By Caleb Kullman
My career as a blacksmith began with my decision to attend trade school after college instead of going to graduate school. As a student majoring in anthropology, I romantically imagined myself conducting fieldwork among exotic cultures in foreign lands. To do that, I would have to earn a PhD and become a professor, which I fully in- tended to do — I was genuinely interested in the subject matter, and it seemed like a good way to travel, to see the world, and to have a comfortable life. By the time I graduated, however, I felt I needed a break from academia, so I enrolled in a trade school program to learn farriery in my home state of New Mexico. It was a bit of an obscure trade, especially since I had not spent much time around horses up to that point in my life, but the decision didn’t seem too outlandish at the time. I honestly didn’t really think I would stick with it for more than a year or two before resuming my studies and going on to graduate school.
I left Oregon, where I’d been in college, and began an apprenticeship with a farrier friend of my father’s in my hometown of Santa Fe. At the time, the hard physical work of shoeing horses suited me. It was different from any work I’d done previously, and I enjoyed being outdoors, working with horses, and the challenge of forging simple shoes to fit precisely to each hoof. As a beginner, I was sorely lacking in skills and felt challenged by the trade in a way that was very different from any challenges I had faced in school. But in time, the horseshoer I was apprenticed to recognized my interest in forge work and urged me to take a class in ornamental blacksmithing with Frank Turley, a fine and nationally respected smith who had been teaching in Santa Fe since the late 1970s. During this three-week course, Frank also took us to the studio of the blacksmith and artist Tom Joyce. When I saw the innovative architectural work that Tom was producing, and the myriad antique tools and industrial machines in his studio, I realized I was much more enamored by the craft of blacksmithing than I was in becoming an academic. At that point, I abandoned anthropology and decided to pursue the life of the craftsman.
Unfortunately, that turned out to be difficult! Producing beautiful, creative architectural ironwork requires tremendous skill, a studio space, and a mountain of equipment. Realizing that I could more immediately earn a living as a horseshoer than as a blacksmith, I decided to shoe horses for a time, with the end goal being to transition slowly into architectural metalwork as I developed skills and collected the gear necessary to outfit a shop. I moved to Colorado, and it took several years to build a horseshoeing practice that would sustain me full-time. I made ends meet by working as a welder in a structural steel fabrication shop, then left that job to do the same work in an art-bronze foundry; I apprenticed as a blacksmith in various architectural iron shops, then finally got to the point where I could take on small architectural commissions. I also began collecting the tools necessary for such an operation — mostly antiques that I restored — and taught myself how to use them. I established my first shops in a series of spaces, ranging from an old turkey coop to a detached two-car garage in the first house I bought. Looking back, these experiences gave me a broad foundation of skill and knowledge, on which I began to build a creative practice. Designing and building forged architectural metalwork offered a creative outlet and an opportunity to produce a body of work that was a permanent record of my journey as a craftsperson.
In 2001, I had returned to graduate school part-time and was working toward my Master’s degree in Anthropology when I applied for and was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to conduct anthropological field research with Yoruba black- smiths in Nigeria. The Fulbright was a way to bridge my earlier interest in anthropology with a growing passion for blacksmithing. Once I began my fieldwork in Nigeria, it became clear that the essential processes and languages of forging truly cross national and cultural barriers. I began then to see the immensity and breadth of the craft — not just as a methodology within the material world, but also as a historical tradition and common language of technical skills that link practitioners and traverses borders and cultures. This realization solidified my dedication to the path of the craftsperson, and I committed fully to the slow, steady accumulation of skill, knowledge and experience that defines mastery of blacksmithing.
Practicing a craft that exists in so many different forms, all of which are connected by a common methodological thread, and all under threat of extinction from technological change and globalization, is a weight that I do not carry lightly. I feel driven to produce finely crafted work in an aesthetic sense, but also to preserve the skills and traditions of such a noble craft, and to be able to pass them on to the next generation of young blacksmiths.
Since 2014, I have lived and operated my studio in Santa Fe. I continue to work on architectural commissions, but have also been producing a line of housewares, furniture pieces and the occasional sculpture. I work primarily with iron and steel, using the traditional forging techniques of blacksmithing, coupled with modern machining, fabrication, and digital design.
The creative potential unleashed by this combination, combined with the physical struggles and technical hurdles that the medium presents, motivate my work daily. The basic methods I use to work directly with hot steel — heating it to temperatures that render it soft, malleable, and plastic, and shaping it using a hammer and anvil — haven’t changed substantially for thou- sands of years. Modern industrial tools like pneumatic forging hammers and hydraulic presses have augmented the more traditional processes, enabling me to leverage technology to manipulate the material more effectively, opening doors to creative exploration and expression. The operations of forging — heating, hammering, pressing, bending, and forming — are evident in the richly layered textures and remnant marks left on my work at every step, revealing the determined and focused forces exerted in the creation of each piece.
Much of the skill involved in being a black-smith is based on the tactile experience of forging — the feel and sound of the hammer striking the hot steel, estimating the temperature of the workpiece by its color and adjusting the power of my hammer blow accordingly, allowing the hue of the flames emanating from the coal forge to tell me when the flux is hot enough to forge weld the components together — these are the aspects of my job rooted in craft, in the muscle memory gained from countless repetitions of the same task. All of this stands in stark contrast to the hurried pace of the digital age. The objects I make chart the progression of my own career, even as they are situated on the wider arc of our material culture as the last vestiges of the industrial age give way to the microchip.
In architectural work, unlike the exhibition arts, there are always functional requirements to meet. These constrain the scope of the work to a degree and inform my early design decisions. Creating a list of functional necessities for a project is often where I begin the design process. I also often add abstract concepts that may be helpful or pertinent to the design. These concepts might stem from emotions, actions, historical or cultural context, or physical properties that I want to convey with the design. Once I have established this list of pragmatic concerns, I begin more aesthetic exploration.
Generating new designs using old techniques and crafting unique objects from mundane materials are artistic challenges I face daily in my practice. Knowing when to allow an imperfection to shine through and show the hand of the maker in a beautiful way — that is perhaps where the art lies. When I begin to explore a new project, I often think about technique and process and work to create simple forms that directly reflect how I manipulate and transform the material. These processes, which so dramatically change the dimension and shape of the materials I work with, allow me to reveal the beautiful qualities of my materials and to transform hard, unyielding metallic bars into captivating forms, rich with texture, depth and softness. This familiarity with process and material, and the recognition that both can sometimes lead the way aesthetically, is also perhaps the art within the craft.
Because my medium and materials are so ancient, my work inevitably shares certain qualities with historic works in iron and with forged work by other blacksmiths from around the globe. Membership in this community, through time and over distance, is one of the most powerful aspects of the craft for me. It also presents a hefty challenge to create something new. The layering of historical techniques and knowledge continues in my work today and has been a continuous thread throughout my career, but more recently, I have also wanted my work to have more context and meaning, and to tell a story. If we, as makers, can connect our work in a meaningful way to a larger story, it makes the practice more compel- ling. Often, I look at historic objects that were made by blacksmiths, but which were not necessarily meant to be decorative or architectural, or which may not be obviously related to the type of project I am designing. These objects can be utilitarian things such as tools, household objects, parts of old machines, etc. On close ex- amination, small details of how a given piece was originally made can also have beautiful — perhaps unintended — aesthetic qualities. I sometimes take these small, under-appreciated details and expand on, or transform them into focal points of my architectural pieces. Using them as inspiration ties my work to a larger historical context, aesthetic vocabulary, and the long tradition of blacksmithing that I am continuing to perpetuate.
Caleb Kullman was born in Los Angeles, California and grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He earned his BA in Anthropology at Reed College in Oregon and did cross-cultural artisanal fieldwork in Nigeria on a Fulbright fellowship. Kull- man worked as an apprentice and later a shop manager for the iron sculptor, blacksmith, and MacArthur Fellow Tom Joyce. He currently lives with his wife Rachel and their daughters Claire and Avery in Santa Fe.
This article is an excerpt from Art in the Making: Essays by Artists About What They Do, published by The Fisher Press & The John Stevens Shop, 2022. This collection has been assembled by Christopher W. Benson — painter, author, and the director of The Fisher Press — and co-published with his brother Nicholas, who currently owns and runs the John Stevens Shop.