15 Ways of Thinking About a Blacksmith

Tobias Birgersson and Damian Skinner

Tobias: Is an idea or concept or intention important as a starting point when working with arts and crafts, or when mining their material and tradition? I think not.

Damian: What is your intention? Everyone should be forced to ask themselves this question, especially people who are going to make giant metal objects that the rest of us have to deal with.

Tobias: Art and craft start with tradition and material. They can be mined by the contemporary maker to answer why, what, how and for whom.

Damian: Public art of the kind made by many craftspeople is not a genre in itself. It is actually part of contemporary art, so what it really needs is a great artist.

Tobias: A lot of truly great things have been made by truly oblivious makers. Does that make them less great? And many horrible failures have come from very aware and smart makers. Does that make them less bad?

Damian: Where does process begin and end? What if we expand it beyond the actions of the studio to include what you read, or watch on Netflix, or the ways in which you choose to live in the world?

Tobias: How makers deal with process is up to them, as long as they do it. If all of the experimentation goes on in the realm of ideas, it is very probable that when the concept finally enters the material world it will be seriously flawed.

Damian: Techniques emerges at specific times and in specific cultural contexts, to answer or address specific cultural, political and social questions. In that sense they have urgency and purpose. But once that moment ends, you are left with empty technique.

Tobias: How can there be anything without the experimental part of the creative process?

Damian: The stereotyped image of the blacksmith: muscles, leather, tools, sweat glistening in the fiery glow of the forge. It is both absolutely brilliant and totally hilarious, an opportunity and a trap.

Tobias. How to deal with the pure joy of making? Is it ever possible or okay that this might be enough for the maker, and the viewer is left to fill the object with content and context? Or would this just end up being a case of pareidolia, the mind perceiving a pattern where it doesn’t exist?

Damian: Craft mastery is neither good art nor good contemporary craft. It’s just craft mastery. It will appeal to a subculture, to other craft geeks, but that’s the extent of its power.

Tobias: Material and craft used to be so important to me and to my identity. Now I tend to see the material and level of craft mastery as different colours in my box of crayons. It is both completely unimportant and so important at the same time.

Damian: Art doesn´t start with the material but finds the material it needs for the idea. Craft, including blacksmithing, is too much in love with materials and tradition.

Tobias: Art, and probably especially craft, have a narcissistic core but loving what you do can be a powerful driving force. On the other hand, if you lack the ability to take a step back and reflect on what you have done, then you are in trouble.


Tobias Birgersson is a maker and lecturer at HDK-Academy of Design and Craft. Damian Skinner is an art historian and curator based in Gisborne, New Zealand. He edited the book Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective (Lark Books, 2013). They talk frequently about craft.


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