Glencairn Museum News | Number 5, 2015
We met in Warren’s forge on the Bryn Athyn College campus during his (noisy and active!) metal forging class to discuss the art and craft of metalwork, Iron Studio, and his work in the Bryn Athyn Historic District.
What first sparked your interest in metalwork? Did you ever dabble in other artistic mediums, or did metalwork interest you from an early date?
I never made anything in my life until I got into undergraduate school. I never picked up a tool, never even thought about metalwork at all until I was a sculpture student at Kutztown University, and accidentally got introduced to metalwork while I was in the sculpture studio working on projects.
You were taught sculpture by Professor Phoebe Adams at Kutztown University. How did she influence or facilitate the shift in your interest towards metalwork?
It wasn’t exactly that she had any direct impact on me and metalwork. I had just never met anyone in my life like this woman, and when I was a student she grabbed my attention because she was so talented and authoritative and skilled as a teacher. She gave me the room to discover things on my own. Metalworking wasn’t really a part of the undergraduate program at Kutztown, at least not large metals. But they did have fine metals classes, so there was some equipment down there that was basically unused, just a welder and a couple of other things. Phoebe encouraged me to explore that stuff.
Did her style influence you, or did she encourage you to find that on your own?
I think early on you always emulate your teachers. It’s hard not to. Stylistically, yes, I was emulating Phoebe’s own work early on, but as I continued working and began developing my own voice as an artist I started to steer away from that.
What are your thoughts on the balance between design and function? It seems that nearly all the objects you create in your Iron Studio serve some sort of practical purpose as well as being objects of beauty.
Most of them do, except for the rare, pure sculpture piece that’s all design, and the function is more conceptual or content-based. Because of who I am and who we are as a business—we are a shop of artists—people hire us because of our careful consideration for design and craftsmanship. Design and functionality: they can’t exist without each other. On a basic level, for example, a chair has to function in a certain way in order to be a chair. It has to be the right height and the right depth of the seat, and all those things are achieved through design, so they really are in lockstep with each other, design and function.
Craftwork describes things that are intended to be functional. I say craftwork to differentiate what we do from sculpture. The example I always use is that there’s no such thing as a sculptural chair: it’s either a chair or it’s a sculpture. You can have a very interestingly-designed chair, or a very expressive chair, but sculpture is a specific thing with a specific set of ideas around what its function is, and its function is not a physical one. The intent of sculpture is conceptual or content-based. A chair is a piece of craftwork, and its intent is only to serve its function as a chair. It’s not a stand-in for some political or religious idea or emotional connection, whereas good sculpture is usually about one of those things.
So you draw a line between fine art and craftwork?
I do. It’s not that there is a hierarchy, but I draw a line between the two because I think there is an important distinction in how we talk about them—what their end use is, what their function in the world is. They’re really two different sets of intent. It’s all about intent.
To someone who knows nothing about it, how would you describe Iron Studio?
It’s funny how when you’re pressed it’s so hard to describe! We’re a metal shop full of craftsmen, and we take on projects that are related to art and craft in some fashion or another. We do very specialized custom work as well as standard production work for people with specific needs. Because of what we can bring to the table as craftsmen, there are very specific reasons why someone would want to hire us, as opposed to a general fabrication shop. Everyone who works for me has a degree in art or design of some kind. Some of them have master’s degrees in sculpture and architecture. All of that adds up to a business that is capable of carrying an interesting, difficult, or challenging project all the way from working with the customer in the design stage to the end with the fabrication and installation. So we’re a unique business in that sense.
How do you decide which commissions to accept?
We want to make sure that they’re well-suited for what we do. We certainly wouldn’t take on something automotive-related, because we’re not mechanics. It has to be a good fit for the shop and it has to be a sympathetic customer who really understands that we are not the cheapest way to do things, but that there is value in how those things are done. Generally, the work that we accept is pretty well-vetted before it even gets to us. We don’t advertise, and we don’t pursue projects. At this point, everything that comes to us is through word of mouth or reputation, so we do not have to solicit customers. I’ve been in business for a long time. The goal was always to get there eventually—that wasn’t always the case, but certainly for the last couple of years that’s how it’s worked.
Why do you choose to teach at Bryn Athyn College in addition to running your company?
Because I’m a glutton for punishment! And I feel really strongly about education. This is a value that was instilled in me early on by Phoebe Adams. She was a passionate teacher and a great sculptor, but almost a better teacher than she ever was an artist. She really believed that if you know a thing, and you’re good at a thing, you have the responsibility to share that with other people. I enjoy teaching, and I enjoy the students and sharing what I know. After I left Phoebe, I went and worked at different craft schools and worked with different blacksmiths, and I knew they were there for my benefit as well, because they felt the same way about education. They knew something, and they wanted to pass it on to someone who was interested. I’m in a position to be able to offer that, so I’m happy to do it. Before I taught here, I taught for ten years at Moore College of Art and Design, so this isn’t my first teaching gig—I’ve been doing it quite a while.
Can you tell us about an especially exciting teaching moment you have experienced?
The one thing that continually amazes me, after all these years of doing metalwork and knowing what the properties and limitations of the metals are, is that when a student experiences getting a piece of steel really hot and is able to shape it with a hammer and anvil for the first time, you can just see the surprise in their face. We grow up with the notion that steel is this very rigid, unyielding material. Then, when you’re given the opportunity to experience steel in a different way, it’s very surprising. And I enjoy seeing that moment of surprise on the student’s face when they realize, Oh—this isn’t what I thought it was going to be at all! This is actually really exciting and different and inspiring. That’s what I love.
Then, I also love students because they’re so unaware of what the limitations of steel are that sometimes a student will do a thing that I’ve never even considered before. So I get to learn something as well, because they’re not limited by the knowledge of the constraints of the material the way I might be at this point in my career. I’ve become more rigid; I do things a certain way. Sometimes a student can do something in complete ignorance and it turns out to be really interesting.
What will the students in your summer workshop in Bryn Athyn be learning and doing?
The summer workshops are more intensive—they’re five days a week, eight hours a day. It all depends on what kind of group I get. Sometimes I’ll get students who have experience, sometimes I’ll get students who have no experience, and sometimes I’ll have each in the same class, which provides some challenges. But generally it’s a quick, basic introduction to blacksmithing, and then we get into project-based learning. By the end of the workshop the students should have created an object that they can take home with them. Sometimes I’ll let the students drive the decision for what that object is, and other times I’ll demonstrate a project and help them work through all the steps to the end. It is a project-based environment, so students will primarily learn about blacksmithing through creating an object, a craft, or a sculpture. (Read more about the Workshops at Bryn Athyn here.)
Do you have a favorite creation, or handful of favorites? What is the most exciting project you have worked on?
That’s hard to say—I like all of my projects equally! But some notable ones stand out over the years. One of the things we’ve received the most attention for was the inaugural podium for Bush’s first inauguration. A few public art commissions that I’ve done over the years have also had a lot of attention. I was in New York City recently, and went to visit the very first architectural commission I ever created, 20 years ago. It was really exciting to revisit that piece and look at it and think, Oh, it’s not as bad-looking as I remember! Most artists look down their noses at work they did years and years earlier, because you’re always learning and adapting and your work is always becoming more sophisticated, right through the latter part of your career. Most artists never stop working until they absolutely physically can’t do it anymore. In that way, it’s more of a compulsion and less of a career choice. Right now I really love that piece a lot, and it brought back some wonderful memories of that time in my life. It was interesting, not only to revisit the metalwork, but to revisit that moment in my life. I can look at past projects as benchmarks in my life, and as I look back through my portfolio or encounter my things on the streets, the past will just wash over me.
I was remarking recently to someone that the work I do here in Bryn Athyn, at the Cathedral and Glencairn, is some of the most challenging metalwork I’ve ever done. I’m so thankful that I was given this opportunity at this point in my career, and not earlier in my career, when I might not have been as capable of executing the high level of craftsmanship that is necessary. I find it the most challenging, the most exciting—and to have the opportunity to be a part of the legacy of Bryn Athyn is just terrific. It’s the most special moment of my career, because I walk around here in complete awe of what I see, and then am able to write my name next to the unknown craftsmen who came before me. It’s something that I never anticipated getting out of my career as a metal artist. I never thought that this kind of a place could exist. It’s an incredibly special place.
I’ve seen a lot of metalwork in my life, as you can imagine. I’ve been out of undergraduate school for over 20 years and I worked for some of the greatest blacksmiths in the world when I was young, and I’ve never seen anything like what you have here in Bryn Athyn. There’s nothing else like this in the world. There are some very specific reasons why that is—the type of metal, the amount of it, the style. It really is a very unique place, and I was just so excited to actually find it.
What is it that makes Bryn Athyn metalwork so interesting and unique? Is it possible to describe the character or the style of what you see here?
It is. You can start with the fact that all Bryn Athyn metalwork was made of this very new, exotic metal, Monel. The earliest example of its use documented in Bryn Athyn was in 1915. Monel had been invented just a few years prior. At the time it was an unknown, brand-new material, and no one was familiar with it. It was used everywhere in Bryn Athyn. There are some Monel gates at Yale that are nice, but Yale mostly features ironwork. Nowhere else is there a place like this, where there’s so much metalwork, and it’s exclusively Monel. I can think of three examples in Bryn Athyn where there’s some bronze used, but it’s less than 1%. The full scope of metalwork here at Bryn Athyn is all Monel and that, in and of itself, is very special and unique.
But then there’s stylistically what was done here. When they started building the Cathedral, they were emulating this Gothic Revival style—it was very popular at the time, and shops like Samuel Yellin’s in Philadelphia were big subcontractors to the architects who were designing Gothic Revival metalwork. But once the Bryn Athyn craftsmen moved away from that general plan, initially established in the early 1910s, they began to develop their own unique style of metalwork. It happened organically within Bryn Athyn. There were no real outside influences; they weren’t being attentive to what was trendy around the country. The design of the work was generated by what Raymond Pitcairn (who supervised the construction of the Cathedral and also Glencairn, the home he built for his family) was interested in, and by what the craftsmen felt they were challenged by and wanted to bring to the table. There was that interplay between the craftspeople and Raymond Pitcairn, but it was developed within this notion of what the building needed, and not necessarily what they were trying to emulate. As soon as they started to drift in this direction, it was the beginning of what we’ve been calling the “Bryn Athyn style”—that’s really the only way to describe it to people, because it doesn’t look like anything that came before or after.
Can you briefly describe what type of metal Monel is?
Monel is what we would consider to be an exotic metal. It’s expensive, it incorporates some precious metals, and it does not have a very wide range of manufacturers. There are only a few places that still make it. Monel is primarily nickel, with a little bit of iron and a little bit of copper alloyed into it. The high nickel content makes it a tough and durable metal that doesn’t oxidize, tarnish, rust, or corrode in the elements the way that most other metals will. It is more durable than stainless steel—even stainless steel will eventually rust, but because Monel has very little iron in it, it will never rust or rot away. It was marketed initially as an untarnished material, as a mass-production metal, before stainless steel was invented. Once they figured out how to mass-produce stainless steel, it was much cheaper to produce than Monel, and Monel got phased out of general use. It still has some applications in the world, but very rarely.
What are the special advantages and challenges of working with Monel?
I don’t know if there are any advantages to working with Monel other than its great permanence and resistance to oxidization and rust. There are significant challenges to working with it. It’s a much harder material to work with than iron and steel; it’s much more resistant to the hammer, and it takes considerable strength to move that piece of Monel as opposed to the equivalent piece of steel—and by move I mean shape with the hammer while it’s very hot. It’s got a very small working window, meaning how long of an opportunity you have to get something made from the moment you take it out of the forge and put it on the anvil. It’s about half the time you can get from a piece of steel. Also, if you overwork it, it begins to crack and fall apart. You have to hit Monel hard, hit it in the right spot, and make sure you get the most amount of work in each heat and in the minimum amount of heats. It’s pretty tough stuff.
Do you have a favorite example of metalwork in Bryn Athyn?
It changes all the time! It’s hard to pick a favorite, because I’m constantly discovering more and more about Bryn Athyn, and I’ll obsess over what I find. Currently, it’s a detail of the guardrail on the third floor of Glencairn on the south side. I really love this detail (Figure 13). The scale of it is huge, and all of these metal elements, the posts and the rails, are designed to resemble architecture—towers and an aqueduct or a viaduct. Historically, metalwork will emulate something from nature. Metalworkers are always trying to lyrically play with metal so that it represents the softness of nature in plant forms or animal forms. A good example is the west door on the Cathedral (Figures 10 and 11). All that Monel metalwork is meant to emulate floral motifs in a soft and lyrical way. Generally, with a guardrail, there will be frilly, scrolly elements, but the third floor guardrail emulates architecture, like stone towers and viaducts and arches (Figures 12, 13, and 14). I have never seen that before. This is a first for me, here in Bryn Athyn. I’ve never seen historic metalwork emulate architecture in such a novel and well-executed way.
As you can imagine, the blacksmithing world is a small world, and we all know each other. I have some very close friends, other blacksmiths, who I talk to every day, and we text each other all day while we’re working sometimes. Every time a friend comes into town I bring him to Bryn Athyn and I show him all the metalwork here. Often we will be discussing Bryn Athyn metalwork through text messages while we’re working in our individual studios, because it is just so insane and so different and so inspiring. This guardrail is one we’ve been talking about a lot lately.
How does the work done in Bryn Athyn compare with the work done in Samuel Yellin’s studio in Philadelphia in the early 20th century?
Yellin ran one of the more commercially successful metal shops during the era of the Gothic Revival, or the Gilded Age. He was a Polish immigrant who came to this country after travelling across Europe and working for German and French blacksmiths. Yellin was a very talented blacksmith and quickly started his own business in America. It grew and grew until there were about 250 employees at its peak. They were executing ironwork in this Gothic Revival style all over the country, from private homes in the suburbs of Philadelphia, like Chestnut Hill, to the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, to some of the bigger architectural buildings in downtown Philadelphia, like the Packard Motor Car Building. Yale’s ironwork is Yellin's, and Princeton’s ironwork is Yellin's. He employed a lot of the blacksmiths coming over from Europe, especially during the Great Depression. That shop really thrived until around WWII, when Yellin died of a heart attack and his children took over and continued the tradition.
It’s a very specific kind of metalwork that looks a very specific way. You can pick out the Yellin ironwork pretty easily because of the craftsmanship; it was really emulating all the French and German Gothic metalwork that he saw in Europe on his way over here. He was the right man at the right moment during the Gothic Revival, and had studied all this stuff in France from the 15th and 16th centuries. He had the skills and the training from the smiths over there and brought it to this country, and it really took off. That’s the Yellin shop in its briefest sense.
Initially, stylistically, the Bryn Athyn blacksmiths were doing something similar, and I would imagine that Yellin probably wanted to be involved in this project. The key reason that Yellin ironwork was never part of the Bryn Athyn process was that they didn’t need a subcontractor metal shop—they had their own. Raymond Pitcairn had found Parke Edwards, who was a student of Yellin at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Arts (now The University of the Arts). Pitcairn hired Edwards in his first year out of school. Yellin never had the opportunity to hire him, because Pitcairn had already swooped in and grabbed him.
It’s hard to compare the two businesses, because they’re almost diametrically opposed. Yellin ran a business with employees and payroll; they had profitability, deadlines, and budgets to be concerned about. It was a capitalist endeavor, and they were in business to make money. That is not the case in Bryn Athyn. The Bryn Athyn shop only made metalwork for Bryn Athyn—they had no other customers, there were no budgets to be aware of, and they never worried if they were making good enough time on the job to be profitable. That was never part of the equation. The process was this: we need some metalwork here, and we will work hard to make sure that it’s executed to the best of our ability to meet the needs of the buildings and the expectations of Raymond Pitcairn. End of story.
And it was all done for the greater glory of God, the Creator, so there was a spiritual component, which was obviously the main motivation for the Cathedral’s construction. I can’t speak to how pious the individual blacksmiths in the shop were. A lot of them weren’t Swedenborgians; they weren’t Bryn Athyn community members. I think most of the guys who worked in the shop commuted to work every day. Parke Edwards was certainly not a Swedenborgian. From what I’ve read, it seems that a few of the smiths did marry and join the community at some point, but I think that was the exception more than the rule.
The steel model of the chapel grill in storage at Glencairn Museum is different from the Monel final product in Bryn Athyn Cathedral. What changes were made to the Monel version due to the difficulties inherent in working in Monel?
Steel can do some things that Monel cannot do. For example, when steel is at the proper temperature, it will actually stick to itself, so you can take two pieces of steel that are very, very hot and strike them under a hammer and they will fuse together to create a homogenous material. If you look at the steel chapel grill model, you’ll see all of these dissimilar elements that taper into one smaller line because they’re forge-welded together and drawn down with the hammer. Monel can’t do that. Monel does not forge well at all. It has to be welded either with a welding torch or an electric weld, which they did both of here in Bryn Athyn. You could easily execute a lot of shapes in steel by forge-welding elements together, but they had to come up with a different method of construction for the Monel. I think that chapel grill is a wonderful piece of metalwork because it shows to what length they had to go to work out the issues. I have seen photographs of full-scale pencil drawings they did, as well as the steel mockups, which allowed them to really think about all the joinery of how these things fit together before they made the final product in Monel. (Figures 16 and 17.)
The blacksmiths couldn’t create the Monel chapel grill the same way they created the steel mock-up, so how did they achieve the final product?
Instead of forge-welding the elements together, they just collared and pinned them together. It’s a mechanical join instead of a forge-welded join (Figure 16). It makes me think that at some point they thought about making those chapel grills out of steel, because if they always knew they were going to use Monel, and knew they wouldn’t have been able to forge-weld the Monel elements, then why didn’t they use Monel in the sample? I think early on, before they were committed to the idea of Monel, they might have played around with the idea of using steel. But at some point, they made the decision that everything would be Monel. There isn’t a single piece of steel [visible] anywhere in the Cathedral.
What are the challenges of creating a modern piece that befits the beauty of these buildings? How do you go about designing new work for historic buildings?
That is an ongoing challenge. When we decide we’re going to add some metalwork to one of the historic buildings, a discussion starts between myself and the Glencairn or Cathedral staff about what would be appropriate. First I’ll come up with some ideas, and then we discuss whether or not that idea is appropriate for the Bryn Athyn style; and of course I don’t start drawing things that wouldn’t fit. But you can’t really reproduce what’s already been done here, because that’s also out of character with the Bryn Athyn style. Every location has a very unique piece of metalwork specific to that location, even if it’s doing the same thing, like the air vents inside of Glencairn. There are a lot of air vents. They’re all about the same size, and they all have the same family of forms, but they’re all very different. I have to think about designing something that’s different but not so different that it doesn’t fit in.
I’m also careful about not trying to reproduce or recreate Bryn Athyn metalwork. I want it to be very clear to people that this metalwork that I’m doing now came later, that it’s not from the group of craftsmen who did the original metalwork in Monel. We want to honor that metalwork by creating something that’s sympathetic, but we’re not trying to fool anyone into thinking that we are the original craftsmen. It’s a very delicate balance that a lot of people—and I’m glad a lot of people—have an opinion about, and we work towards a solution. It sounds very labored, and maybe cumbersome, but it’s not. I think it works very well, and everyone has the same goal in mind.
Our audience is, in part, everyone who’s going to be looking at the metalwork now—you and me, members of the community, and visitors to the Historic District—but we are also designing metalwork for the people who will be looking at this work generations from now. There is this continuity and appreciation and respect for everything that has been done for the Bryn Athyn historic buildings, from their original conception through their ongoing construction and maintenance. There has to be continuity there, in that train of thought, in that level of craft, and in how carefully things are considered.
I see something new every time I walk into one of those buildings. I’ll go into the Cathedral and see something that never popped out at me the last ten times I walked through. There has always, throughout history, been a cycle of technological advance and then a rejection of those things. The first Arts and Crafts Movement was a rejection of the machine age, and an emulation of things that are handmade. The Bryn Athyn blacksmiths certainly utilized a lot of modern techniques and materials that were at their disposal, but they made sure that the evidence of the human hand was really overt. That’s why in Glencairn all the woodwork has these very rich, undulating surfaces. On all the metalwork you can see every individual hammer-mark. There was some spiritual motivation for that as well; you could see the philosophy behind Emanuel Swedenborg’s idea of how you celebrate and pray to God. What I’m always responding to when I go inside and look at one of the strap hinges on a door in the Cathedral is that I get to see the process that the craftsmen took—every hammer mark, every incision that was made, every little flourish and embellishment. There’s a lot of showmanship and a lot of pride in the metalwork there. Some of those details don’t jump out right away—you really need time to notice and appreciate them and get inside the head of the craftsmen.
It’s interesting what you said about the spiritual motivation behind the craftwork. There are a disproportionate number of artists in Bryn Athyn, and you touched on one possible reason why: the Swedenborgian Christian ideas about the need to be useful and the importance of creating things.
It’s hard for me to pontificate about that specifically, as I’m not a Swedenborgian, and not from the community. People from outside the community who have been drawn here for one reason or another—maybe by the schools or by the historic buildings—once they got here they stopped and noticed what was around them, and it’s just astounding. And it’s not just the wonderful gift that Bryn Athyn has given to the world in these historic buildings, but for me, too, it’s about a community of people who are supportive and cohesive. The friendships that I’ve made since I’ve been here are some of the best friendships I have.
The historic buildings and the craftsmanship I think reflect the general ethos of the Bryn Athyn community. It’s a very rare opportunity to glimpse how a community feels about itself collectively through the joy and love and appreciation that everyone here has for these buildings. It’s a very unique thing that I’ve never seen before, so it is a pretty wonderful place. I think that might be part of why artists are attracted to Bryn Athyn, because we love community and we love relationships. So when there’s already this infrastructure of a community that’s very tight knit, and is sympathetic to artists like myself, why wouldn’t you want to stick around?
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