It might have all started with a chair. A chair imagined as a wedding present. An object and a craft that was very much about family, intrinsically enclosing meaning, emotion and memory in its materiality. One of the first opportunities to immerse herself in the world of metalwork, Melissa started making the chair as a present for her sister, borrowing her father’s craft of blacksmithing, which she consequently made her own.
Following this she wouldn’t look back, and go on to develop her practice, evolve her style and perfect her technique as well as establish a long-running business as an artist blacksmith. With years of experience, and multiple awards and achievements under her belt, Melissa demonstrates how modern craft can involve pride in skill and one’s work, as well as being commercially viable. I travelled to Marlborough to visit Melissa’s workspace by her farmhouse in beautiful Wiltshire. Despite my total lack of knowledge around blacksmithing – apart from knowing it involved an anvil at some stage in the process- I was excited to learn about her work and see the making behind it. At the territory of heritage, traditional techniques and artistic explorations Melissa does not call herself a traditional blacksmith but is marking her own pathway rejecting perceptions of an out-dated craft.
Blacksmithing can be traced back thousands of years where metalwork was incorporated in tools, objects and functional items; it has been a historically rich trade and one that can be appreciated within its artistry and skill. It is not a dying craft, but may be overlooked today, as many heritage crafts appear to be. It has however, a vibrant and dynamic role in contemporary craft practice. We see ironwork in museums, in modern sculptures, in grandiose gates and even everyday tools. It could be the monotony of the material’s ubiquity that might distract us from its true craftsmanship. “While there is a romantic view of blacksmithing, the reality is quite different. You have to make a mark for yourself, work hard to maintain your style,” Melissa explains as it is not only physically demanding but also a challenge to keep a business going.
“The word craft has come back, it used to be seen as a dirty word,” Melissa says, but now artisans are celebrated again. Craftspeople can be drivers of the new attitudes and shifts in making or the ever so buzzworthy ‘maker movement’. Is this so-called craft revival centred in London? If we keep referring to rural craft practices as forgotten tradition then we may risk truly forgetting to notice how they are constantly reinforced in British making culture. They could have a role in the emerging wave of making- where it’s small, local, slow- that is both about tradition as well as innovation. “Embrace the slowness,” says Melissa. The maker movement is not about revitalising ancient crafts; it is more concerned with bringing a diverse range of making and craft in this expansive conversation that brings about connections into contemporary contexts of the cultural importance of making.
The Tactility of Metal
As I made my way to Melissa’s workshop I intended to find out more on this craft and how its traditional roots hold a place in contemporary making. Additionally, this was an opportunity to think about the role of women in local manufacturing and the UK’s creative economy. Are women really a minority in the landscape of craft’s cultural and creative economies? In the blacksmithing community, that may be the case statistically. On paper, a female blacksmith in a dirty workshop is an image susceptible to comparisons with the predisposed portrayal of a bulky, sweaty 18th century man with a large hammer by the fiery forge. When you meet Melissa and see her at work however, you are not inclined to ask her about how ‘feminine’ her work might be. As I walked through her workshop and gallery space, I get an understanding of the skill and tactile knowledge evident in her art pieces and process that any craftsperson strives to master. The objects on display narrate the evolution of her style and career. I am impressed by the detail of markings along fine edges and eye-catching textures on larger surfaces. Her sculptures are elegant and invite a closer examination of their curves twisting in different directions or smooth linearity, with an apparent fluidity marvelled in innate rigidity.
Besides the hands-on engagement, we discussed the benefit of a conceptual exchange with craft. Melissa has worked with different schools and hopes to see more opportunities for students to be exposed to craft skills. “Handicrafts were once a part of our culture” she says about the lack on hands-on learning, “it’s a shame it’s not valued anymore” but an emphasis on the cultural role of making in education may shift that. There is ambiguity over what craft means today and how it is valued. There are many ways to understand it and no easy answer to explain it. It is not just seen as a hobby it is about knowledge, skill, tactility, as well as possibilities in the creative economy therefore always changing and becoming something else in our culture of making. We are starting to see a revival in mainstream media that celebrates amateur craft with TV programmes for instance but without including a holistic view of craft that may be damaging to tradition, heritage and skill. The work and expertise behind objects is not always visible and it might leave us detached making it “very easy to run away with a romantic notion of a craftsperson or maker”.
Melissa grew up in a creative family and she names her father, a traditional blacksmith, as one of the biggest inspirations. She shared a workspace with him for years and even though their styles are very different as his specialism is in swordsmithing and weaponry, she learned a lot from him about traditional techniques, which she values in her work, “technique is really important, but what I make is not what a lot of people associate with a traditional blacksmith’s work” she says as she talks me through a variety of projects that explore a range of techniques which are beautiful in themselves. I see the countless tools –she makes most of them herself depending on what she is making- and all the different components needed that look so cryptic to me but she knows exactly which to grab anticipating the shape they will impose on metal by bending, cutting, twisting and finishing. She does not claim to be a traditional blacksmith or even follow in her father’s exact footsteps; she carries on the legacy of her creative family from within her own path which is still being shaped in exciting ways as she rediscovers the potential of contemporary applications of metalwork that merge art and craftsmanship.
There’s a playfulness in how assertive metal can be, quite theatrical in its volatility between fragile and sturdy. Delicate but strong, metal has certain magic in its transformation at the hands of the blacksmith. Heavy and cold in its raw state it becomes pliable and flexible with added heat and skill, obedient to forging, to be transformed with dexterity. Alive with potential it is hammered and manipulated until it cools and becomes a rigid manifestation of movement, process and technique. Melissa finds fine, linear, simple shapes to be more appealing than cumbersome, chunky metal.
Translating Landscape into Metal
She works to commission creating one-of-a kind, bespoke pieces as well as making sculptures and exploring new ideas between projects. Some of her recent work focuses on landscape as a way to explore land, nature and movement. By tracing the passages and routes of her surroundings she maps out her physical interaction with the landscape and brings metal to life with sculptures that manifest the patterns, shapes and imagined forms of nature’s pathways. “Whilst developing ideas, I realized that everything was inspired by either what I saw out in the landscape or where I went, as in the physical spaces” she says about starting to look deeper into a material expression of the environment and how she records the passage of space and time in line drawings. The ephemerality of the journey is solidified in metal’s curves and edges, shaping out an expansive and interpretive sculpture that contains a powerful sense of place.
Melissa suggests that blacksmithing has potential to become more visible today. It can be hard to accommodate large metalwork in contemporary urban or even rural spaces, which affects how blacksmiths work today having to scale it back in some way. This is a reflection on “the way we live our lives now.” Presented as a dirty and ancient craft, not employing new technologies overlooks its authenticity, heritage and elements that give it value.
Interview by Daphne Stylianou | Photography by Godfrey Hatton