Interview with Elizabeth Brim

by Andi Juell

Published in the April 1999 Issue of Anvil Magazine

Editorís note: Elizabeth Brim is the blacksmithing instructor at the Penland School of Crafts in Penland, North Carolina. She also conducts seminars around the country, focusing on the more non-traditional aspects of blacksmithing—in Elizabethís case, the notion that ironwork can, and is, an extension of what makes each of us tick as a person. This concept crosses a number of frontiers; in this case, perhaps one of the most important: gender. As more and more women enter this field (farriery included), do they really need to give up part of who they are in exchange for what they want to do? The answer is no—emphatically. Sorry guys, but the spreading chestnut tree has gone co-ed. The result? A new degree of expressionism in iron that dismantles not only the conformity, but the limitations of a centuries-old profession. Art is freedom. Everybody benefits. (Please see the accompanying article on the Penland School of Crafts).

ANVIL: I think, Elizabeth, that a good place to start is with your educational background. You have formal training in the arts?

ELIZABETH: I have a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Georgia in printmaking. When I graduated from the university and moved back to Columbus, Georgia (the family home), the man who was the head of the art department at Columbus College, which is now Columbus State University, said, ďWhy donít you go to the Penland School of Crafts and learn how to do ceramics? Then you can come back here and be our pottery and ceramics teacher.Ē So I went to Penland in 1980 to study ceramics, learning to throw pots and all that. I went back after the eight-week course and began teaching college! I kept going back to Penland and taking classes in ceramics because I had to stay ahead of my own students at the university. But I always wanted to work with metals. So one summer I took a two-week metal class. When I returned home, I didnít have any of the equipment to do the jewelry and metal pieces, so I made metal out of clay. I worked the clay to look like metal. The only thing about clay is that it breaks!

There is a story about ďFinger Ring Annie,Ē a local character and bag lady, who lived on the street. She had, by all accounts, been a beautiful woman in her youth, but reportedly went crazy. The way she made her living was to go into the local dime store and buy a whole bunch of ten-cent rings and pile them up on her fingers. She would go out on the streets and sell them for 50 cents. One of my first pieces was entitled the ďSpirit of First Avenue.Ē (Figure 1)

ANVIL: So Columbus, Georgia, is where you were raised? Sounds like the antebellum South.

ELIZABETH: Yes, thatís where I grew up and my family has its roots there. I thought I was going to stay in Columbus forever, but I wound up at the Penland School and itís the best thing that ever happened. After I took that two-week course in jewelry making, I knew I had to do more. So I came back and signed up for an eight-week concentrated course with instructor Marvin Jensen. He is a meticulous craftsperson. He is not a blacksmith, but a metalsmith. He has done a lot of blacksmithing, however, and Marvin encouraged me to pursue blacksmithing. He graduated from Southern Illinois University with a Masters degree in metal. He taught at Penland for many years and was the coordinator of the iron studio here for a number of years.

ANVIL: Was jewelry making your first introduction to metal work?

ELIZABETH: Yes, it was. Iíve always loved jewels, gold, silver and pearls—and yes, itís a woman thing!

ANVIL: How did you make the leap to blacksmithing? I mean, itís a bit of a jump.

ELIZABETH: It was my metalsmithing class at Penland, which was taught by Gary Nofkee. He teaches metals now at the University of Georgia. We were making some stakes—forms to shape silver, copper and non-ferrous metals. We went to the blacksmith shop to use sledgehammers because we didnít have a power hammer in the shop at the time. We used the sledgehammers to draw out the tapers we needed to insert in the stake holders. I thought, ĎI like this!í After I got my stakes finished, I went back to the blacksmith shop and told them I wanted to make a hammer. So they handed me a chunk of W-1 tool steel and pointed over to the forge, whereupon I began beating this piece of metal. I didnít know the difference then between tool steel and mild steel. I was working away at this in an effort to make a hammer. By about 10:30 that night, everybody else was gone and I was still there. Nothing was happening. The fire wasnít hot and the metal wasnít getting hot. So I thought to myself, ĎYouíre just not capable in this.í Everyone else in the class was a man. I began thinking that I was never going to be proficient at it, and that maybe I should just go back to jewelry or ceramics or something that I was able to handle. So I left with a horrible headache. I was all dirty and went back to the dorm where I was staying and sat down; I was so bummed out. While I was there, I started to think of all the other things I wanted to make. So I went back the next day and when I walked into the shop, they had taken this huge clinker out of the firepot and were making such fun of me! But since Iíd had the fortitude to come back, they decided they would help me. Doug Wilson, who is a blacksmith in Deer Isle, Maine, was teaching that session. He and the others in the class helped me out a lot. From that, I made this hammer of mine and I never went back to my jewelry class (Figure 2). Gary Nofkee, who was my teacher in the jewelry class that I had abandoned, would come up and see what I was doing. He was very encouraging. Thatís how I got started in blacksmithing.

The next summer at Penland I signed up for the blacksmithing course with Peter Hapney. I called my mother and told her how excited I was to be taking a blacksmithing class. She got really quiet on the phone and said, ďWell, Elizabeth, I have to tell you that I just donít approve of that. I donít think blacksmithing is a very ladylike thing to do.Ē So I told a friend of mine what my mother had said, and he answered, ďOh, just wear a string of pearls and youíll always be ladylike.Ē I started doing that, kind of a joke, and it stuck! After awhile, if I had on my overalls and I didnít have on my pearls, people wanted to know where they were. So thatís how I got started wearing pearls while blacksmithing.

ANVIL: But of course, it didnít end with just the pearls?

ELIZABETH: No, in a class Peter Hapney was teaching at Penland in 1988, I made a pair of high-heeled shoes out of iron and sent them to a competition being held at the ABANA Southeastern Regional Conference in Madison, Georgia. Jack Andrews was the judge and awarded me first prize. I mean, when I first got into blacksmithing, I made the usual hammer, tongs, forks and spoons—things like that. Then I got into making more expressive items, like highheels (Figure 3A,B).

ANVIL: Can you actually wear them?

ELIZABETH: Yes, you can. You canít walk very gracefully with them on though, and nobody is going to dance with you with steel shoes on! They are sharp and kind of dangerous looking, but thatís because I didnít know how to use a cutting torch very well. We did have a grinder and for some reason I chose not to grind the sharpness off. Maybe that shows a window into my subconscious. Daniel Miller wrote an article about them after the conference and said they were ďso wicked and evil-lookingĒ and that they had all these feminist overtones. The shoes now live in Mobile, Alabama. With the money I got from these shoes and the original iron apron, I was able to buy the four-wheel-drive truck Iím driving. That just impressed my father so much.

ANVIL: And Mom?

ELIZABETH: She was glad my father was impressed. But Iím afraid she wasnít.

ANVIL: Not to declare my roots in literature, but it sounds an awful lot like what was referred to in the nineteenth century as domesticity.

ELIZABETH: In a way. I came out of a female-dominated society. My motherís role was to take care of my father—and us, while he worked. My motherís belief was that you needed a husband to take care of you. I guess somewhere along the line I went bad!

ANVIL: When did Penland begin offering blacksmithing courses?

ELIZABETH: The iron studio was opened in 1980. By 1987, the director, Hunter Kahier, as well as Marvin Jensen, who was the coordinator of the studio, were willing to just let me be there. I wasnít on staff or anything—they just let me stay. Iíd stay all summer and just work and play in the iron studio by myself. Iíd do anything they wanted me to do, like paint windows or help out wherever I could. It was the best thing for me, because I got to dabble and experiment to my heartís content. Marvin would give me a demonstration on a certain technique from time to time and just say, ďOkay, Iíll see you later.Ē It was a fabulous opportunity, one Iím very grateful for.

ANVIL: What year did you join the teaching staff?

ELIZABETH: That was in 1994. That was the year I became an official coordinator. I had been a volunteer since 1985, so the Penland iron studio was my pet project. Blacksmithing at Penland was very low profile. The clay, weaving, glass and ceramic studios were all big, but blacksmithing was the little seed.

ANVIL: Earlier, you told me that the program almost collapsed.

ELIZABETH: That was in 1989. Penland was not known as a place to take iron courses. There was a lot of competition with other schools that put more emphasis and credibility into their blacksmithing programs. The director at the time said that if the iron program didnít take off, he was going to shut it down and use the space for something else. That just freaked me out!

ANVIL: Not surprising, since you already had about ten years invested in the program. What happened?

ELIZABETH: We decided to put on a symposium. I invited blacksmiths Albert Paley, Tom Joyce, Brent Kington, Robert Owings, David Petersen from Wales and Bill Harsey, the knife maker. I called these people and told them that we were going to hold a symposium at Penland to talk about expressive design in iron. This had to do with how you did design expressively and what people thought about when they were designing pieces— what influenced them to make the kinds of things that they made, and what influenced them to have a recognizable style. I had a course in graduate school called ĎArt in the Creative Consciousnessí that was all about investigating what makes you want to make the kind of things that you make. That was what the symposium was about. It just so happened that blacksmiths had never really talked about that particular subject before as a group because they were so busy talking about how to do things, how to learn different techniques and that kind of thing—the how to as opposed to the why. I wondered myself why anyone would be interested in what I did. I decided the reason for that must be because the ideas and the things that I make are different from the things you expect to see made out of steel.

ANVIL: Or the things we see made by men. Iím talking here in the traditional sense.

ELIZABETH: Yes. Aprons and high-heeled shoes are not things you think of as being made from steel. Thatís when I began to wonder what makes me want to make these types of things—say a hat or a pocketbook or a pillow, instead of a poker or a hammer I decided that the reason was the way I was brought up. I was raised in a very strong ĎSouthern womaní society. You can go back to my mother saying to me that blacksmithing is not a very ladylike thing to do. My mother is very ladylike and always concerned about decorum. My mother and my grandmother sewed and they were very meticulous in their sewing. They made our little dresses with lace around the collar and with gathers and in pastel colors. We even wore white gloves to church on Sundays. My mother and grandmother were the strongest influences in my childhood, so definitely the female presence was dominant.

ANVIL: That brings up an interesting issue, what I can best describe as the Ďfeminine sideí of blacksmithing—something I have seldom seen. When you started out, did you feel a need to do more traditional work as a way of fitting in to be accepted by your peers—which I think itís safe to assume are primarily male?

ELIZABETH: At one point I did. I was basically working in the studio with no supervision, with minimal tools and equipment. The shop at that time was pretty basic. I thought, if Iím going to be a blacksmith, I need to learn more traditional techniques, things like hammer control. So I took a course with John Medwedeff. Thatís when I made the tiara. I wanted to use traditional techniques, things like collars and scrolls, but continue to make the sort of feminine pieces that I had been making. It was at that time that people really started paying attention to what I was doing. But there was no pressure from anybody but myself. Iíve had a couple guys say, ĎWell, Elizabeth, what size hammer do you use?í I just use whatís comfortable and appropriate. I want to feel good about what I am doing. Iím never going to do architectural work, like railings and things like that, because it just doesnít interest me. I want to be competent in the techniques I use in my own work. Thatís all. You know, in a way, Iím making fun of myself, and letting my work express who I am. Itís important for people to try to express something they know

about—like themselves. Thatís what makes it interesting to other people.

ANVIL: I couldnít help but notice that the majority of students at Penland are relatively young, most around college age.

ELIZABETH: Yes. I advertise that I want beginners. Iím fishing for students who are beginners in iron, but who may have done other things in the artistic realm. For example, one of my students has done a lot of work with fibers, another has done a lot of art work in paper. What I want to do with a group is to show them the basic, traditional things. I give them projects to do that would allow me to think that they know the basics—how to do a taper, draw steel, punch a hole, upset a piece, etc. The basic things. Then I say, letís go crazy.

ANVIL: So you encourage a multimedia approach?

ELIZABETH: Yes. One young woman—and I think she can pull it off—is doing a scroll piece that relates to the cloisonne wires used in traditional enameling to separate one enamel from another. But itís iron and itís a scroll and the whole piece is going to be inflated. So itís pushing the limits of enamel on steel and refers directly to the traditions of blacksmithing—the scrolls, and then the nontraditional, more innovative techniques of inflation. I really think it is going to turn out to be unique.

ANVIL: The inflation process is fascinating. Perhaps you should describe it.

ELIZABETH: I made a tiara (crown), which a very nontraditional thing, but I did use a lot traditional techniques in it, like collars. After I made it, I decided it needed a pillow for it to sit on. I was trying to figure out how to do this when I had a conversation with fellow blacksmith David Seacrest. We thought we would see if we could figure out a way to blow the iron up to make the pillow shape. We took two rectangles of 1/8Ē-thick steel, approximately 8Ē x 10,Ē and welded them on all sides. We added a length of pipe to one seam. We put the piece in the gas forge and got it hot. We shot a little compressed air into the pipe and it puffed up like a balloon! It looked just like a pillow—it was perfect! This technique grew out of a particular image that I wanted to make. I know there is a lot more that you can do with the inflation process than just making pillows and now many of my students are experimenting with the process.

I think itís so funny, because we went to another blacksmithing studio and the person had these little hollow forms that were made traditionally. He was hammering into a wooden block and then welding them shut. My students were convinced that these hollow form pieces had been inflated. It is interesting that now my students think that inflation is just a normal technique, whereas many people think that the inflation process is something completely off the wall!

ANVIL: Itís a unique way to create a three-dimensional sculpture, but how do you engineer the welded sheets to produce the desired end result?

ELIZABETH: Mostly, Iíve had the best results with rectangles. The pleated pieces (external seams) produce the most interesting results. I never know for sure how it will turn out. Iím also experimenting with the opposite: vacuum forming. Itís all so enjoyable.

ANVIL: What are you looking at for the future? You stated that you plan to continue to teach; this also includes a stint at the John C. Cambell Folk School in North Carolina.

ELIZABETH: Yes. In 1999 I will be teaching at the Cambell School, Peterís Valley Craft Center in New Jersey, and the Haystack School of Crafts in Maine. Iím also giving a workshop at the Society of North American Goldsmiths. Iíve got a lot coming up in 1999.

ANVIL: I take it that teaching is a big part of your life?

ELIZABETH: I like teaching a lot and I like it for many different reasons. In the first place, I get to go to great places and meet a lot of nice people. And I enjoy working with the students. I teach them something and then they take it a little bit further. So I learn from them, too. It really stimulates a person creatively to be around other creative people. Thatís one of the greatest perks of living at Penland, is that youíre around an entire society of extremely artistic people. In particular, I love to see the young people get involved in blacksmithing because it is such an interesting and creative art form. Iíve seen the Penland program grow from very few people. But it has gone from that to where we have waiting lists—huge waiting lists—people who want to get into these classes. Blacksmithing is the Ďiní thing to do now, and Iím really proud to be part of that. Thatís a big reason why I like to teach.

ANVIL: Do you plan to continue teaching?

ELIZABETH: Yes. Especially the short courses. When I was teaching in college, I got a lot of people who would take my course as an elective, but they were not really into it at all. I always wanted to teach college as opposed to the lower grades, and I always knew that I wanted to teach art. I wanted to teach college because I thought people wanted to be there, because they had paid for it. That wasnít always the case. I was teaching ceramics and jewelry making and found out that many of the students knew that they could use my courses as their humanities elective, so I ended up with some students who were business majors, who had no interest or inclination in the courses I was teaching.

ANVIL: And then you get some students, like Daniel Souto from Venezuela, who are just about willing to starve to come to Penland.

ELIZABETH: Yes, thatís the type of student when you really expect something out of—people who sign up on purpose to attend the school. Itís places like Penland and some of the other schools that attract people who are really focused on what they want to do, whether itís ceramics or glass or blacksmithing. Thatís what they accomplish. In college, students are split among a variety of courses, and you often donít have their undivided attention. Itís just a different mind set. At Penland, work is completely focused on a particular project. They have a singular goal of learning that specific craft and they are giving it their all.

ANVIL: Best job in the world?

ELIZABETH: I think so. I run this studio and I can invite seven of my favorite people to come here in the summer and spend two-weeks apiece! Then, you have all the students who come and you get to meet and interact with all these new people and a lot of old friends. Plus, the work-study programs allow all these people in the different classes to mix together, exchange ideas, and get to know one another. Itís the greatest place for creative people converge and really focus on what they want to learn and what they really want to do.

ANVIL: Thank you, Elizabeth. Itís been great talking with you and good luck with the program at Penland.

(See accompanying articles through page 28)

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