I’ve just landed home from one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The story starts in Nuremberg at the Hammer-in 2017 festival where I met Alexander Sushnikov (Sasha), a fantastic blacksmith and sculptor from St Petersburg. We had both been creating sculptures at the festival and quickly became friends through our shared love of forge work, sculpture, and beer. At the end of the event, Sasha asked if I would be interested in attending festivals in Russia. Who could pass up an opportunity to visit one of the great cultures of the world? I may be crazy, but I’m not mad.
Fast forward almost a year and I received a message from Sasha. Would I be interested in a sculpture festival in Tomsk, Siberia? It took me all of about five seconds to think it over. After accepting the invitation, I looked Tomsk up. I wasn’t really prepared for how vast Russia is. Just zooming out on the map to find Moscow took ages and this added more excitement to the prospect of visiting. I had always been a fan of Soviet art, especially the amazing graphic art that sprung from the country. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, the idea of travelling across Russia seamed a far-fetched dream and in many ways still did. Although Sasha passed my details on to the organisers, I didn’t think any more would come of it.
A few days later I received a message Valentina Ataeva from the cultural office of Tomsk administration. Valentina was to arrange my attendance and supplied me with all the relevant information on what I had gotten myself into. This year marked the eleventh Axe Day festival. It started out as a woodcarving event but has now expanded greatly to include ceramics, stone, metal, and performing arts. The blacksmith event had a few restrictions: the sculpture was to be over 1.6m and on the theme of fairy tales and there was a limited number of tools – I later found out that these would be an anvil and a bottom blast forge. Valentina made all the arrangements with such efficiency and helpfulness that in no time at all I found I was booked and only had to arrange my visa.
The visa was relatively straightforward and once that was confirmed, Anna Beletskaya contacted me. Anna was the blacksmith organising the forging area. I gave her a wish list of tools and materials. Now I was all set for Siberia. One more thing had to be decided. Did I want to be billed as a British or Irish artist? I’ve come across this before. In fact, in parts of Canada I’m known as “The Fake Irishman” – a story for another time. For the first time in eighteen years of living in Ireland I decided to go with Irish. In truth I don’t identify as a British artist, having never practised in the UK as an artist, instead spending all my time as a professional blacksmith here in Co. Sligo.
The reaction of family and friends was all the same: “Your fist visit to Russia and you’re going to Siberia?” Everyone except for Diana, my mother-in-law, who didn’t want me to go at all: “I don’t know how you can let him go”, she told my wife, Tiff. She was worried they wouldn’t let me come home. To be honest, she often has this reaction to my blacksmith adventures.
What would you expect Russia to be like? As the plans for my visit were finalised around the start of the World Cup a whole bundle of programmes hit the small screen promising to give me “The Real Russia”. I’ve seen a few of these programmes about Ireland, so I knew they had to be watched with a sceptical eye. I never actually sat through a whole episode of any of the array of documentary travel programmes. They only seemed to be interested in reinforcing stereotypes. So I did what I always do when travelling – go with an open heart and open mind.
My first experience of Russia was Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow. You can never get a good impression of a country from an airport. They really are small worlds off on their own orbit. I have found that the larger the airport, the more madness ensues and the less friendly people are. The exception to this is Sheremetyevo airport, which is huge but efficient and friendly. Security there was by far the warmest of any country I have ever been to. So it was an uneventful but pleasant few hours waiting for my connecting flight to Tomsk. As pleasant as waiting around in an airport can be, that is.
Waiting for me at Tomsk airport was Anna Beletskaya and Yevgeniy Biletsky. Unbeknownst to me my soon to be roommate, Mindaugas Jankauskas who is a wonderful smith from Lithuania, was on the flight. This was fortunate because neither Anna nor Yevgeniy have much English and I speak no Russian, something that would come back to bite me a little in the coming days. Mindaugas worked as interpreter during the ride to the hotel. He turned out to be a warm person with a good sense of humour and had us all laughing by the time we reached the hotel. This was where I got the first sense of how big this event was. We arrived at the hotel just behind a coach load of other sculptors, which I would later find out only represented less than a third of the artists participating in the event. There was a throng of sculptors, organisers, and camera crews. At this stage I had been travelling for twenty-four hours, so I was a little dazed and taken back by the amount of different nationalities of the event. Over one hundred separate nationalities were present and everyone was good humoured, some greeting one another as old friends. I find the same thing at all art events, often it’s the only chance you get to spend time with artist friends. It was then that I was pulled out of my daze by someone calling my name. Valentina from the Tomsk cultural department had actually come to meet me at the airport as well, but thought I’d gotten lost in transit. Valentina and Anna pulled Mindaugas and I through the collection of international sculptors and managed to get us checked in in no time. It is always a little odd travelling from Ireland to an event in another country. Here in Ireland crafts people and especially blacksmiths are always only blacksmiths, apart from rare events like Tubbercurry Old Fair Day. We always seem to be pushed to the back of the queue. So to be pulled to the front was an odd experience for me.
Valentina apologised that she would not be in Tomsk for the festival as she had to go off on an official trip to Tokyo the next day. She offered to show me a little of the city, help me exchange my Euros for Rubles and informed me that her boss, Dennis Pavlov, spoke very good English and would contact me to make sure I had everything I needed. So, I spent a very pleasant morning getting orientated around that part of Tomsk in her company. It struck me that this level of dedication, friendliness, and helpfulness was somewhat unusual, but over the next week or so I’d discover that this is the norm for the festival’s organisers and volunteers. The rest of the day was taken up with sightseeing with Mindauges, followed by a guided tour of the city. I was amazed that I stayed awake for it all but, then again, Tomsk is such an amazing place with an incredible culture. I was a very tired but happy blacksmith when I fell into bed that night.
Day one of the event was a day of surprises for me. The first surprise was the immensity of the festival. It was set in the middle of a national park outside Tomsk city in the middle of beautiful silver birch woodland. There were several different woodworking areas, from large log-carving to construction sculpture and fine-carving. And then there was the stone-carving, ceramics, bark-working, and performing arts as well. Surprise number two was that I had two interpreters. Yes, two! And before anyone else says it, yes it was because I talk so much and they needed to take shifts! Maksat Mamezhanov and Inna Taykinainna are both students at one of the four universities in Tomsk and were both very helpful, patient, and kind. The third surprise came when the organisers asked me to sit close to the stage during the opening ceremony. In all the preparations and excitement of going to Russia for the first time, I’d forgotten about it being my birthday. But the organisers hadn’t and I was asked up on stage to be presented with a cake and gifts by the deputy governor of the Tomsk region. This led to surprise number four when the governor announced that I was the first artist from Ireland or the U.K. to participate in the festival. I felt so welcomed and it struck me that Russia is in reality very different to the media reporting I’d seen presently with the World Cup and, more generally, throughout my lifetime. These warm and welcoming people wanted their visitors to feel comfortable within their culture. Surprise number five also came during the opening ceremony when they announced it was a competition. I don’t know how this information passed me by – I do know that I can be off in my own world at times. I’d never entered a live forging competition before but, hey, it would be fun and I knew what I’d be forging and was confident that I could finish the sculpture, which was all I was worried about.
With the opening ceremony over I visited the forging area and met the other blacksmiths. This is where surprise six occurred in the form of a huge banner with my name translated into Russian (Майкл Бадд), along with that of the Republic of Ireland. All of the participating blacksmiths had similar banners at their forging stations. I can’t tell you how excited I was to see my name in Russian like that for the first time. Surprise number seven was that at the next forging station was Timothy Silich. Timothy is a sublime artist and a legend in the blacksmith world. So, no pressure there then.
The final three surprises where rather big ones. The eighth was that Anna and Yevgeniy could not get any of the dimensions of steel I had asked for. But these things happen at events. It would mean completely redesigning my sculpture in many ways but I felt sorry for Anna and Yevgeniy who had been pulling all the threads together for this event. The ninth surprise was another big one. None of the hand tools I had asked for could be found. This meant I had to make do with the small tool kit I had brought with me, which consisted of two 1.5kg hammers, 3 pairs of tongs, a combination square, 1 punch, 1 drift, and three chisels.
The final surprise was that apart from Mindauges and I, all of the other competitors had prepared large parts of their sculptures in their own forges and shipped the work to Siberia. And the work was very impressive indeed.
So now I was in a competition I had known nothing about until that morning. I had to forge a sculpture over 1.6m in height in five days, competing against sculptures that had up to four weeks prep-work in their sculpture. I had none of the steel I had asked for and only the very basics in forge tools. Not much pressure there then!
There was only one thing to do. We headed to the pub.
The next day was a beautiful sunny day and I was only very slightly hungover. By 9am we were onsite and I was introduced to Alexander (Sasha) Romashenko who would be assisting me in my project. Sasha is a very talented young smith from Crimea who also took it upon himself to try and teach me Russian at the same time as forging. The first order of business was to make some tools to compensate for our lack of tooling. Stock was limited but we made a set of sprung fullering bars from some 20mm round bar, a drifting plate from a section 150mm channel, a small fullering tool, and a fire rake, in addition to some anvil stakes to secure the anvil to the block and a hook for my jacket. This took half of the day as we had to hand-forge everything. There were no power hammers onsite, which I knew would be the case before arrival. The one other sticking point was that there were no leg vices either, but in reality this posed very little difficulty for us because I managed to adapt my design around the issues. The rest of the day was spent forging the main structural section of the sculpture, which was to be made from a 2m long section of 20mm square solid bar. We upset the end to around 35mm square, then forged a tenon from it. Next, we fullered in at 1m to 12mm x 20mm and then forged out the remaining 80cm to 12mm x 20mm. This was hard work, as the height of the anvil, Sasha’s height, the lack of any set tools, and the shape of our work area meant that using a sledge was out of the equation unless we wanted to spend the next day taking out the makes from the edge of the sledge. So, it was just the two of us using 1.5kg hammers to draw the material out.
It was dark before we finished and, unsurprisingly, I fell soundly asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow that night.
Day 2 on the sculpture and I knew that if I wanted to finish it in good time I’d have to get the next section finished today. However, I was bright-eyed after a great night’s sleep and zero beer had been had the night before, so no hangover. The next section consisted of two 2m lengths of 20mm round solid bar that the amazing Yevgeniy Biletsky managed to find for me. We moved faster on this than I imagined. Sasha and I had found a rhythm and understanding that made the work easy going. In fact, by the end of the day we had also forged out the next two sections made from 2m lengths of 12mm square solid bar. I was confident that I’d easily finish the next day.
Day 3 of the build and all I had to do was scroll out six hoops on the ends of the bars, then punch and drift nine holes. I reckoned I could be finished before lunch. But I had not counted on the media scuppering my plans. Firstly, that morning there were two interviews onsite at my forging station. Good fun with my interpreters and a film crew making a film for the event. This is always part of festivals and to be honest I kinda enjoy it. It’s outside my usual day as a blacksmith and you can have fun with it. But by lunch I had only forged two hoops. Then my interpreter, Maksat, informed me that we had to drive into Tomsk city to do a spot for a TV station in their studio. I’d never been inside a TV studio, so I was excited to do it. The first question the presenter asked me was “Is this your first time in Siberia?”, I replied, “My first time in Russia”. “Your first time in Russia and you come to Siberia?”, was her response! Then she asked me if I was scared to visit Siberia? “No. Should I have been?” A lot of people had asked me this question. Apparently Russian people are afraid of being attacked by bears in Siberia. I had no fear of that, I live in the wilds of Northwest Ireland. Besides that, I grew up in Portsmouth where going out for a few beers was sometimes like wrestling with a bear. It was interesting being interviewed on TV through an interpreter and I hope my answers translated well. The downside to this was that it took up most of our afternoon.
Day 4 and I was coping quite well with being a TV star in Siberia. It hadn’t affected me at all. Sure, I threw a few things around when they would not get me my own personal masseuse, but other than that I was just the average blacksmith superstar. I told myself “Today, I finish”. I didn’t. We got all the holes punched, everything forged out, but I hadn’t counted on just how many people would be at this event on the Saturday. Well over 100,000 attended that day alone and most of our time was taken up talking to people and having photos taken with them. All great fun, but it didn’t get the work done. That said, we did have traditional Russian singers and dancers right in front of our forging station and it was a pleasure seeing all the student volunteers joining in to sing and dance. There was a gentle joy about how these young students enjoyed their culture and it was altogether beautiful.
Day 5. This was the day I had to finish, especially if I wanted to take part in the competition. Luckily everything went smoothly and, surprisingly, the sculpture went together on the first fit. Anyone who constructs using traditional joinery will tell you that this is a very rare thing. Just two wraps using a 6mm round bar and, with the help of Maksat and Mindauges, we had this done in an orderly fashion.
The Competition. I knew I didn’t stand a chance of winning the prize. It’s very hard to compete with four days live work in a wood, against three weeks worth of work prepared in a fully-equipped forge. But I was happy with what I achieved. Timothy Silich won the prize for best forged sculpture with a sublime piece of forge work that deserved the award. Surprisingly, I was given an award from the Union of Russian Blacksmiths in recognition of my craftsmanship. I felt very honoured and will cherish it.
Award ceremonies over with, it was party time. The organisers had arranged a BBQ with a live band and it was amazing to see the release in so many artists, organisers, volunteers, and administrators. Much dancing, singing, and drinking ensued and the party continued back at the hotel until dawn. Russians really know how to party.
On the Monday, the majority of the artists flew out but my departure wasn’t until Tuesday. The hotel was somewhat sad without the hustle and bustle of my fellow sculptors, but luckily Dennis and Maksat were on had to take me to lunch and then show me around their city. It was a real pleasure to see their city through their eyes on the last day of my trip. I felt that Dennis and Maksat had become real friends, not just helpful and kind – which they are – but friends I’ll carry with me into the future.
Dennis was to begin his annual holiday the next day, but there he was at 6am to take myself and Marco Vargas, a Chilean sculptor, to the airport. Tomsk was to have one more surprise for me, a delayed flight which meant both Marco and myself would miss our connections. But Dennis was on hand to smooth everything out for us. He spent the first day of his holiday on the phone arranging new flights and hotel rooms in Moscow and insisted on staying with us until our flight eventually left at 4pm. The airport and airline also made the whole thing stress-free and I was so impressed with how it was all dealt with.
So here I am back home in Sligo after an incredible Siberian blacksmith adventure. It’s very hard to impress just how much I enjoyed this event. I made so many new friends from so many new countries, learnt new ways to deal with my chosen medium, and was challenged in my field and loved it. I discovered that Russia is an open, friendly, welcoming country full of beautiful people. Would I go back to this event? In a heartbeat.