Students iron out connections in Memphis

By Tara Kulash

Carbondale metalsmiths have another home just two states away.

As part of a long-standing tradition, the Southern Illinois Metalsmiths Society, or SIMS, volunteered Thursday through Sunday at the National Ornamental Metal Museum in Memphis, Tenn.

The annual Repair Days event brings student and professional metalsmiths from all over the country to volunteer their time and skills repairing metal objects brought in by the public. All proceeds benefit the nonprofit museum, which is the only museum in the country that exclusively displays metal art.


Objects for repair varied from knives and candelabras to a Foo Dog statue from the Memphis Zoo. Jim Masterson, shop foreman and lead designer at the museum, said the event has drawn in even bigger items in the past, such as a boat.

The museum, which opened in 1978, had an SIU alumnus as its first director. Jim “Wally” Wallace retired in 2007 but returns for the Repair Days each year. He said the Repair Days, which began in 1979, originally only brought in Carbondale blacksmiths. Over the years, though, other schools began to participate, such as the Memphis College of Art.

Marketing and communications director for the museum Eileen Townsend said SIU still generally brings in the most students.

SIU is also the only school in the nation with a master’s program in blacksmithing.

“They’re some of the most consistent and most important students that we see every year,” she said. “I think everybody is really grateful for that relationship existing. It’s definitely one of the best schools in the country.”

SIU metalsmiths have attended the Repair Days since the event first started in 1979. Students have the chance to watch demonstrations, make repairs and shadow professionals. Volunteers can camp on the museum grounds and also receive free meals and a dance party at the end of the weekend.

One of the more exciting events included the iron pour on Saturday. A group of spectators gathered to watch an experienced blacksmith walk students through the process of heating and liquefying iron.

The students donned fireproof gear and threw scraps of iron and purified coal in a large furnace. Once students heated the iron to a liquid, they hammered through the ceramic plug until the bright orange—almost neon—liquid iron came and poured out of the funnel into a bucket. The students then lifted the bucket and poured the iron into molds.

Rick Smith, a full professor of metalsmithing and blacksmithing, called the pour a visual effect.

“It’s almost like a performance and I think people are drawn to that,” he said.

Many of the students in the demonstration were from SIU. Most were women.

Tina Neiweem, who majored in metals at SIU and graduated in spring 2013, participated in the iron pour and said it was exciting to see so many females.

“There’s a group of women who were already passionate about it and when another girl would come in curious, we would encourage them to participate,” she said.

Overall, about 30 SIU students attended the weekend event, as well as several alumni, but the relationship between SIU and the museum goes further than Repair Days.

The museum offers an apprenticeship program that often selects SIU graduates. The apprentices receive a small stipend and live on the museum grounds while working under metal professionals for two years.

Tim Schaeffer, a blacksmith major who graduated from SIU in spring 2014, landed one of the two positions this year. He said it seemed natural to move from the rare blacksmith hub in Carbondale to the hub in Memphis.

“This would be the next place to push myself,” he said. “It’s a blessing and a privilege to be here, so it was just a way for me to improve myself.”

SIMS has its own networking event Oct. 17 and 18.

Zach Lihatsh, a second-year graduate student in blacksmithing, said two visiting artists—Seth Gould and David Clemons—will lead demonstrations and lectures Friday and Saturday. The conference will also include an art show of students’ work from throughout the region, as well as an art auction Saturday night at 17th Street Bar & Grill in Murphysboro.

Registration is $35 or $25 with student ID, and proceeds will benefit SIMS.

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