Forging its Own Future

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

From the gazebo at the National Ornamental Metal Museum, high on a bluff south of downtown Memphis, the world resembles nothing so much as a mural by Thomas Hart Benton. Day and night, barges steer through a wide bend of the Mississippi, while freight trains and Interstate 55 traffic rattle the steel truss bridges to and from Arkansas. The gazebo is a nice spot for a sunset wedding or a glass of whiskey after a day pounding steel.

Forged-steel gates, painted black with  gold-leaf trim and dappled with hundreds of rosettes, open to the museum grounds, a riverside oasis shaded by century-old oak trees and strewn with sculpture, some of it peculiar—a metal yellow flower, eight feet tall; a cast-aluminum lion holding out a paw; and a green-and-yellow fence piece shaped like a row of cornstalks.

The gallery, which is inside a 1930s brick building with a white portico, recently displayed exquisitely crafted chastity contraptions, an exhibition titled “Impenetrable Devices.” This is uncharacteristically avant-garde. The 3,000 items in the museum’s permanent collection tend more toward decorative copper vases, silver jewelry, gothic boxes and wrought-iron crucifixes.

The smithy, the heart of the place, is across the lawn from the gallery. Here metalsmiths in safety glasses and leather aprons work amid blasts of heat and earsplitting noise. Along the back wall, coal hearths fire metal to glowing red-hot and white. Two green, refrigerator-size power hammers dominate the center of the room. An array of chisels, anvils, electric buffers and other tools clutter the sooty worktables. Cigarette butts and metal shavings litter the concrete floor. Jim Wallace, the museum’s first and only director, can usually be found in the thick of it all, hammering at an anvil or cutting or grinding steel.

Wallace, 58, is tall and white haired, with a bushy white mustache and soot-stained jeans. Nearly 30 years ago when the three-acre site, formerly the home of the U.S. Marine Hospital, was just grass stubble and derelict buildings, the city leased the property—a dollar a year—to a group of metalworkers who wanted to start a museum. Wallace, then a blacksmith in Colorado, was recruited to head it. He says his main qualification for the director’s job was gullibility. “The board had approached several people,” he recalls, “but they were all museum professionals, so they knew better. I had a young family, and I figured I’ll come here and work two years, save enough money and move to Montana.” He shrugs. “It didn’t work out that way.”

Wallace moved his family into a ramshackle duplex on the property and started converting an abandoned nurses’ dormitory into exhibition space, doing much of the painting, plumbing, wiring and bricklaying himself. “There were snakes in the gallery,” recalls sculptor John Medwedeff, who was an intern at the museum during its fledgling years. “The phone would cut out. Four visitors on a Saturday was a big deal.”

Wallace’s three sons grew up on the property, and all learned metalworking. One of them, Jed, still works nights in the smithy—fueled by hot tea that he drinks from porcelain cups—sometimes till four in the morning.

Next door to the smithy is the foundry, where steel is melted and poured into molds. (Iron used to be the craft’s main raw material, but these days it’s steel.) Here and in the smithy, museum staffers teach classes on basic forging and casting. They also undertake commissions, such as trophies for Memphis’ premier barbecue festival (cleavers, mounted on wooden pedestals, surrounded by small metal pigs) and a sterling coffee and tea service for the USS Tennessee, a nuclear submarine. When Graceland’s front gates needed an overhaul, they were trucked here for restoration.

Every October, the museum sponsors a kind of metalworking orgy called Repair Days. A hundred or so metal artists from around the country volunteer for three days to fix whatever anybody brings in—antique earrings, candelabras, dysfunctional door hinges, bed frames, dented steamer trunks. “Anything but cats, cars and broken hearts,” is the museum’s motto. Or, as Wallace puts it, “from absolute trash to a Paul Revere chocolate pitcher.” Repair fees go to the museum; the artists get venison stew and beer.

At last year’s Repair Days, Rick Smith, head of the blacksmithing program at Southern Illinois University, fashioned a new antler out of casting wax for a pot-metal deer. Nearby, Medwedeff melted the end of a pen-size rod with a blowtorch, then applied its molten tip to the broken edges of a metal mare’s leg like Crazy Glue. A Kansas University teaching assistant looked on as undergraduate Amelia Fader repaired a wedding ring. “‘Just fix it like it’s for your mother, not the pope,’” Fader says she was advised.

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.”