It took about three years of being an artist blacksmith before I realized I was an artist. It happened with a piece called Harmony's Gate.
Until that time, I would make stuff that looked cool, that people liked, but I did not really feel like I was saying anything with my work, or that my work meant anything beyond being sweet. I make functional pieces primarily so it was easy to hide behind that. Artists just draw silly pictures and smoke pot and act depressed and talk down to others who haven’t read the same Murakami books as them. I was solving problems for people, gosh darn it! My clients needed something to rest their TV on and I was their guy to make the table. I sort of felt like a tradesman. Like it was a short jump from roofing a house to making metalwork. Is a roofer an artist? An electrician? Are you an artist? Now I think so, at the time I didn’t. But I’ll get to that later.
I had been doing a lot of small orders - fire pokers, jewelry displays, fucking bottle openers - and I wanted to work on a gallery piece (that’s what artists do right? I dunno). So I started designing a music stand. They’ve been something I've loved making since I began as a blacksmith. They are functional and use a similar design to gates— the bread and butter of real blacksmiths — while being a fraction of the size and cost to make. You can essentially make a "gate" and show off your skills but not have to spend a thousand dollars on materials to do it — a good thing when your supply of thousand-dollar bills is limited.
I made about three music stands before this one and had the mechanics down. It was just the design that needed doing. So I started looking at traditional metal gates to get inspired. Traditional metalwork is usually a combination of strait lines and these things called curlicues (I apologize to all of the real blacksmiths out there reading this for grossly over simplifying our very complex and beautiful field). I was on the Google that day looking at all these missionary-style gates (don't get me wrong they were symmetrical and beautiful, but they didn't do it for me, and they weren't the gates ol’ Nicky boy wanted to make). I looked at this symmetry and in my head I saw ivy and vines and I wanted to make something alive. I just wanted to make something cool.
This music stand popped out almost immediately. Usually I suck at designing. It can take me weeks to come up with a stick figure drawing for a client. It’s definitely the weakest part of my otherwise-immaculate game. But this fellah came out almost exactly as it ended up being realized. I spent the 60 hours fabricating it (pounding hot metal, oh yeah!), and then that was that. To me, it looked cool. I applied to put it an art show and then went back to making bottle openers every day.
A little bit later my brother was helping me market myself better and wanted me to start naming my pieces things other than: Rose Music Stand, Ivy Music Stand, Sailboat Music Stand, etc. (sounds pretty descriptive if you ask me). Well, its hard to argue your business strategy when you are broke, so I went along with it. I started thinking about this piece. What did it mean to me? What was I trying to communicate? I dunno, it just fucking looks cool, all right. Leave me alone. Well, okay, it’s kind of this mix of traditional and organic. It’s paying homage to these classic designs, but incorporating natural forms. Its like man and nature but mixed together rather than separate but equal. You see, there’s this scroll but then it turns into a leaf… and then something happened, like the years of Cheez-it preservative residue in my brain finally unclogged, and I had an epiphany.
Metal is a manmade material, and until the Computer Age or whatever we are in now, we were literally in the steel age. Steel defined human society. We built our buildings, our machines, our guns, our railroads and all that shit out of metal. We dominated the natural world with this material and it represented that domination. You can see this contrast by looking at a manmade gate with is symmetry and it's rigidity and supposed perfection then look at a wall of ivy or a tree and see the opposite. It's all curves and dissymmetry and irregular shapes and chaos. Ew, vomit.
This contrast of man and nature has played out throughout history. As man's technology has grown, so has his relationship to nature. Back in the day, nature was something to be feared. Don't go into the woods because there's wolves and robbers and shit. As our technology grew and trade expanded, nature was something to fear but also to battle. Think Moby Dick — I'm gonna get you, you fucking whale, but you might get me too, oh no! With industrialization and all that stuff, we finally beat nature into submission. With megafarms and genetic engineering and Kool-Aid we put nature in it's place.
And then all of a sudden we realized that we need to save nature. We may be able to manipulate the Earth, but the things we've done to control this bitch have had unintended consequences. So now, nature is not a beast, it’s not the enemy, it’s this delicate little baby that we need to save from ourselves. We need preserves and ‘wild places’ and all that stuff because Man is destructive. The problem with all of these viewpoints is they’re actually all fundamentally the same. They are based primarily on a western conception of man as separate — and apart from — nature.
There's a dude we had to read in school named Lynn White Jr. His schpiel was basically that throughout history, advances in technology have led to advances in our destruction of nature. Think, more efficient farming means more crops per acre instead of less stress per acre. As such, more technology was not going save us. What we needed was a shift in our relationship to this conception of nature. Looking at nature as something all around us — your backyard, your city, your home — something you were actively a part of, rather than a zoo or a national park or something "out there" that needs your protection — this all represented a shift in ideology that he believed was a step towards sustainability.
So what does all this have to do with a music stand? I didn’t look at the music stand that day and all of a sudden realize that man is fucking over the natural world. I went to college twice to learn that one. What I realized was that my viewpoint and my beliefs were represented in that piece without me having to, I dunno, flick some magical switch to be artist. Even using my crude decision-making process of "looks cool" or "looks shitty," I was representing myself and my beliefs in my work whether I wanted to or not. Every decision I made, from what styles I gravitated to, what I drew, how I built, everything, was a representation of who I was and what I believed. I’m not saying you should look at this piece and think anything other than "looks cool" or "looks shitty." All I am saying is that I realized that there was a piece of myself in this stand, and actually in all of my work, and that was pretty cool.
There is a great Tom Waits quote where he says how you do anything is how you do everything. Fuck, I love that quote. The world is your canvas and every day, you make decisions that no one else would make. And if you are a follower and take the missionary approach to life, even that is a decision. The way you dress, the way you talk, what you create, what you decide not to create, if you are a nice person or a weenie — these are all decisions that define who you are and how you communicate with those around you. I think being an artist is about being able to communicate ideas and emotions to others. It requires nothing else other than not being currently dead. But when we do art, we are deliberately trying to communicate; we are trying to have an effect on those around us (which is funny because a lot of artists are really weird and awkward). So the next time someone tells you your work is no good or you shouldn’t be playing with crayons and should go get a real job. Tell them to go fuck themselves; you are an artist (they’ll just chalk that outburst up to you being weird and awkward anyway).
Nick Moreau is an artist blacksmith and big fan of hand-pulled noodles. For recreation, he enjoys putzing around and watching 'Star Trek.' His business is Wicks Forge.