A Wellspring of Ideas on the Prairie: A visit with Tom Joyce
Helmut Hillenkamp
HEPHAISTOS 3/4 1995, pp. 4-5
Tr: Mike Spencer
Tom Joyce set off on an independent path early on and hasn't yet achieved eveything he has conceived. His career is a work in progress. Helmut Hillenkamp, Hephaistos' correspondent in the USA visited Tom Joyce's workshop and presents this snapshot.

A Wellspring of Ideas on the Prairie:
A visit with Tom Joyce

It is a clear Saturday morning. Tom Joyce and I have an appointment for an interview and a photo session. With two other friends we set off by car for the shop that he has built himself on the prairie pine barrens eight miles outside of Santa Fe and finally find it at the end of a winding country road. The adobe building welcoms us with a cheerful bright blue metal roof. It provides a house for the family, a workshop with work stations and an "office" that is is better described as a museum and library of the blacksmith's craft.

You notice immediately that this isn't just a place where objects are produced. It's apparent that an equal value is placed on the cultural dimension and on the development of the craft. Visitors are confronted with new sources of stimulation everywhere they turn. You just know that the person who works in this space is a contrarian of sorts, pursuing a path of attentiveness and reflection in an era of haste and superficiality.

So: What's happening here today? The place smells of woodsmoke and and I can hardly contain my amazement when I see that Tom is using his hundred-ton hydraulic press to "forge" wood. He pulls a glowing piece of iron out of the gas forge, puts it into the press and drives it into a specially prepared block of wood. The resulting impressions will later be cleaned up with a brush and will become elements of a sculpture in which the wood impressions will echo the matching forged steel forms.

Tom is always good for a surprise. His creative impulse led him to drop out of school at age 16 and devote himself entirely to the craft of smithing. He visited countless museums -- especially those with archives in the cellar -- and then went home to make his own copies of historical pieces in forged iron. With this approach, over the years he established for himself a standard of quality and expertise that has brought him international recognition. His manner is very modest and it was only after six years of experience in metalwork that he began to bill himslf as an "artist blacksmith". It should be said in this regard, that in the USA there is effectively no functioning, formal system of training for handcrafts. It's generally left up to the individual how he'll go about accumulating the necessary experience and expertise. Currently, Tom has another man in his shop who works with him so that he can learn the craft. Three others have recently completed several years of apprenticiship and collaboration with him and are now pursuing their own careers as smiths.

While Tom believes in the value of traditional European training in the craft, he tries to pursue alternative methods as well. Catchwords like ecology, sensitivity to the natural landscape, recycling, eliminating hierarchy and wholistic thinking aren't just empty slogans for him. They are concepts to the realization of which which he devotes considerable time and energy.

His notions of esthetics derive not only from the implicit esthetic of the craft but from study of such diverse sources as the "theory of the golden mean" and of the construction of medieval cathedrals. It is his intent to offer to the viewer of his work multiple levels of symbolism. These manifest themselves not only in the functionality of the piece but in engaging, ineffable and unique ways. Since the middle eighties, Joyce has made some thousands of of small pieces: domestic hardware, fixtures and furniture, tools and so on. "I could forge those pieces in my sleep." He has sought new challenges and has found them as an "architectural blacksmith". Since 1989 he has been producing works that embody his unique style. Whether it be in a gate or architectural grillwork or in a simple bowl, Joyce remains true to his love of detail.

Events of recent months have brought brought him a commission for an important public work. He is to make a lecturn for the United Nations World Center in San Francisco, commissioned in celebration of the UN Diamond Jubilee. The lecturn is to be especially symbolic: Hephaistos readers will recall the baptismal font constructed from a collection of separately made pieces that we featured in 11/2 (1994). The UN lecturn will also be composed by assembling many separate pieces. But the elements from which it will be assembled will be small pieces of dismantled nuclear weapons from the United States and the [former] Soviet Union. The museum in Phoenix is considering another commission -- a central lighting fixture.

Joyce tries to use materials that can already tell a story when they come to him and then he works these materials in such a way that he imposes his forms without depriving them of their ability to recount their history. Such materials are often rescued from the scrap heap.

A short while ago a commission consisting of gates and parapet railings for the Native American School in Santa Fe was being discussed. Tom combined the architectural project with a project for the students that included lectures on forged metalwork and visits to his studio for some hands-on experience. For Tom, work for public spaces means a more intense and protracted focus and more opportunity for artictic experiment. It means that he now works in a less rigidly planned manner than in the past. He now intentionally leaves room for the unintentional, the chaotic and the spontaneous. His most recent idea is for a archaeological sculpture constructed from the remnants of his career as a smith, forge welded into clumps and interesting objects in such a way that the origins of the components are still recognizable. These objects will be arranged in chronological order and bound together with a sort of iron "thread", like the thread of a idea that leads from one thing to the next. The whole thing will be partially buried on Tom's land where, as the years go by, more can be added to the front end while at the back end the structures rust away and decay until only a ferruginous, three-dimensional pattern remains deep in the sand as archaeological recollection of past creativity.

Tom Joyce -- vita

Tom's description of his own work:
Construction in iron that express the landscape through classical and contemporary forging technique.
Thematically integrated design and furnishing of complete buildings and houses with gates, rails, grills, lighting fixtures, all fixtures and furniture.
Tom Joyce Phone: (505) 982-0485 [ 001/505/9820485 ]
Route 9, Box 731
Santa Fe, NM
USA 87505

Copyright © 1995 HEPHAISTOS Internationale Zeitschrift für Metallgestalter. Permission is granted to reproduce this article for educational or other not-for-profit purposes.
Updated 7 July 1995 -- Michael Spencer