Takin’ A Ride On Heavy Metal – Artist’s Bliss
By Derrick White
“Is the blacksmith a big, jolly guy who only gets mad when somebody burns down his barn?” This is a line from the film “Rustlers’ Rhapsody,” a 1985 western parody written and directed by Hugh Wilson and a highly underrated comedy. In a poke at 1960’s Spaghetti Westerns’ predictability – all horse opera towns are the same. Good guy Rex O’Herlihan (“The Singing Cowboy”) converses, “This town’s no different. The sheriff is stereotypical and so is the saloon owner with his mustache. Do you have a very pretty, but somehow asexual, new schoolmarm? Is the newspaper run by an idealistic young journalist who’s hocked everything to buy his first press?” The formulaic town drunk replies, “Oh, wait! I know one thing this town has the others don’t! None of the other towns have…” “The railroad coming through?” says another patron. The stunned drunk gasps, “All western towns have the railroad coming through.”
If you look around our East Texas area, it seems like every town these days has a downtown revitalization project underway. One prevalent strategy is to focus on the arts and locally-owned businesses. Local Tyler artist and modern day blacksmith Sam Fontenot is a strong participant and advocate for both. Sam is a big, bearded, jolly guy and so full of passion, optimism, and collaboration, I don’t think he ever gets mad.
“I have always studied art, whether painting or building. I became a tattoo artist through a traditional one-year apprenticeship, and I was a practicing professional tattoo artist for almost nine years. While tattooing, I began blacksmithing metal as a D.I.Y. sideline. A few years ago, I got the opportunity to spend some time with a master blacksmith and learned a great deal about handcrafting tools. Slowly but surely I gained the knowledge and confidence to step out and become a full time metalsmith,” states the artist.
Sam works primarily in steel and copper. He will often use wood and glass in projects, especially in furniture pieces. Sam also paints and does printmaking, sometimes adding linoleum print images (a relief printmaking process similar to woodcuts) to his works. In our digital, disposable, insatiable consumption world, Sam is carrying on a dwindling but enduring tradition and vital skill set.
A blacksmith is a metalsmith forming or altering objects from steel, copper, or iron by shaping the metal, using tools striking, bending, and cutting. Blacksmiths produce objects such as gates, railings, fixtures, furniture, sculpture, tools, weapons, and decorative and symbolic items. Generally, blacksmiths have knowledge of how to make and repair metal objects both large and small.
“I have always been interested in the artisan crafts; my grandfather was a woodworker and tinkerer,” Sam said. “He taught me the value of working with my hands and being creative. I love to work with vintage tools to do modern work. A lot of the processes in metalsmithing have not changed much in hundreds of years. My shop is full of tools close to or possibly older than a hundred years; the rest are reproductions made by myself or other tool makers who carry on the craft.” Sam continues, “I take a great sense of pride in creating a piece of artwork with my own two hands that has the potential to last for generations after I am gone. Also, I have been lucky enough to earn my living as an artist for the better part of my adult life.” Artist bliss.
One of the hardest parts about being a full-time artist, or for any imaginative professional, is staying creative and fresh and, of course, financial income.
“My day to day is filled with making smaller items, which helps me pay the bills, things like bottle openers, fireplace tools, and barbecue sets. I try to find new styles for these items to make them uniquely my own creations,” Sam said. “I also have my passion projects. I am currently getting into lock making. I hope to be proficient in forging and designing locks during the coming year.”
Sam is inspired by a range of artists and original individuals. He says, “My favorite artists aren’t the classics by any means. I love the makers, innovators, and practical artists.”
One of his early heroes was Ed (Big Daddy) Roth (key 50’s – 60’s California artist, cartoonist, illustrator, custom car designer, and builder who created the hot rod cartoon icon Rat Fink). Sam found his automobile creations fascinating. Another major influence is the blacksmith Sam learned his craft from, Brian Brezeal (Mississippi blacksmith who began forging as a Farrier – a specialist in horseshoeing).
“Brian Brezeal is one of the best tool makers of our time. His ‘forge to finish’ methods are the ones I use daily,” states this protégé.
Lastly, Sam mentions Adam Savage (American designer and special effects fabricator, and educator from “MythBusters”).
“Talk about a craftsman and multi-talented builder; Adam Savage’s creations inspire me to learn and overcome obstacles,” Sam said. “Adam is also a huge driving force for the makers’ movement.”
Sam is currently in the midst of remodeling a shop/studio with his business partner Brad Brown. They will operate a cooperative space with a studio workshop where they will both be building and designing daily. The space will also maintain a retail side for sales. They are hoping to house other local talent in the shop as well as their own creations. The shop “Wood and Metal Works” will be a unique local experience where one can actually come by, check out the show room, and watch these talented artists work on projects and see the unique and hypnotic processes in action. Sam adds, “I hope to be able to offer workshops on basic blacksmithing by summer for anyone interested.”
For more info or to get in touch with artist and contemporary blacksmith Sam Fontenot, find him on Facebook or go to 26forgeworks.weebly.com.