While Philip Simmons remains synonymous with blacksmithing in Charleston, a new generation is seizing the trade locally and giving it a more contemporary twist in the 21st century.
Aided by a heritage of blacksmithing in Charleston, the emergence of the American College of Building Arts and desire for local, handmade items, blacksmithing is far from a dying craft. Local shops are staying busy, growing and always looking for new talent.
And that pool is diverse.
Now a new book, “The Art & Craft of the Blacksmith: Techniques and Inspiration for the Modern Smith,” ($24.99, Quarry Books) by Robert Thomas of Robert Thomas Iron Design in North Charleston, puts one more feather in the cap of blacksmithing in Charleston.
The book is basically a primer on blacksmithing, but its photography, taken by local photographer Sully Sullivan; simple but elegant layout; and clean editing makes it worthy of any coffee table. The book also displays some of Thomas’ work that has won numerous national and international awards.
Not bad for a refugee from the banking industry who is only 33 years old and first started banging out metal a decade ago. But why a book now?
“Ever since I got into blacksmithing, I was aware of the public’s general lack of understanding and awareness of it and the preconceived notions of what it is,” says Thomas.
“All my friends growing up stayed on that professional (office career) path and when I explained to them what I was doing, they would say, ‘People still do that?’ So I really wanted to raise awareness about the craft and what it could be,” Thomas says.
He’s not alone. Other relatively young, but established blacksmiths in the Charleston area include Frank Verga of Seventh and Division, Mike duBois of duBois Metal Works and Sean Ahern of Ahern’s Anvil.
Ahern, who at 42 is among the older, active blacksmiths, opened his shop about 14 years ago and remains busy, even with having four to five blacksmiths working for him at his shop on Brigade Street.
“We have a lot going on,” says Ahern. “People (in general) often think blacksmithing died, but it never did. It just got smaller and more artistic … With this whole popularity of Charleston and everybody moving here, more people are seeing it (metal work) and want it.”
Ahern estimates that 90 percent to 95 percent of his work on an annual basis is for local customers.
Blacksmiths at Robert Thomas Iron Design say the same, that most of their work is in Charleston and contemporary in nature.
Matthew Garton, a transplanted Englishman who first met Thomas at the National School of Blacksmithing in Hereford, England, works full-time with him now and says about 75 percent of their work is new and typically contemporary, and 25 percent is repairing or replacing traditional, historic ironwork.
With a perspective from traveling as a blacksmith in most of Europe and the United States, Garton says Charleston is not a hub of blacksmithing but rather just a place that appreciates it.
“To be honest, it’s difficult to find a place where people appreciate ironwork and Charleston appreciates it in whatever capacity they know,” says Garton. “It’s just a different sort of vibe here. There’s a lot of it about. Older stuff, newer stuff. There was a guy who did a lot back in the day (Simmons). There’s a lot of things that need fixing but there are also a lot of people looking for something new.
“We’re kind of in that transition period between people accepting new ideas and people who want to keep up what’s been done. We ride the line between the two.”
Among the contemporary work that Robert Thomas Iron Design is working on now is a large “chandelier” in the shape of live oak tree for the new reception hall being constructed at Middleton Place. Thomas and architect Reggie Gibson collaborated on the fixture.
Adding to the dimension of the project, Thomas is working with Middleton’s blacksmith, Jamal Hall, on the project.
The 26-year-old Hall has been blacksmithing for six years, starting when he was a Temple University history student with an internship at Fort Delaware State Park, which had a blacksmith.
“There was a blacksmith working there and he ultimately got me into it. I loved watching him work and it was always fascinating to see what he would do next,” recalls Hall. “I remember I kept coming to watch him work and one day he turned to me and asked me if I wanted to try it. I gave it a shot and here I am six years later at Middleton Place.
Hall is actually a blacksmith “living historian” and considers blacksmithing “the secondary half of my job.”
“The blacksmithing that I do is mainly to represent some of the work that would've been done here on the plantation historically,” says Hall, describing his work as more of the practical items, such as tools and nails, before modern manufacturing made the handmade items obsolete.
“Blacksmithing in the 21st century has taken a place in much more of an artistic role," Hall says. "Custom metal works are still sought after because I feel that people have a sentimental desire for handmade things. When people see my work, they tend to use the word ‘rustic.’ It evokes the sense of something old from a world gone by."
Hall also is seeing a resurgence in the popularity of blacksmithing.
“All the children that visit me play ‘Minecraft.’ And all those kids recognized what I was doing from that video game. Their eyes light up when they see the actual act of blacksmithing after playing a version of it on an Xbox,” says Hall, adding that adults also refer to a show on the History Channel titled “Forged in Fire.”
Diversity in blacksmithing is another trend, as more women see it as an opportunity for creative expression and employment.
Annie Arthur, the valedictorian from the American College of Building Arts in May 2017, didn’t have to wait until after graduation for a job offer.
The 23-year-old from Lookout Mountain, Ga., traces her journey to blacksmithing to taking woodshop classes in middle and high school, where she discovered a love of working with her hands. But after graduating high school, she didn’t know what to do.
“I was planning on going out into the world and becoming an artist, so naturally I got a minimum wage job at a restaurant and it was incredibly depressing. At the end of my 40-plus-hour week, I had nothing left for art … I liked cooking but I wasn’t doing what I loved and not pursuing art anymore.”
She then decided she wanted to work with metal, but knew nothing about it. Before her parents would OK her enrolling at ACBA, they made her take lessons with blacksmith Julie Clark.
“To show you how little I knew, she asked me if I were more interested in welding or forging. I asked her, “What’s the difference?”
But Arthur’s youthful instincts turned out to hit the nail on the head. She loved blacksmithing and flourished at ACBA with internships at the Memphis Metals Museum, Colonial Williamsburg and Robert Thomas Iron Design.
“It’s been five and half years since the first lesson and I never looked back.”
While blacksmiths in Charleston today are producing more contemporary work, they still give a nod to Simmons, who died in 2009 after a lifetime of celebrated work in iron.
Thomas, who never met Simmons, gives him credit for providing a catalyst.
“Back in my bartending days in Charleston, I can remember when I was teetering on what I was going to do with my life and I read an article in ‘The Post and Courier' on Philip Simmons right before he died,” says Simmons.
“He said the words, ‘I never worked a day in his life’ and he kept hammering until he couldn’t hammer anymore. That really resonated with me and reading that sealed the deal for me.”