Nothing and everything to do with my work.

Scrolling around social media this morning, tea in hand, I came across more posts and articles that blame the “uneducated” for electing Trump, labelling them as bigoted into the bargain. This saddened, infuriated, depressed and inspired me all in the same instance. It immediately spurred me to sit down and write this blog. Not something of a natural response for me, as you will find out.

When I can force myself to write, I try to keep it relevant to my work as an artist and blacksmith and this made me hesitate as it’s nothing to do with my work. But conversely, I have realised that this is everything to do with my work.

I’m one of the uneducated people who the media always seems to mention in conjunction with anything negative these days. I left school at 15 with no qualification to my name and nothing has changed since. Not only that but I was not even close to literate when I left school. I found it hard to read even simple information in shops and could not even write a whole sentence. Being dyslexic in 70s/80s Britain, along with being working class, was not a recipe for a successful school career. I believed I was thick, as was the term back then, or remedial as my teachers liked to class it. So I didn’t question my lack of opportunity when leaving school, I accepted it. Looking back now it appears to me that my school just gave up on the likes of me. Maybe I’m looking at it with a certain amount of prejudice and that could be very true. But 30 years later I still feel I was considered educational collateral damage.

With hindsight I can see that from educational point of view, and as an artist, this was one of the key moments in my education. In fact, my education only started at this point. My only options when leaving school were manual jobs with no hope of training. I worked all manner of jobs, finding out that I was easily hired and fired. Eventually I found a steady job in the building trade, for a while at least, and met a steady stream of colourful, intelligent and funny people. I always put this down to my boss, Johnny (the lip). Johnny was not the stereotypical builder by any means. I don’t think there were many openly gay builders in late 80s Britain (although I hope I’m wrong about this).

Anyway, Johnny was an old school grammar boy and tended to take people under his wing. I think that’s how I got the job, that and the fact I was incredibly good-looking, of course. Johnny was one of the first people who treated me as an equal, and when it surfaced that I couldn’t read or write to any great degree, his response astounded me. “But you’re so fucking intelligent, Mike. How can you not have learnt to read?” This stopped me in my tracks. I’d never thought of myself as intelligent, it shocked me to my core. I guess this and his tendency to ask my opinion, along with his way of explaining his ideas, began a fundamental change in the way I viewed the world.

As I said, Johnny collected colourful people around him and oddly enough a lot of them were called Bob. There was Bob the plumber, a hard drinking fella, from Galway originally. Bob was a bare knuckle fighter in his younger days. He would always send me home, with a cuff around the head, when I’d had enough to drink: “You don’t want to end up like me, you little prick!”, would be his parting comment. Then there was Bob the bricky. He was on his 5th wife and had served his apprenticeship in London’s Soho in the 1960s and was now working through his doctorate in English lit. I could literally listen to him for days. Also, there was Bob the painter. I think he was on his 6th wife at the time. “My problem is: I’m irresistible to women and I find women irresistible” was his response when I asked him why he had been married so often.

Apart from the Bobs, I was lucky to spend time with a mix of punks, anarchists, Marxists, capitalists, world war two veterans, human rights activists and down on their luck adventurers. Now, you could say I was lucky or unlucky depending on your view, but my further misadventures at the bottom of the working world suggest to me that the uneducated sector of the western world is a lot more diverse, open, and understanding than the mainstream cares to recognise. History, or in this case media columns, really are written by the victors.

I was twenty before I tackled my lack of literacy and it wasn’t for the idea of bettering myself that forced me into it. I met someone. Only problem was she lived on the other side of the country and neither of us had a phone. (Hard to imagine twenty-five years later) “Don’t worry. We’ll just write to each other” she suggested. You can imagine … the blood drained from me so quickly I’m surprised I didn’t faint. I was presented with a problem, lose this wonderful woman or admit my lack of literacy skills. Passion won out, not surprisingly. Again I found I wasn’t being judged or written off. I was met with understanding and with her help over the next year or so, I developed a love of reading and of books. I even found I could eke out a few single page letters, which Lisa would lovingly help me correct whenever we travelled to see one another. It was an odd courtship I guess but it was fun and exciting. Love, passion, books and new ideas, what wasn’t to enjoy? Although the relationship did not last, it left a lasting positive impression on me. I still have dreadful grammar and spelling, which people love to point out on social media; I just don’t give a shit. I have my wonderful proofreader Sandra, who kindly works in exchange for forged dinner bells and door handles. So I really don’t care, and why it should make a difference to anyone reading this blog?

As I moved through the lower rungs of the working world I did come across closed minds but they were the exception rather than the norm. Most people were open and accepting of others. It didn’t seem to really register with most people where you were from or what you were into. As one of my work colleagues put it when one of our number came out: “That’s your fucking problem. What has it got to do with moving this bloody pallet?”

‘Live and let live’ always seemed to be the order of business. Of course, I’m not suggesting this was the case for everyone and I’m sure lots of people have had bad experiences. I can only speak of mine and they were largely indifferent or good.

I didn’t have to deal with any major discrimination until I started developing my sculptural work. Since then it has been a hard slog. It is perfectly acceptable in the art world to only exhibit graduate work. Or to only give bursaries to artists who fit a certain criteria. One of the usual ones being: must have an art degree. We learn to deal with rejection as artists, and someone just not being enthused by my work is fine. But here are some of the other reasons which I have never appreciated.

“We don’t exhibit Ironmongers”.

“We can’t take your work seriously if you don’t have an art degree”.

“We only exhibit Irish artists”.

“We only exhibit British artists”.

“We only exhibit commercial artists”.

“We only exhibit non-commercial artists”.

“Your work is not visually interesting”.

“Your work is too well-crafted”.

“Your work is not well-crafted enough”.

The list goes on and on and even bores me, so I’ll stop there. I didn’t really understand what discrimination was until I tried to make it in the art world. What’s more it’s fully accepted. Not seen as a problem anywhere. Most of the people I meet are very well educated in that they went to college or university. But very few seem to be bothered by this discrimination. Blatant, unabashed discrimination. It’s not even remotely hidden. Yet the educated masses don’t appear to be able or willing to identify it.

So, it comes as less of a surprise and more of a sad fact when I see what appears to be the entire intelligentsia label the “uneducated” as bigoted and uninformed. The reverse feels more of a fit for me. Bigotry exists in all sections of society. No-one has the monopoly on it. But neither do any of us have a monopoly on understanding, and from what I’ve read since the Brexit vote it’s in short supply in all areas of the media.

Education is a great thing and I would always encourage others to seek it out. But there are many paths to education and knowledge. It is multi-strand and diverse, and we need it to be. The sure way to stunt growth is through a lack of diversity; and any barrier to debate, sharing of knowledge and understanding will stunt us all.

What I’m feeling now is everything to do with my work.

It will channel through my work.

It is my work.

The work of an uneducated blacksmith.

Posted in Art, Education, Sculpture, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

My approaches to work

Last year I was asked by a client how I approach my work, and unusually for me, I didn’t have an answer. So, I’ve been examining just how I do approach it and these are the answers I’ve discovered for myself.

Firstly, I tend to divide my work up into different categories with different slants for each. Pure functional (Tools and such items), Commissioned functional, Commissioned Sculpture and Personal Sculpture.

Pure Functional:
With tools and other pure functional work, form must follow function. There is no point making a tool that does not perform. While to some this might seem to be a limitation on creativity, I have found it very liberating. Having set rules to work within can help to focus you mind, which frees you up in so many ways. This has become so true to me that I often use tool making as a way loosen up or clear my mind in-between other projects.
Rounding Hammer
As you can see with this 3lb rounding hammer I made, there is still plenty of scope to create sculptural forms. In fact I often feel that tools are the purest form of sculpture. Just look at the stone axes of early human endeavour. Those tools were, in my eyes, our first ventures into the sculptural world.

Commissioned Functional:
Here there are several things at play, all vying for attention. You have, as with the tools, a function that must be respected. Your client, who is paying you, wants the piece to work for them in a set way. If it’s a gate, for instance, it must span the gap, it must open. These are a given. Then, you are responding to the environment which also leads you to your client. They have put this space together so it is a good indicator as to their own vision. I want this type of work to work for my clients. Mostly, I find people approach me because of my portfolio so they are already open to my style of work, I don’t tend to get many conflicts here. Then I have my own reaction to the space. Usually when I see a space, I want to fill it. (Don’t know what that says about me. No puns intended). The combination of all these things helps to form my approach, not necessarily meaning the creation of something that will blend in with its surroundings. If I feel the space needs something that will create contrast, that is what I will design and I have occasionally turned work away as I felt the customer was asking for something that would not work in the space.
Above all I want to produce work I’m happy with, otherwise I might as well work for someone else and not have the headaches that go hand-in-hand with having you own art practice. I love this type of work because you are developing a relationship between yourself, the client and the space. It can lead you into unexpected areas and push you in ways other types of work don’t. Also it is a great moment when your client sees the work for the first time and you have exceeded their expectations.

Commissioned Sculpture:
Mostly this for me has meant public pieces of sculpture. Here you are responding to a particular brief and, surprisingly, it can be where you find yourself being asked to compromise your work the most. I try to find an area of the brief that interests me and focus on that; if the brief is really uninteresting there is very little point in getting involved in the project. I get a lot of my inspiration from a deep-set belief in my work and if I don’t believe in the project I won’t produce the work to do it justice. Obviously as with commissioned functional work, I am also responding to the environment in which the piece will be set. I want above all to create a conversation between the brief, the environment and the work, getting a good feel for the space is crucial. The biggest difference in my approach to this type of work is I have to fully design it on paper. This is something to which I’m a little resistant. My medium is hot forged steel, mostly, and drawing my work out has always felt like I am working to another medium. Now I know it has huge advantages, and working in this way has pushed me and my work which is a very good thing. But I still have to be dragged to the drawing table every time.

Personal Sculpture:
What I define as personal sculpture is work that I’m only creating to satisfy my own feelings and needs without a view to the reaction it will provoke in others. My first approach here is where I have a fully conceptualised idea in my head. I don’t sketch it and I don’t change it. It tends to just flow out of me in a frenzy of compulsive forging. Sometimes I will see something in the making of the piece and will have to decide whether to adapt the piece or store the idea for future work but on the whole I’m trying to bring my vision of the piece into fruition in its entirety as I conceptualised it as with this sculpture: A war crime by any other name.
A war crime by any other name

I also have this method where I have a concept which in itself is fully formed in such a way that I have a framework and maybe a series of way points and a loose idea of how to hit those points. This sculpture, The gift that keeps on oppressing, illustrates my point.
Gift 5

Gift 8

Gift 2

I knew I wanted a cube frame for it and a void at its centre that was under stress. But I didn’t know exactly what that would look like. So I created the frame and made the first inset spike, then each subsequent inset responded to the pieces before. This also helped me overcome one of the other problems I foresaw, which was how to create a randomness to the spikes at the same time as framing the void. Sometimes with this type of approach it can feel like the sculpture is working you rather than the other way around. This can feel a little unnerving, even terrifying, and can be almost all consuming at times. At the end of making this piece I felt exhausted and drained, so much so my wife called it “the black hole” for the two months I worked on it.
The thing that stays constant throughout these differing approaches is the pure joy it is to light a fire and manipulate hot steel. You can’t beat it! (Pun intended)

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

New short film shot in my forge.

This is a short film entitled The Blacksmith. Shot in my forge by film maker Pete Killane. http://youtu.be/_iqwErA5Te0

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Blacksmith

Here is a new short film made in my forge by film maker Pete Killane.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Erosion of forged mild steel. A theory.

Never being one to accept things I’m told on face value, I’ve often thought about what in the blacksmith’s world is accepted wisdom on erosion of mild steel. For those of you who aren’t into metallurgy here is a short explanation.

You might have noticed old ironwork form anywhere between 100 to 500 years in your area which is rusted but not eroded. The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, it is most likely wrought iron which, while being made of the same ore as the mild steel we mostly use today, goes through an initially different smelting process. This in short means it has a totally different molecular structure to mild steel. The structure of mild steel is crystalline, while wrought iron is fibrous. Adding to this, wrought iron will have inclusions or impurities caused by the smelting process. This fibrous structure, according to conventional wisdom on this subject, lends itself to a greater degree of burnishing through the forging process which gives it a surface that will be more resistant to moisture-penetration. The burnished surface is what we smiths call millscale, it has a dark gray or black colour which is where blacksmiths get their name. Millscale is densely packed iron and carbon along with other trace elements.
Conventional thought on this is that when a rust bloom forms on wrought iron that has been forged correctly to form millscale, it makes it almost impervious to water penetration and, therefore, more resilient to further oxidisation. Oxidisation of iron is what causes erosion. Conventional thought also says that the same is not true for mild steel that has been forged due to its crystalline structure. Because it does not burnish down in the same way as wrought iron, it will not give the same levels of water penetration prevention.
I have thought about this a great deal. Both materials looked the same once forged. To me they both seem to burnish to the same degree. But looks can be deceiving and, as I don’t have a handy electron microscope to check out the molecular differences to surface density, I went looking for studies into the defences in erosion rates of forged mild steel and forged wrought iron. Surprisingly, I could not find any such research. Now, I’ve only got Google at my disposal so that does not mean that such a research does not exist but as I couldn’t find one I decided to create my own limited experiment. I forged a simple BBQ out of mild steel, using only traditional joinery and took care to forge all of the material used, creating an even millscale throughout the BBQ. The BBQ has been left out in the elements ever since, seven years now and used often. It has moved to three different houses with us, not to mention trips to the beach and around the northwest Mayo. 001002004
As you can see, it has formed a rust bloom but there is zero erosion. Seven years is not a conclusive time period and this is not a controlled experiment but it does lead me to question conventional wisdom on this matter. I’ve see fabricated mild steel structures show signs of erosion in that timeframe, so why not this structure? Could conventional thought on this subject be misleading? As yet I feel it is too early and too limited a study to give a conclusive answer. However, it does call into question what we believe to be the truth about the material we use as blacksmiths and the way we treat and finish it. It is my theory that mild steel, when correctly forged using traditional joinery and not welded with modern welders, performs very well compared with wrought iron. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject and if you can point me in the direction of any studies or others experiments in this same field, I’d be glad.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

When the world gives you lemons…

I used to bemoan my lot when I didn’t have a big project to get my teeth into. I felt it was a barrier to my creative development and also to the development of my skill level. How was I to advance if my projects weren’t getting bigger all the time? Then I realised every project was a chance to move on, both creatively and technically. This was not some epiphany but rather a gradual understanding that every project that passes through my forge is an opportunity, regardless of its size or nature, to advance my skill base by perfecting the techniques I already know and developing new ones. It’s also an opportunity to develop new sculptural forms.

193

A case in point was several small business card holders I was making this week. It’s a very small job but very small jobs are sometimes what keep the wolf from the door. I approach each job, be it tools, architectural iron work, functional iron work or sculpture, as a piece of sculpture. This job was no different and I applied my own set of sculptural ideals to it.

194

Firstly, as with all my work, it must be fully-forged. I’m just not interested in fabrication, this is why I became a blacksmith. This, on the face of it, can seem to a lot of people as though I’m limiting myself. I don’t see it that way, for me working in this way leads to a greater level of creativity. I see it with my students all the time: by teaching them a few forging techniques, then challenging them to design anything using only those techniques, their creativity is boosted, not diminished. After all, necessity is the mother of all invention, so I hear.

197

Secondly, for me the cardinal crime in art/craft is creating a piece that blends into the background. I don’t want my work to be something you can just walk by without noticing. For me, it should be tactile, inviting people to touch and handle it, commanding attention. All too often I feel artists and craftspeople are trying to be stylish, to create a “classic” design. I don’t believe you can create a classic design by following styles or tends. I try to please or amuse myself and hopefully what I create will speak to other people. I hear people talking about adhering to the brief, I say “Feck any brief!”, if you have a good idea it will appeal to people. 90% of my customers are coming to me because they like my work and the way I make it. Usually their brief is as simple as “it has to fit into this space” or “it has to do this job”. In fact very few of my customers even ask to see a sketch of what I intend to do, they trust me and my response to their particular need.

So, this very small piece of functional sculpture – a business card holder – has to hold cards and those cards need to be easy to access. Other than my own preference for using forging techniques, I’m free to do whatever I like. I wanted the holder to work in conjunction with the cards, not against them. The point of this piece as I saw it was to bring attention to the cards, not overpower them. So I kept the form small, using simple techniques: hot cutting, pointing, necking, drawing out and bending a bar of steel 50mm wide, 6mm thick and 160mm long. These are all skills I’ve used before but as I’ve said, this presents another chance to improve them. To move forward in my chosen medium. To understand that medium a little better.

To make lemonade from my lemons.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Is everything art?

Is everything art? It’s a question I have heard posed a lot over the past 18 months. But is this the right question? Haven’t we asked this before? I believe the more poignant question is: why don’t we cherish each other’s individual perception of what art is? Or even our own ideas of what art or craft is. I often feel we have empowered others to dictate to us what art, craft and good taste is. This has become so acute that the art and craft world has become predictable and homogenised, at least in my view.
This is the point, it’s my view and it’s no more or less valid than anyone else’s view. Personally, whenever I see an exhibition billed as “interesting and thought-provoking”, it’s a sure fire sign to me that it will be neither of these things. This idea that an elite has a better idea of what art is has led to (again, in my opinion) a disconnect for most people with art. This is best illustrated by the annual drop-off in visitor numbers from our publicly-funded galleries. This is a direct result of giving this small elite permission to only project their idea of what art is.
In the craft world this has manifested itself in the rise of fashion being confused with craft. Fashion is its own thing, it has its own support networks and very good publicity opportunities that by far outstrip most craft opportunities to promote what they do. I’m not saying there is no craftsmanship or artistry within fashion; I’m saying, in my opinion, that in itself it is not the same thing as craft or art. More and more I’ve noticed fashion being lorded in craft and art galleries. This gives most visitors a confused message and tends to leave the galleries looking a bit like a jumble sale. As a result we see dropping sales in these places for craft and art. Not because people don’t want to buy art or craft, or fashion for that matter, but because they don’t see the connection or relevance that fashion has to the other work on display. I have seen the support networks set up for the craft industry slowly be redirected to boost fashion at the cost of craftspeople. There are less and less opportunities for us to exhibit our work as more space is given over to fashion. Less and less funding, as more is given to fashion, and fewer opportunities for support from the bodies set up to support art and craft as they turn their focus more and more to fashion.
I think all this stems from the fact that we have given too much power to people who don’t know any more than the rest of us, and quite a lot less than most practising artists and craftspeople, about art and craft. It is high time we started wrestling this power back and realising we are the experts.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments