By Reggie Ellis

Most people consider blacksmithing an ancient trade, not a modern art form. Mark Aspery doesn't see why it can't be both.

"For 10,000 years people have used their hands to make things. It is only in the last 30 years that we have not," said the Springville blacksmith. "I think many people are fed up with a rubber stamp existence and are looking for something uniquely different. Creating something with a fire and force appeals to something deep in our psyche. When you see all of these kids playing video games, I think they are exercising that dexterity that used to be applied to everyday work."

A native Englishman, Aspery is the resident blacksmith at Sierra Forge & Fire, a new craft school in Exeter that is unique to the Western United States. The school is located at 130 E. Maple St. in downtown Exeter in the former steel pattern plant of Waterman Industries Inc., an irrigation gate and valve manufacturer headquartered on Spruce Road between Exeter and Lindsay. Waterman moved its sheet metal plant into the brick building in 1912 and it served as one of the company's major manufacturing plants until it was shut down on Jan. 1, 2003. The building has been gutted and remodeled to include seven forges saddled by wooden water tanks and anchored anvils. The transformation has been lead by entrepreneur Christopher Dery.

"The building had a faint pulse and now you can finally feel the heartbeat," Dery said. "We are here with the fire in the heart of the town and want to become a hearth for the community."

Dery was also responsible for bringing Aspery on board. For the past four years, Aspery has been teaching blacksmith courses at his own school, River Ridge Ranch near Springville. Dery's ideas of forming a school came after taking one of Aspery's classes.

"Many of us are leading disconnected lives," Dery said. "This allows people to connect with something beautiful and functional. These things used to be a part of everyday life. But it isn't required anymore. We live in a consumer culture but the demand for making things yourself is increasing. Just look at the number of do-it-yourself home improvement shows on television."

Like a moth to a flame, people are drawn to working with fire. Since opening the doors in October, Sierra Forge & Fire has had full classes for each of its blacksmith courses. People from all over the world have registered for blacksmith classes and certified masters from around the world have agreed to do demonstrations here in Exeter. Last week, internationally renowned blacksmith and designer Richard Bent came to teach at the school.

"There is something primeval about it isn't there, using a fire, a hammer and an anvil," said Bent, a three-time National Champion Blacksmith. "It connects us with our ancestry. You are creating something while destroying it."

Bent considers himself a professional who teaches, not the other way around. He has been a blacksmith for more than 30 years and was Aspery's instructor during a four-year apprenticeship. He said up until the last 20 years, blacksmiths did things their own way, not taking into account the what the customer wants. That had to change to keep the vitality of the trade.

"Doing something a certain way because that's the way it has always been done doesn't really apply anymore," Bent said. "I'm trying to apply the ancestry of the trade to modern styling. It needs to be quality to have longevity but also be aesthetic to look at."

Greg Hartell, 65, of Klamath Falls, Ore. said blacksmithing has been a hobby of his for the last 10 years and he couldn't pass up the chance to take a class from Bent.

"This is an excellent facility that is a work in progress and it is already equal or better than any craft school in the country," Hartell said. "There is nothing of this magnitude in the West that is offering courses with world class teachers."

And not all blacksmiths are male. Wendy Lawrence, 41, of Arcada, Calif. said she was hooked on blacksmithing at a demonstration 10 years ago and is now considering a career change.

"It is so hands-on and seems magical on some level," she said. "It's also very powerful but requires a certain finesse."

Aspery said there are many skilled blacksmiths in America, but it does not hold the same respect as it does in the U.K.

Aspery said English lore tells the story of a king who has thrown a feast to praise his craftsman for helping put together his great kingdom. The king sits the craftsman in order of importance, the least of which sits the farthest from his chair, in this case the blacksmith. The king begins the congratulations by asking each of the men what they have done for the castle. The tailor says he makes the royal robes. The weaver talks of the tapestries that record the kings accomplishments and ancestry. The masons boast of the castle walls that protect the kingdom. The blacksmith says only that he made the hinges on which the doors to the hall hang. A few moments pass as the king begins thinking about the men's answers. He asks each of them where they get their tools. They respond, "from the blacksmith." Finally, he asks the blacksmith where he gets his tools. "I make them myself," he replies. Without the blacksmith there are no other crafts, which is why it came to be known as the King of Crafts.

"In America doctors look down at plumbers, but in the U.K. they are often neighbors and see each other as necessary for the other to exist," said Aspery, who is a a certified Journeyman Blacksmith with the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths, England, which was incorporated in 1325 by King Edward II. Aspery said his father and his father's father were both blacksmiths and he has been "smithing" since he was 12. The Exeter community witnessed Aspery transform an iron spike into a wizard's head with less than 10 skillfully placed strikes of his hammer at a recent chamber of commerce mixer. A display case around the corner features stages in a progressive transformation of a block of iron into an ornamental bear head.

Introductory courses will begin again, running from Jan. 17-21 and Jan. 24-28. Classes are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. The school will also be open on the second Saturday of each month for anyone, novice or experienced blacksmiths, to come and forge.

Dery said the plan is to expand curriculum to include custom knifemaking (bladesmithing) and glass blowing. According to Dery, the only bladesmithing school in North America is given by the American Bladesmith Society in Texarkana, Texas. As for glass blowing, there aren't any classes between the Bay Area and Southern California. Both would make the school, and Exeter, an even more unique destination.

Each discipline will have a beginner, intermediate and advanced class as well as a Masters series. In order to become a master, the student must demonstrate superior skill, safety and knowledge in the presence of a master craftsman. Bladesmithing will be offered beginning in Spring 2005 and glass blowing beginning Summer 2005.

Dery said the ultimate goal is to be named in the same breath as John C. Campbell Folk School in discussions of high-end art schools. Founded in 1925 in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina by the widow of humanitarian John C. Campbell, the school is the North American authority on teaching the time-honored crafts of basketry, blacksmithing, clay, dyeing, enameling, glass blowing, jewelry making, leather work, marbling, metalwork, needlework, paper art, quilting, rug making, stone sculpture, weaving, woodcarving, woodturning and woodworking.

Dery said the school needs the support of the community to be successful and that in return the school will add another piece to the arts and crafts community already strong in the area. He said community members have already approached the school with offers to donate material, tools and equipment. If anyone is interested in donating to the school call Sierra Forge & Fire at 592-2080. He said the folk crafts of metalworking, glass blowing and bladesmithing will leave an international footprint at the foot of the Sierra Nevadas.

"This place had a craftsman feel," he said. "This was it. This was the right place."

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