Forging its Own Future

Dedicated metalsmiths help a Memphis museum revive a lost American art form

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As the museum has grown—it now gets some 30,000 visitors annually—so too has the art of decorative metalworking. Demand for it declined during the Great Depression and World War II, when money and metal were scarce, and again during the rise of Modernism, which emphasized clean, unadorned style. But it rebounded in the 1970s when Southern Illinois established a blacksmithing degree program and a major metalworking text was published, the first in decades. In 1974 the Artists’ Blacksmith Association of North America listed 150 members; today it has more than 4,000.

Younger smiths see themselves more as artists than artisans, but the museum embraces both. “It’s all metal,” says Wallace. “You use the same principles. We speak the same language at the core level.”

He is working on converting the last dilapidated building on the grounds into a library for metalworking sources. He says that once it opens next year, he’ll retire in Arkansas, where he’ll spend “more time standing in front of an anvil and less running things.” Not that he has regrets. “Metalwork needed to have one place to call home,” he says, “and this is the place.”

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