Forging a New Experience: Master blacksmith fires things up at ESSA's new building

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Jim Wallace will never forget the first blacksmithing class he taught at the Eureka Springs School of the Arts. It was in August, and the class was held outdoors, behind the school's main building. In addition to the forge, the students used oxygen acetylene torches, creating conditions described as harsh, meaning so hot, you could hardly stand it.

"It was death-defying," Wallace said.

That was five years ago. In May, Wallace will be back at ESSA to teach the first class in the school's new blacksmithing/metal fabrication building. While it's not air-conditioned, he expects things to be a lot cooler.

"If it's out of the direct sun and the air is moving, it will be," Wallace said.

Jim Wallace calls this gate on his White River property the "Two Smiths" gate because he made it with artist Dolph Smith, an artist

Wallace was the founding director of the National Ornamental Metal Museum in Memphis. He retired in December of 2007 after 30 years at the museum, which he helped build from scratch. He now lives on the White River south of Mountain Home. He mainly teaches basic black-smithing, and prefers using a coal-fired forge, which sounds traditional but is relatively new in the history of iron-working. Before that, blacksmiths fired their forges with charcoal.

"Anything that gets it hot -- that's all that matters," Wallace said.

Wallace discovered an affinity for blacksmithing when he was in college in Colorado. He was majoring in art and "making a lot of bad pottery" when a friend asked if he'd like a job over Christmas break working at Slim Spurling's blacksmith forge in Morrison, Colorado.

"It took all of about 12 minutes to fall in love with it", Wallace said of blacksmithing. "The coal smoke, the noise, the strong coffee. I really enjoyed the rhythm of the work, and the immediacy of it."

Wallace honed his craft in the Master of Fine Arts program in metals at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where he was one of four students working in iron out of the seven students in the program. During his three years there, Wallace made gates, sleds, baby cradles, Damascus steel knives and a steel-fabricated stove. He's always done architectural work, but it's not his main focus.

"I've always felt really comfortable in the functional," Wallace said.

As the founding director of the National Ornamental Metal Museum, Wallace made everything from drawer pulls to sculptural gates for a downtown police precinct station. He and his staff also repaired the gates of Graceland, and started Repairs Day, an annual event that draws hundreds of people.

At his forge on the White River property, Wallace is finishing work on a 8 1/2 by 12 1/2 foot sundial for a green housing development in Frayser, north of Memphis. The sundial will also be a benchmark, a permanent survey point used for geographic reference.

"It's a time and a place," he said.

ESSA director Peggy Kjelgaard said she also remembers that first blacksmithing class that Wallace taught at ESSA. The students had to stand in line to use the one forge, she said, and also had to share the two anvils. Wallace has not yet seen the new building, Kjelgaard said, so has no idea how different teaching this year's blacksmithing class will be.

Blacksmithing for all levels with Jim Wallace is May 8 through May 10 in the new blacksmith/metal fabrication building at Eureka Springs School of the Arts. No experience necessary. Tuition is $125. Lab fee $25. For more information, go to, click on workshops, and then click on the first illustration, a wooden box with forged metal hinges.

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