A Portrait of the Artist as Blacksmith

Date January 31, 2007 at 11:00 PM

Categories Community


HERE'S WHAT I KNOW about Tom Joyce before meeting him. He's a blacksmith-turned-artist who has achieved a level of recognition most artists dream of but never reach. His work has been purchased at high prices by prestigious museums and for public display, as well as by collectors. In 2003 he was awarded the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowship, the so-called "genius award"€ of $100,000 a year for five years, no strings attached. This year he received the Rotary Foundation for the Arts Distinguished Artist of the Year award. Santa Fe's upcoming ArtFeast includes a banquet in his honor to help raise money for public school art education.

I drive through rolling hills south of Arroyo Hondo, where piñon trees still thrive. The day has broken cold and gray and windy, a prelude to snow, and his home and studio, adobe stucco with blue pitched metal roofs, seem isolated. As soon as I arrive I have the sense of something special going on. I park near some two dozen beautiful abstract metal sculptures in rust or gray patinas. The mass of the pieces gives them an immediacy, an inescapable presence, while organic shapes set in block-like forms create both tension and cohesion.

HERE'S WHAT I SEE when I meet Tom Joyce. Wearing jeans and work boots, he welcomes me into his unpretentious office. Contemporary African sculpture and ethnographic artifacts crowd the floor and walls. A pot of water boils on a wood stove, the room's only source of heat.

He asks if I'd like some tea, and steeps two cups of Earl Grey. As we wait for it to cool, Joyce says he likes the distance from town. "I purposely built out here so I could be close enough to Santa Fe but still require a level of dedication for visitors."€ I ask about the historical cultural artifacts around us. "They're like teachers,"€ he replies. "Each one is a concentrated lesson and illustrates a specific design approach. Deciphering the functional and conceptual intent behind a work helps open a path to understanding a maker's contribution to the world of handmade objects."€ I ask about the contemporary pieces and he answers from an artist's perspective: "Everyone sees their world through a unique lens, so careful observation uncovers subtleties that can be learned from and applied toward a personal design vocabulary."€

A kindly looking fifty-year-old, Joyce has curly hair and an air of introspection. As he touches on ethics, history, anthropological ideas, and concepts of art, he uses a rich vocabulary and expresses himself with eloquence, appropriate for someone who has lectured and taught around the world. Through years of collecting contemporary African metal sculpture, he's become so much an expert in the area that he's curated exhibits at major museums, and donated part of his collection to them (including the Smithsonian). So I'm surprised to learn that he dropped out of high school at sixteen to begin working as a blacksmith, shortly before moving to New Mexico, and never received another day of formal education. His resume reads:

Born: 1956, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Education: Life Experience

HERE'S WHAT I LEARN when we walk into his workshop-high ceiling and concrete floor, with forges, torches, machines, and tools for working metal. Since the forge hasn't been started, it's cold, the space a contradiction: very private yet impersonal. Joyce, warm and welcoming, continues talking earnestly about his vision of art, work, and life. When he began blacksmithing, he says, he wanted to learn all he could about the material. He enjoyed using his hands, and made clay sculpture and pottery; indeed, to this day he makes models in clay and produces wood sculpture. He created functional pieces at first-on a wall hangs the first iron gate he ever made, at age eighteen. Yet he always knew that he'd apply his growing knowledge and skill to artistic work.

Iron pieces, some completed, some under construction, lie on the floor and on tables. Exquisite iron bowls, decorative rather than useful, have inlaid metal patterns and a square hole in the middle. They're roughly a 3-D metallic equivalent of Mondrian's geometric paintings, where rectangular forms and space interact. Using a strip of paper, he makes "a double spiral compressed into a flat geometry,"€ the pattern for other iron bowls.

He views iron as precious, never to be thrown away. "Forging things from recycled stock allows the material's inherited lineage to continue, adding additional layers through which iron's history can be interpreted."€ The pieces I first saw outside, a series entitled "Sotto Voce,"€ came from massive scraps of iron, re-forged into sculpture during what he terms an "exploratory working session at Scot Forge, an industrial forging facility outside Chicago. The inheritance of prior use was essential to the ultimate meaning of the work."€

Joyce's pieces aren't intellectual, in spite of his ability to analyze his own creative process. "A lot of times the work is conceived without asking why."€ Yet, "All generous art-art that invites others' participation-leaves room for others to bring personal meaning to it, further interpreting the artist's process and possible intentions."€

Joyce, whose humility belies his fame and whose creativity just won't quit, has continued to evolve artistically, changing his style when something new excites him. "I'm always seeking unknown directions in my work,"€ he says, acknowledging that "there's no end to learning."€

He'd been blacksmithing only four years when he began teaching. Invited to Italy and England to teach in his mid-twenties, he realized that he had a unique way of approaching design, that others had an interest in learning from his vision and work. He's been teaching ever since, for years accepting apprentices from around the world. With his openness to new experiences and new expression, he continues to learn as well. Wherever he's traveled, he's studied architecture and met blacksmiths, and through his trips to Europe became well-versed in European art history.

Although he still travels and teaches overseas, he donates time to work with local kids who come to his shop as part of their art or welding classes. "Besides basic techniques, we discuss how I approach my work. I try to coax out their individual voices by encouraging them to observe their world for clues."€ It's his dedication to the art education of young people that led to his involvement in ArtFeast. "We're all born to be creative and curious."€ His role as teacher, then, is to nurture student's untapped innate abilities, helping them to learn to work more intuitively with their chosen materials.

A testament to Joyce's ability to nurture creativity without imposing his own vision is his daughters. At 27, Kate is a photojournalist and art photographer who had her own show at Santa Fe's Victoria Price Contemporary Art and Design. Irene, three years younger, danced with Gothenburg Opera Ballet in Sweden and now works with refugees in San Diego. "They found their passions early."€

Acknowledgement of his work allows him to follow his unique vision, but, "I never take for granted that I can do what I do. It's a gift that during this time opportunities exist to make a living as a blacksmith and sculptor."€ He feels "immense gratitude"€ that he wakes up every morning feeling excited by the work he does. In the spring he'll travel again to visit blacksmiths in West Africa, where he continues research on indigenous forging traditions. After all, he doesn't see himself creating in a void. "It's about facilitating a dialogue that extends much farther afield than one's own backyard and human life."€

HERE'S WHAT HAPPENS when I leave, knowing much more about this man and his work. I know something more about myself as well, that I can-and need to-push the envelope of my own work as a writer in a way that's true for me. He's inspired me to do more. His belief in artistic creativity and vision as innate aspects of human life to be nurtured and shared informs every aspect of his work and professional life. One of the last things he said to me was, "A lot of creativity is about recognizing Grace."€ I let that resonate inside as I drive through a landscape of muted colors back to town.

ArtFeast is February 22-25. www.artfeast.com. Call 988-1234 for tickets ($150) for the Gourmet Dinner at Fuego Restaurant, Saturday February 24, where Tom Joyce will speak. Outstanding local students' sculptures, produced with mentoring by Joyce, will be exhibited and auctioned off.