Artist in residence: Alex Smith
PUBLISHED: 13:01 25 July 2013 | UPDATED: 13:01 25 July 2013
Despite being well-named for the job, artisan blacksmith Alex Smith was the first in his family to work in the forge. “We always had horses when I was growing up, so initially I looked at becoming a farrier,” he says. “I decided to train as a blacksmith when I was 17. I instantly clicked with it and never looked back.”
Having completed a three year course in rural blacksmithing at Myerscough College, near Preston, Alex then enrolled on a degree course in Hereford that covered the more artistic angle. “The brilliant thing about it was that we were able to create our own designs from absolutely anything that inspired us.”
Alex has now been working as an artisan blacksmith for 14 years, and is based at the Chalk Pit Forge of the Amberley Chalk Pits Museum, near Arundel, working on commissions for private clients and larger businesses alike. “I am also really proud to have been asked to make new door bolts and handrails for Arundel Cathedral. It is wonderful to have been able to make a contribution to such an historic landmark.”
As well as exciting projects such as this, Alex names variety as the best thing about his job. “Every job presents new challenges, and I like doing something different every day.” As for any downsides to working on new projects all the time, he says: “I still find it hard to set a price for one-off pieces. I often underestimate the amount of time I will spend on a project and don’t charge enough. It’s a habit I must get out of!”
When taking on a new commission, Alex starts with a working drawing. “Then I fire up the forge and work in metal. Each element is shaped through various techniques while it is hot – I can split, bend, draw out, squash, spread, twist, punch holes and texture the mild steel in an infinite number of ways.”
While some of his projects are huge in scale, the smallest has been a single nail. “It is incredible to think that all nails used to be hand-forged – it gives you a real understanding of the importance of skills like these in the past, as they were an essential part of everyday life. Nowadays my craft is more focused on creating something beautiful and bespoke, but I like to think my pieces also justify themselves as being genuinely useful too.”
For those wanting to go into artisan blacksmithing, Alex says that it is important to “enjoy your own creativity while using the techniques. It is hard to make money, which is why you really need to enjoy it.”
When asked to name his favourite piece, Alex is hard pushed to decide. “I like to make anything, so it doesn’t matter what it is – the wonderful thing about working on bespoke commissions is that it can be an exciting journey for both me and the client – kicking around ideas, interpreting their thoughts and adding my own, and ultimately bringing my understanding of the medium to meet their vision.”
Sometimes clients and visitors to the museum get so excited by the process that they want to try it out for themselves. “I have gradually moved into teaching lessons on a one-to-one basis, which is about as involved with the bespoke process as a client can be.” Alex offers people the chance to work with him in his forge for anything from a day to a month, to create their project.
In the shadow of the chalk pits, Alex feels that he is surrounded by the best of the Sussex countryside. “My workshop is in such a unique and beautiful place, with a lot of character. There are lots of creative people around me too, and we all spark off each other – I really feel part of the artistic community here. Several of us artisans have workshops which are part of the interactive museum experience, which means that visitors can see us all working and chat about what we’re doing.” n Alex Smith is a member of The Bespoke Consortium. For more information, phone 01243 555578 or go to www.bespokeconsortium.co.uk
His forge is at the Amberley Chalk Pits Museum, (01798 831370; www.amberleymuseum.co.uk)
To contact Alex, phone 07793 679788.