Interdisciplinary. Community. Advocacy. Humor.
Alex Rohr | Posted: Saturday, October 18, 2014 6:45 pm
BEDFORD — Jonathan Falls sits in front of a power hammer with the posture of a concert musician. The machine rises in front of him like an organ; his forge fire burns to his right.
He taps the pedal, and the mechanized hammer head repeatedly crashes against the hot metal, thinning and elongating the scrap on its way to becoming a utility knife.
“I’m gonna go for it here in a minute,” says Chris Lynch, about six feet to Falls’ left. His own forge blazes as the rush of a ventilation fan sucks coal smoke into a stove pipe and out of the concrete shop.
He removes a glowing metal rod and turns toward his anvil as sparks spring and smoke slithers from the steel. Lynch retrieves his gavel-sized sledge and carefully clanks it against the rod he’s shaping into a dragon’s head. The hammer clinks on the anvil between each blow, keeping time.
“There’s a symphony here when it gets going,” Lynch said of the blacksmith shop housing his Old Moneta Ironworks and Falls’ Thistle Down Forge.
The Moneta craftsmen meld utility and artistry to connect with consumers, a focus of Bedford Artisan Trail members, many of whom welcome customers into their shops for a look into the creative process.
The trail network grew from Bedford County roots fertilized by the Artisan Center of Virginia, a nonprofit aimed at connecting crafters throughout the state to encourage local, regional and statewide economic development.
Bedford’s is the newest of the 16 trails, featuring artisans, such as carpenters and potters, agri-artisans — mostly small family farms reminiscent of those that settled the commonwealth — and hospitability businesses, such as inns and restaurants.
While many of the 86 members are 'small home studios' crafting and selling on their own time, others, like the Moneta blacksmiths, consider their work a way of life.
“It’s not that people are inventing new stuff here, they’re keeping alive things people have been doing forever,” said Brigitte Luckett, the Bedford County administrator’s executive assistant, who acted as an early intermediary between the trail’s founders and the county.
In the same philosophy as those who joined hiking paths from Georgia to Maine over decades to create the Appalachian Trail, the Artisan Center of Virginia, based in Greenville, promotes cultural and economic connections statewide as the trails’ hub.
“What we’ve done is, we’ve started with counties and localities that are interested in the concept and then we just connect the dots and fill in the blanks as we go along,” said Maureen Kelley, who helped found the first in the network as the Nelson County director of economic development and tourism.
Kelley said the Monticello Artisan Trail — in Nelson and Albemarle counties — could eventually connect with Bedford’s if localities in between get involved.
Franklin County’s White Lightning Trail — one of 15 in ‘Round the Mountain, Southwest Virginia’s artisan network — borders Bedford’s, leaving open a possibility for collaboration with that group.
“I’d love to see us do collaborative events with the Franklin County trail. We’ve got Smith Mountain Lake as the hub between the two of us,” said Mitchell Bond, of Goose Creek Studio, who many Bedford artisans credit as the trail’s point man, along with co-owner Patrick Ellis.
“They were the catalysts behind, ‘We’re going to do this.’ They were the ones who said ‘We’re going to get this done,’” Luckett said.
Gathering fuel, igniting the fire
The brightly decorated Goose Creek Studio sits at the intersection of Depot and Court streets. Along with offering custom framing, the shop features pieces by about 40 Bedford-area artists, though that wasn’t the original plan. Artists gradually arrived, eager for a showcase.
“They found us,” Ellis said. “… The talent was here, there’s just nowhere to show it.”
About three years ago, the pair visited Heartwood, ‘Round the Mountain’s hub in Abingdon. They left inspired and tallied 100 Bedford County artisans by the time they reached home.
Bond and Ellis told Luckett about the idea when she came in for a frame. She connected them with the county, which led them to Bedford County Economic Development Director Traci Blido, who got the Economic Development Authority on board.
Artisan Center representatives, including executive director Sherri Smith, visited Bedford in 2012 and saw a fit. Along with artisans, business owners and other arts supporters, they formed management and fund-raising committees to corral artists and raise $15,000 for startup costs.
The EDA supplied $5,000, and the Artisan Trail Bedford Pioneer Taskforce raised the other $10,000 through the Bedford County Tourism Department, private donations and artist initiatives.
The county held meetings to draw in participants, including trail ambassadors, conduits between the center and artisans. A trail ambassador acts as consultant to help convey marketing and education initiatives to artisans, who pay initial fees of $90 and $220 and $40 to $170 in annual renewals.
“I’m looking at the practicality of the thing,” said Cindy Roberts who learned about the trail through her neighbor at Inn on Avenel. “They’re at the art end. I just want to make it work. I just want to take what’s really good and make it better if I can.”
Forging raw materials
With the Bedford trail barely blazed, Sally Santmyer, owner and innkeeper of Cedar Post Inn Bed and Breakfast in Big Island, learned American Crafts Week was a time to highlight craftspeople and cross-promote trail members.
An Artisan Center field officer suggested she hold an event that included hosting artisan crafts.
“It sounded like an interesting idea, so I contacted some other artists that are on the trail and asked if they would bring some of their things here,” Santmyer said.
The inn featured work by two potters, two textile artists, a painter, a woodworker and Santymyer’s stained glass, along with mums and pumpkins from a nearby Whippledale Farm Greenhouse.
Santymyer said she was “just trying to figure out how to bring people together. We didn’t know if anybody would come or not but it was worth a try.”
The Oh Shenandoah County Artisan Trail has seen success with similar efforts in its first year. Shenandoah County Economic Development Director Jenna French said last holiday season three artists decided to each hold open studio tours.
“We are finding them reaching out to one another to slowly build the events that we’re doing,” she said.
One artist said she did more business in a single day for that event than a weekend at an art show in Washington, D.C.
“It’s definitely been successful for those that have worked together,” French said.
Kelley said consistent cross-promotion can be informal but relies on members visiting other sites.
“What we really try to do is train the front-line staff at hospitality related businesses and specifically the wineries and breweries because they’re open all the time to talk about the trail, to say ‘If you’re here at Hill Top [Berry Farm and Winery] you’ve got to stop at Pat Yoder’s Rockfish River Pottery,’” she said.
Keeping the flames burning
The coal dust and smoke clings to Lynch’s apron, layers added to his arms and face throughout the day. The dragon, designed as a shelf bracket for his barber to hold straight razors and other tools, comes alive with curved horns, flared nostrils and a fiery tongue.
“This is a chance for me to show off something that’s very expensive,” Lynch said.
The concrete shop’s open windows, breached by kudzu, formerly housed Falls’ father’s blacksmith shop and also Chrysler and tractor dealerships over its long life on Old Moneta Road. It sits nearby but out of sight of downtown Moneta — meant to draw tourists from Smith Mountain Lake.
Each considers his name and moniker — their initials, Falls’ around leaves of a clover, Lynch’s under a Jolly Roger with sledges instead of bones — their word and their bond, which they constantly work to improve.
“Sometimes I go really fast and sometimes I fall into a lull and it’s going to be four or five months until I hit the next step,” Falls said. “We’re always looking for that next, I don’t want to say ‘gimmick.’ That’s the wrong word, but the next ‘wow.’”
When Lynch and Chris decided to work together five years ago, the childhood friends understood they would need to put in everything they had, a consolidation that included moving their young families in together for a while.
“We started out with a forge, a hammer and an anvil for two people. And what you see is what we’ve built out of it,” Falls said.
They get exposure where they can, including Facebook, websites, occasional craft shows, and retail. Projects have included historic reproduction welding at Booker T. Washington National Monument.
Lynch creates gates, fences and rails along with odd welding jobs and sculptures forged from scraps lining the front showroom where a glass case features Falls’ knives.
Lynch also works 30 to 40 hours a week at a restaurant. Falls goes home every night, cleans off, and begins working leather. He sells leather electronic cigarette holders through several retailers.
“We’re still crawling right now, but that’s okay,” Falls said.
Artisan Trail classes helped them embrace internet marketing, which will help them maintain their way of life.
Those who work with raw materials risk losing product after days of effort because of minute mistakes. Lynch has spent entire days on a piece, then makes an error, and ends up with only a prototype. He’s spent 20 hours on a cork screw to perfect the skull on the handle.
“Even if I want to pay myself minimum wage, that’s an expensive corkscrew,” he said.
Lynch and other craftsmen consider each mistake a lesson, but the loss of materials and the precious resource of time, can be costly.
“When you’re not making money then you consider yourself a hobbyist. If you are making money, you’re a professional. But what if you’re a professional who’s not making money?” Falls said.
Peering through the smoke
The metal and smoke of the Moneta shop contrasts with the light brown stringed instruments hanging on the clean walls of a small showroom in the workshop James Jones and a friend built in Sedalia. But he and his wife Karen Nuzzo’s story complements either structure.
The equipment and shop, which takes up most of the building next to their home, harbor the subtle tan tint of wood dust ingrained over decades.
Jones has worked as a luthier, or stringed instrument maker, for the past 36 years. Nuzzo recently returned to her loom and flamboyant fabrics.
“She was weaving, and I was making instruments and we started doing shows together,” Jones said, thinking back to the 1970s.
The couple struggled, living at times on $5,000 a year in an effort to work for themselves. Jones worked temporary labor jobs making time to hone his technique, starting with hand dulcimers. As Jones improved, he moved from lower- to high-end shows. Now, he is world-renowned for his work, and he sells mainly through the Internet.
“That takes time. What I charged for a hand dulcimer when I got started barely paid for the materials,” Jones said. “I always tell people, keep your eye on the ball. In other words, if you want to do this for a living, you’re going to have to spend, three, four, or five years developing the skills.”
Last year, Nuzzo ended an eight-year career as art teacher at Bedford County schools, which she took up after homechooling their children. She recently returned to making art quilts, which she had put down for years.
“It’s like opening up a box that’s shut for a while, letting it breathe, and finding out what’s in there,” Nuzzo said.
While the art quilts are her passion, her $12 woven potholders sell better.
Bond said Jones’ expertise as one of the trail’s five juried craftsmen — their work is judged by peers who designated them masters — brings a higher level of prestige to the network of artists, many of whom create as a hobby or side-job.
But the couple’s experience balancing budgets together while following their creative dreams is just as valuable to the trail’s growth.
“These guys working in the metal shop, they know I exist now. They can call me, and I’d be happy to” talk to them, Jones said. “I’ll run my mouth forever.”
Falls’ long-term vision is a community in which artisans and apprentices work at various trades in the same shop.
“I want to build that kind of haven. I want a company that has all these craftsmen under it,” Falls said.
His partnership with Lynch, although they split into separate businesses a year ago, and a single apprentice are a start for that dream.
Smiles slip across both blackened faces as they talk about the venture they feel reveals their strength as partners: axes.
“He uses the small hammer and hits it lightly, and I use this hammer and I hit it hard,” Lynch said holding up a large sledge. “We get a pretty good tandem going.”
Visit all of the ACV 'Artisan Trail Network' Trails - http://www.artisanscenterofvirginia.org/artisan_trail_network/