Muth walks across the large studio and flags down Brock Martin, a blacksmith and Western Carolina University alumnus, who now teaches an array of courses at the GEP. Martin looks up from his station, filled with handmade tools and a 2,400-degree metal forge that can be felt several feet away before you even realize it’s there.
“It’s pretty much who I am and what I love to do,” Martin modestly said about his passion for the craft. “It has its challenges for sure, but I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life.”
Martin was the first metal intern at the GEP, which runs on methane gas from an old landfill a stone’s throw across the parking lot. Now 27, Martin came to the GEP when he was a freshman at WCU. He was an entrepreneur and Japanese major, but soon found an enduring love for blacksmithing once his art instructor suggested he checkout the program at the GEP, which has had a long and bountiful partnership with the university.
“I always wanted to do it, but I never had seen it before. And it was pretty intimidating the first time I saw it,” Martin said. “My first day was just awful. [Laughs]. I had such high expectations of myself and what I should be able to accomplish.”
But, with anything worthwhile, practice makes perfect. Martin kept coming back to the GEP. He honed his skills, rigorously studying techniques and fundamentals. After a few years, he felt confident enough in his evolving skillset to start teaching courses around the region. He also hits the road doing demonstrations at cultural festivals, Renaissance fairs and comic conventions (that couples with a rebirth in Medieval history and fashion in recent years, as seen by the popularity of the television show “Game of Thrones”).
“These skills are important because they’re fundamental to our lives,” Martin said. “It’s a primitive skillset, one that also applies to today, too. It’s very self-reliant. You can make anything you can imagine or improvise. And it’s crucial that we keep these skills and traditions alive.”
Though now based out of Hickory, Martin holds these monthly blacksmithing classes at the GEP, all in an effort to not only share his ancient skills, but to also grow his career as an artist and educator in a space that fosters such intent. Last Saturday, students taking the two-day class were hard at work constructing a set of “spaulders,” which is a 13th-14th century style of shoulder armor, consisting of multiple pieces of metal layered in such a way to provide safety and flexibility.
“You’ve always got your flashier aspects of blacksmithing, but what it comes down to is technique,” Martin said. “One of the biggest misconceptions is about strength, where what’s more important than strength is technique and finesse — less is more.”
Watching Martin instruct the class, Muth can’t help but feel justified in his mission, which is the foundation of the GEP — making a career out of your passion. Whereas some many see it impossible to pay the bills with your craft in a modern era, the GEP (alongside WCU and other organizations) provides the guidance as to how to find financial footing as an artist, especially when you have a studio available atop a keen interest by outsiders as to what you’re offering to instruct.
“It’s tough to convince people that the arts can be a viable career path, but Brock is proof of that,” Muth said. “It means a lot to have alumni come back and teach courses, and to see folks coming in to learn from these talented artists. It’s hard to not be impressed with that, just with the amount of skill it takes, and then when you figure in that the property is running on gas from this big pile of trash over there — it blows people’s minds.”
“It’ll probably be tough to get started, but you have to be practical. You can’t get discouraged,” Martin added, when asked about others pursuing their artistic aspirations as a career. “It’s about finding that balance — you’ve got to find your market, be able to make something that’s not only going to sell, but also something you like to make.”
Meandering around the GEP is Program Assistant Chelsea Miller. Another WCU alumna, she found herself at the GEP one day, and seemingly never left. A “jack-of-all-trades,” she has apprenticed with Martin, becoming one of the few female blacksmiths around the area. She also has acquired skills in glassblowing, which the GEP offers in the other side of the building. For her, she’s been able to put her art education degree to good use, leading tours of the GEP and also hosting live demonstrations for school groups, children and the curious alike that wander in.
“Doing this, and having the GEP here, gives people a better appreciation for people working with their hands and a better understanding of how things are made,” she said. “It shows how viable the arts are in a community, the amount of skill it takes to create these pieces, and the amount of talent the resides within these walls.”
With several blacksmithing classes already lined up at the GEP for the summer, Muth also noted that plans (and fundraising efforts) are in the works to add a full ceramics studio that will complement the already-impressive resources of the building and its staff.
“There are six schools around this area that are cranking out potters, and all types of other artists and crafters,” Muth said. “And if we want all of these young people to stay here, and thrive here, we need to continue to set the stage and have these studio spaces to ensure their creative and financial futures.”
There will be a handful of blacksmithing courses taught by Brock Martin at the Jackson County Green Energy Park in Dillsboro.
They include the following:
• Viking Round Shield — 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 16-17.
• Bladesmithing: Seax Knife Class — 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 14-15.
• Viking Axe Making — 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 18-19.
For more information of these workshops, class fees, the JCGEP, and more, click on www.jcgep.org.