1995 Penland Iron Symposium

By:Enrique Vega

Driving along the winding rural roads of the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina forces me to leave my normal mental state, filled with the mundane preoccupations of my daily life, behind. There is something about the trees and underbrush in this thickly wooded landscape so typical of Western Carolina, something in the splendid views of the Blue Ridge Mountains peeking through the foreground of trees and rocks, and something in the awareness of wildlife all around, that slows my mind. I feel I am entering a different reality, one which coexists with, but is independent from, the contemporary life to which I belong. It is a pleasant relief of tension.

I believe that everyone coming to Penland experiences this passage as a prelude to their stay at Penland School of Crafts. It is a great place to get away from your daily routine. It is a place that works magic for artists desiring to re-collect and expand their ideals. I believe this atmosphere is one of the key elements which makes Penland such a successful crafts school.

As I drive up the road to register at the Craft House, I notice that there aren't many people or vehicles at the house. I then realize that this event will not be as well attended as the first iron symposium held here in 1989. My first question arises. Does this mean that we have already seen the peak of the iron movement, or are the artist/metalsmiths working in iron so busy that they just don't have the time to attend this symposium? Regardless of the answer, I pay my hefty symposium fees and look forward to some interactions with my colleagues.


After settling into my room, I headed toward the smithy which is a couple of hundred feet from the Pines house. There were a couple of smiths working on a very large gas forge. This is a new forge for the smithy and is based on a European forced air design. One of the people working on the forge was David Mudge. You know David. He is the one who passed his hammer around to get it energized at the first iron symposium. The hammer was so energized that he named his business "Magic Hammer Forge." Well, David returned with his hammer so that he could get it re-energized. I believe that this is why most of us came back. We wanted to be re-energized. We wanted to get answers to questions which we have been unable to answer ourselves. We wanted to see what our peers were doing as well as to show our own work. We wanted some type of confirmation and acceptance of our ideals.

Did we get it? I am not sure. There was no revelation. No lightning which tore into our spirits to etch a new way of thinking or feeling. What did happen was more like the pruning of a rose bush. We have cut the roses and enjoyed the beauty and scent. But after pruning the rose bush, only the stalk remains. It is not as beautiful as it was. We have prepared the earth and planted another seed. We have watered it and wait until next season where again the beauty of the rose will prevail.

The panelists showed slides of their work and gave us a brief history of their careers. Richard Wattenmaker, director of the Archives of American Art for the Smithsonian Institute went over the history of ironwork and also showed slides from a variety of styles and periods. Bill Brown Jr. gave us a look at the history of Penland and the development of the blacksmithing studio. And Paul Lundquist and I went cybersurfing on the web with sixteen other interested metalsmiths.


One of the things that amazed me was the desire for the artists to communicate in smaller groups. Everywhere I went there were groups of blacksmiths expanding on the topics which were brought up during the three days of group and panel discussions. It was as if they knew that they needed to talk now because, when the symposium was over, they would be returning to, in many cases, artistic isolation.

If you are interested in experiencing some of the discussions we had, go to the symposium panel discussions documented here at ArtMetal.

The gallery opening was successful in that it had quite a variety of metalwork. Albert Paley's $2,000 candlesticks were alongside Christina Shmigel's water towers. Peter Parkinson's contemporary clocks made from channel iron were delightful in their simplicity of form and function. Many other artists had great pieces. The best way to view the individual works is with this simple slide show of most of the work in this exhibition. Since I documented the show on video, the images are not of high resolution.



This symposium made me realize that we are very fortunate here in cyberspace. We have the luxury of being able to connect with other metalsmiths at the end of the day. We don't have to wait till the next conference or symposium. We have started a community in which we can discuss important issues and learn about other techniques we are not familiar with. In fact, I really feel that the energy and excitement which I was looking for at the Penland symposium is here in cyberspace every day of the year!