by Phillip Manning ~ September 18th, 2013
Kevin Foster’s blacksmithing forge is near Main Street in Talkeetna. While there are relatively few blacksmiths left in the age of automated manufacturing and microcircuitry, he is rarely idle. Between maintaining a homestead in Chase, teaching, and creating what he calls “house jewelry” for homes in the Valley and Anchorage, he has to make time to work on his metal art. He is currently transitioning away from making stair-rails and light fixtures and wants to focus more on “gallery work.”
“Art is a new thing for me. I’ve never had any art training, but you’ve got to try something or you’re just going to be idling all your life. I could work for other people and make a comfortable living dolling up their houses, but I just want to try something for myself for awhile. If it doesn’t pan out, that’s fine. I’ll just have a garage sale and sell the scrap iron.”
Kevin Foster has been blacksmithing for about fifteen years. Before that, he did welding and repair work in Talkeetna. He says he got his start in blacksmithing when his wife, Peggy, bought him a book on the craft. Foster was intrigued by the fact that blacksmith’s made their own tools as part of their trade, and decided to dig deeper.
“From there, I bought some more books–mostly how to. As I got to know what I was doing, my books evolved. No more ‘How To’ books in my library. It’s all coffee table books, [where] I could look at a project and, if I didn’t understand how they made it, I would figure it out. It might take a month or two, but…I’m the type of guy where–I’ve got several projects started, but they’re all sitting on the table because I didn’t know how to complete them properly. Now I do know how to complete them properly, but I have too many unfinished projects”
Kevin Foster’s Dammed Susitna Salmon, which is a stylized rendition of a fish skeleton, is his way of showing his opposition to the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project. With the forge burning nearly white-hot, he shows me an elongated piece of metal which will eventually become the spine for one of these sculptures.
“We get it to a soft state, and we do different techniques. This is called an up-set. I’m up-setting the metal…and tapered….I’m really only doing the basic techniques–or basic procedures. You’re up-setting a bar to build up more mass, you’re drawing a taper out. It’s all the same…rudimentary, I guess I would say, procedures, but you’re using them in a more complex manner.”
The process is long and very physically demanding. Foster says he spends over thirty hours on the smaller version of the salmon sculpture. At this point in his life, though, there’s nothing else he’d rather be doing.
“It is fun. I don’t call this work, anymore. Peggy came up with a line ten years ago that I used for a Rasmuson grant, and it basically states, “If you choose a craft one loves, you’ll never work another day in your life.” And I when read that I was like, “Gosh, that’s really true.” That was ten years ago, and it’s still really true.”
Part of Kevin Foster’s love for blacksmithing comes from teaching. He says he will be taking an apprentice next summer, and often teaches classes in the winter. For those wishing to join the ranks of one of humanity’s oldest trades, he says that continual practice is key.
“For students–for young people, perseverance pays off. Every time you empty a propane bottle, if you go with a propane forge, you’re going to say, “This candle holder turned out a lot better than my last one.”
Foster says he’s at a stage of his craft where he wants to play with the scale that can be achieved with metal objects.
“I’d like to make big stuff while I can. I’d like to make a six-foot-long paper clip. I’d like to make a five-foot-long safety pin…just out of big metal so I can get that out of my system.”
As of now, Kevin Foster does not have any concrete plans for oversized office supplies, and is continuing to work with smithing smaller, more detailed pieces.