to come here,” said Garrett White, 21, of Greene. “I’m still learning, doing a lot of experimental things with different techniques, floral patterns, leaves and vines. It was really exciting when [Adams] came and I saw his work.”

White became the unofficial workshop assistant as more students placed metal rods in through the front and back windows of the forge. White had been working with metal ever since he took a course Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle during high school. He had attended Adam’s first workshop.

“He definitely knows his stuff,” White said of Adams. “I’ve learned a lot of techniques and received a lot of pointers about things I was already figuring out, but he quickened the pace.”

The advanced sculpture class has to complete a metal sculpture as an assignment, but White already chooses to forge metal for the majority of his sculptures. He also has considered being a blacksmith.

“It’s really fun and interesting to do things with your hands,” said White. “You get burns a lot, but nothing big. Well, once I cracked my eyebrow open with a hammer.”

To be allowed in the blacksmith area, people were asked to wear safety glasses. The students wore steel-toed boots and were forbidden from wearing synthetic clothing, which could melt into their skin.

About 30 students created leaves and napkin rings during his first six-hour workshop. Ondo predicted that 30 to 40 more would show up for the second.

“You find the scroll shape in nature — sunflowers, the back of a snail,” Adams said.

He often uses the scroll design in his work, whether it’s a fireplace door or a chandelier. Much of his work resembles tree limbs, sometimes complete with leaves. He describes his work as “organic” and creates everything from driveway gates to a device for pulling off your boots.

Adams has made a living working with metal for the past 15 years. Originally from Yorkshire, England, he moved to Winterport a year ago from Vail, Colorado.

He started working with metal out of necessity, needing two gates for a Santa Fe style house he built in Colorado. When he could not find a reliable blacksmith in the area, he borrowed a forge and got to work. After completing the gates, he planned to simply return the forge.

“A friend of mine, an architect, said, ‘Wow. This is good stuff. You should keep going,’” Adams said. So he did.

Beside the UMaine forge, Adams set up a table covered with finished metal fireplace grates, leaves, flowers, crosses and gate sections. Most of his work is too large to be displayed on a table, so he brought a sketchbook containing dimensions, drawings and notes of his past projects. Each time a student picked up an object, he told them how to make it.

“This was the first time I’ve forged,” said fine arts major Chris McCarthy, 21, of Columbia Falls. “I’ve been waiting ever since I first started sculpture class to forge. I’m super excited. This is amazing.”

With a sculpture studio saw, students prepared steel rectangles to be made into crosses. They cut two perpendicular slits, one down each side, overlapping slightly in the center.

McCarthy placed one of the metal rectangles through the side door of the forge, which lifts upward with a wooden handle, and watched through the rear window until the metal turned fiery red-orange.

“You want it red,” said Adams. “It’s miserable material when it’s cold.”

Removing it with long tongs, he held the rectangle vertical over an anvil and pounded the top with a hammer, splitting the opposite end over the anvil. He reheated the metal several times to open up both slits into the arms of a cross. Where the two slits overlapped in the center, a diamond-shaped hole formed.

McCarthy pounded out the “No. 1 cross of the day.” He placed it in the forge one last time and waited until it turned blue, oxidizing the metal for a finishing touch.

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