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by Dr. Oneida Cramer

Blacksmithing is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Along with increased demand for opulent metal artwork on the home, a new breed of blacksmiths is emerging. Some people might call them decorative artists except that these smiths relish the romance of blacksmithing?the chorus hammering on the anvil, the fireworks displays, the burning forges, and the dark open-aired shops. In their rustic quarters, blacksmiths can forge ironware that gives homeowners an alternative to standard design. Recently, one of these blacksmiths joined the roster of Dallas blacksmiths, a notable group made up of families rooted in Dallas blacksmithing history and distinguished part-time smiths.

?Both blacksmiths and whitesmiths take pride in the detail of their work,? says Cole Smith, architect with Smith, Ekblad, & Associates, and blacksmith. ?When a metal object is beat up or dinged, the skill is obviously minimal or nil. Smiths were never proud of hammer marks and took great pains to fashion smooth curves and surfaces. A telling phrase by the late Frances Whitaker, a great smith and teacher for 75 years, was to look at the spaces between the elements, scrolls, or whatever for proportion and design. This was also the credo of most great painters and sculptors of the past.?

Historically, the American blacksmith was one of the first and most important early American craftsmen to arrive in Jamestown, Virginia in May 1607. But his craft was utilitarian, and little is known about early blacksmith products except that they were tools and other objects made with iron. In the cities, Whitesmiths polished and finished the metal products while in every community, rural and urban, at least one all-purpose blacksmith built and repaired farm implements, household items, hardware, and buggies. In the 20th century, many forges cooled off because of mass production, motorized transportation, and the depression. Demand for decorative ornamentation, popular for centuries in Europe and evident in the Victorian era, dwindled as a new spared down look became the trend. By the 1960,?s only a few American blacksmiths could be found nation-wide. Yet, these smiths designed very fine ironwork.

Samuel Yellin, for example, born 1885 in Poland and died 1940 in Philadelphia, set high standards in blacksmithing with one of the most productive American shops employing, at one time, a 268 workforce forging for Harvard University, University of Pittsburgh, Washington Cathedral, Vanderbilt residence, George Eastman House, Pillsbury residence, just to name a few. One Yellin student, the late Francis Whitaker set up shop in California and Colorado; in 1997, he received a letter of commendation from President Bill Clinton for 75 yeas of dedicated service as an artist-blacksmith.

In Dallas, Henry Cornwell Potter began making lanterns for a hobby in 1905 at age twelve. Potter?s hobby took off as a business in 1922 after Sanger Brothers Department Store ordered 100 lanterns. Over the years, Potter forged grills, lanterns, rails, gates, fences, andirons, doors, and much more for public locations such as the Inwood Theater, Highland Park Shopping Village, Highland Park United Methodist Church, SMU, and Highland Park Presbyterian Church as well as private residences. Eva Jane Potter Morgan donated 1,600 drawings and illustrations made by her father to the Hamon Arts Library, Jerry Bywaters Special Collections Wing at SMU, where Sam Ratcliffe is cataloguing the documents.

Today, Potter Art Metal Studios remains at the original address on Central near Henderson, where Richard Potter continues his grandfather?s all-directional tradition, which includes, in addition to blacksmithing and repousse (hammered design or texture in flat sheet metal), restoration and using spinning tools to make vessels like the silver chalice for Christ the King Catholic Church. Potter likes to mix metals and add new design to old patterns, some?very ancient. For instance, five years ago, he spotted one of his railing designs on a canal bridge in Russia, where it had been standing for hundreds of years. Often, Potter spots his grandfather?s work?in and outside of Dallas. And Potter?s business is booming with projects nationwide and in Dallas pending into 2001. One very popular item, besides railings and doors, is the lantern?large and elegant outside the new large homes.

In January, Potter completed his gift to Dallas when restored torchieres were replaced in front of the Dallas Police Department. Then in February, Preservation Dallas gave Potter an Award for Outstanding Craftsmanship, one of the Preservation Achievement Awards for long-term wonderful work.

Another full-time blacksmith, also booked full into 2001 is David L. D?Avignon, who is carrying on his father?s establishment, Iron Craft Studio, Inc., which was started in a little building in front of the family house in 1948. The house is gone; in it?s place stands the shop, expanded after David and wife Marsha, together, bought the business and began forging architectural iron?gates, railings, stairs, fences, window frames, everything and almost anything, even bed posts?for Dallas? largest homes. One recent public project is a brass and copper columbarium with surrounding fence at the Church of the Incarnation.

Mike Selinsky arrived in Dallas last spring bringing Dallas? newest blacksmith shop, Colorado Forge Original Custom Ironworks, which makes home products?table and floor lamps, chandeliers, accent pulls and knobs, and wine racks. And he plans a show for October 5, 2000. For details, call 214-522-4008 or send e-mail to Randolph@airmail,net. You can also visit the Colorado Forge web page at

A giant of a man in his late forties, Selinsky is an example of the new breed of blacksmiths. Intrigued by blacksmithing as a teen, he went on to college and started a machine shop before deciding in 1985 to move to the mountains of Silverton, Colorado, where he began blacksmithing as a hobby while working in a mine. After the mine closed, Selinsky turned blacksmithing into a profession. For such a man, it took one force to bring him to Dallas?an affair of the heart?to be near his girl.

This area is attracting a sizable industry of blacksmiths as shown by the 150 members in the North Texas Blacksmiths Association, which extends from Waco to Oklahoma, according to Page Thomas, who works as a librarian in Bridwell Library at SMU and a blacksmith in his own Bear Anvil Blacksmith Shop during off time. Although some members of NTBA are full time blacksmiths, many do blacksmithing as a hobby, like Thomas, who began collecting tools about 20 years ago and started forging about 12 years ago. Today, he has all the tools to build a log cabin.

Whether your home is a cabin or castle, you too may find working with a blacksmith a creative experience for you and your home.

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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