Arts and Entertainment

Whidbey artist helps create iron gate for traveling show

Island artist Jeff Holtby stands next to the hand-forged gate he helped create. - Brian Kelly / The Record
Island artist Jeff Holtby stands next to the hand-forged gate he helped create.
— image credit: Brian Kelly / The Record

Three blacksmiths from the Puget Sound area have teamed up to create a forged iron gate that will tour the country for two years.

Island artist Jeff Holtby collaborated with blacksmiths Jake James of Vancouver, British Columbia and Jorgen Harle of Orcas Island for two weeks of 10-hour days to produce an 800-pound, hand-forged gate. The gate will be on display at the Northwest Blacksmith Association conference in Mount Vernon, the National Ornamental Metal Museum in Memphis, Tenn., the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wis. and the University of Southern Illinois in Carbondale, Ill.

The gate, which is about five by seven feet in size, is functional.

“It’s the heaviest garden gate I’ve ever made, but it moves like glass,” Holtby said.

“Even a child could open it. That’s how good the joinery is on it.”

The collaboration took place at Arcane Metal Arts, Holtby’s studio near Bayview. He said the project pushed the parameters of what the shop usually produces, but the 400 hours of focused labor was worth it.

“There’s a lot of highly technical work in that gate. Just the chance to do that kind of work as a team and to stretch our abilities is great. It puts us beyond the capabilities of what we normally do in the shop,” Holtby said.

Holtby had a career as a welder and fabricator before easing into the world of blacksmithing via workshops, self-study and study with master smiths in the United States.

According to the Metal Museum Web site, the modern age of blacksmithing has arrived.

“The last significant international contemporary blacksmithing exhibition to tour the United States was ‘Towards a New Iron Age’ in 1984. Since that time, many artists have entered the field with unique perspectives on blacksmithing as an art form.

“New developments and approaches in the United States and abroad warrant a fresh look at how blacksmiths are using traditional and innovative techniques in their work,” the Web site adds.

With this current show titled “Iron: Twenty Ten,” Holtby and his fellow blacksmiths answered the call of the jurors by creating what is called “contemporary hot work” in the blacksmithing biz. About 50 artists were chosen for the show.

“It’s the kind of work we’d like to sell,” Holtby said of the hand-forged gate. Though not many can afford a garden gate with a price tag of $65,000, the point is to get the work out there and have the traveling exhibit be the group’s advertiser for the year. Blacksmiths from all over the country will see it, as will visitors to the various venues to which the gate will travel.

Blacksmithing is probably more akin to glassblowing than it is to welding.

Welders use an electric machine. Blacksmiths heat the metal to such a degree that it takes on a plastic state. Then the metal is hammered or pressed into a desired shape.

“My favorite thing is when the metal is hot,” Holtby said.

“Right after the first blow, I look at the facets and the facets tell me what to do next. It’s a fluid process, like dance, and can be very exhilarating,” he said.

“This is the most inspired I’ve been lately, having the three of us working on it at once; everybody’s intently focused under the 180 blows a minute and fully skilled,” he said.

“It’s fluid and interactive. The team gets under that huge hammer, and everybody’s really skilled and extremely focused and it’s just wonderful.”

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