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Rural Missouri Magazine


Fine Metalworking
Artist-blacksmiths prove quality knows no boundaries

by Jim McCarty

Japh Howard built his first forge at age 15 to create copies of old tools he found in the New Mexico desert where he grew up. Today he specializes in architectural work, which he creates in a former north Missouri school with his wife, Alice James.

Former Prairie Hill Elementary School students revisiting their school these days are in for a surprise. The incessant ringing of hammer on anvil or the mighty thump of a mechanical forging hammer signal the old school has a new use today.

Once abandoned due to declining enrollment, the former school in north-central Missouri might have fallen into disrepair like so many others. Instead what was once the gymnasium is now the workplace of Japheth Howard and Alice James.

The husband and wife team operate Flicker Forge here while Alice’s brother, Eliot, makes tooling and composite parts for the automobile industry in the rest of the building. Japheth and Alice, world-class artist-blacksmiths, are living proof that talented people can earn a living anywhere.

The two moved 70,000 pounds of metalworking equipment to this extremely rural part of Missouri from Seattle where they operated a successful business for many years. “We had a good business and could see we could stay but it’s tough to buy a house, office and work space in Seattle,” says Japheth. “We figured we could do one or the other.”

The couple set up shop in the gymnasium of the former Prairie Hill Elementary School after eight years in Seattle.

Seattle had changed in the eight years the two lived and worked there. Once-inexpensive warehouse space is being converted into trendy shopping areas and living quarters. Never city people, the two decided to find a rural place to set up shop.

That’s when Alice’s brother offered the gymnasium at the school where he was running a business. The offer proved too good to pass up, so the couple loaded up their heavy equipment, put it on two trucks and shipped it to Missouri in 2000.

Already the two had a reputation as top-notch artist-blacksmiths. Japh, as he’s known to friends, started forging hot iron at age 15, taking up the ancient craft to forge copies of old tools he found in archeological digs. In time he learned to produce the furniture, lighting fixtures, gates and railings once made exclusively by blacksmiths.

This railing created by Japh shows the clean, simple lines that he has a reputation for producing.

He learned his trade the old fashioned way, as an apprentice to a number of learned smiths. His journeys led him to apprentice at the National Ornamental Metals Museum in Memphis, Tenn. Here he caught the attention of an English blacksmith who offered him a chance to work in Surrey, England.

Japh spent a year in England, doing restoration work that included old castles and Parliament. “I got a chance to work with guys who started at 15 and retired after 50 years. I wanted to get there before they were all gone. I got to do lots of high-end architectural work.”

Working with those English smiths earned Japh a reputation for precision craftsmanship. “Everything there was made to the half millimeter. I found you could make things that precise. If you did everything right from the beginning, when it came together it fit,” he says.

That experience serves him well today. It’s not unusual for Japh to forge a major project in Missouri and ship it across the country for reassembly. Since he can’t take the shop with him, every part must fit.

Alice James is surrounded by steam, smoke and fire as she quenches a handle she is making. She took an academic path to becoming an artist-blacksmith and is frequently called on to teach her skills.

A recent project was a stair railing made for an apartment in New York City. Japh finished the job, packed it in crates and shipped it to New York. Then he loaded the pieces in an elevator and took them to the 56th floor for installation.

By contrast, Alice took the academic route to her training. She majored in art at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, focusing on jewelry and glass. Along the way she took every metalworking class offered by the school, which offers a blacksmith degree program but only for graduate students.

In her spare time she volunteered at the Metals Museum, where she met Japh. Alice did a two-year residency at the Appalachian Center for Crafts in Tennessee where she quickly discovered jewelry and glasswork wasn’t her calling.

She began to do more blacksmithing and silversmithing. But after two years she started getting nervous about leaving the academic setting. Graduate school seemed like a good way to postpone the inevitable so she moved to Washington state planning to enroll.

“I talked to people in the blacksmithing community and was advised not to do it right away,” she says. Instead she rented studio space where she did custom work and occasional repairs. “For six months I made rent but not much more,” she says.

Then she met Darryl Nelson, a Washington blacksmith known for his animal heads in iron and for heavy forgings, along with a tremendous work ethic. Alice went to work for the veteran smith.

“This was the education I needed, not graduate school,” she says. “He just taught me a lot, all about the forging process.

Japh and Alice work on the design of a railing for a Chicago home. The two are collaborating more on design since moving their business to Missouri.

“His forge was never off. Even if he wasn’t doing anything that required the forge, it was there to remind him that’s what you do. The roar of the fire kept you focused.”

As Alice’s reputation grew, she was invited to teach at blacksmithing schools and conferences across the country and in Canada. She is one of the featured demonstrators at the conference sponsored by the Blacksmiths Association of Missouri in May.

While Japh and Alice have taught together, they usually don’t collaborate on projects. That is changing as Alice takes time away from the forge to raise their 2-year-old son, Cyrus. To keep from losing her touch Alice is doing more design work with Japh.

“I always worked with the clients and their needs,” Japh says. “Alice responds more to their emotions.”

The architectural details Japh creates, reflect his training and experience working with masters in Europe.

Adds Alice, “Say they need a gate. Japh works out the architectural components and how you make a gate where I look at the client. Maybe they collect something or like a particular style.”

One piece they did collaborate on was a balance beam scale for an art show. Japh researched how to make the scale work. Alice studied blue herons to contribute the form. The finished piece has hooks and swivels by Japh and a heron head by Alice.

That clients can find these two working out of an old school in northern Missouri is a huge testament to their reputation. That this high-end blacksmith work is still being done speaks volumes of blacksmithing’s comeback.

Once considered a dying art, today a new generation of blacksmiths is reviving the old ways of creating gates, railings and even furniture. Hand work ensures no two forged pieces are alike.

Artist-blacksmiths like these two use coal or coke to heat steel until it can be worked like clay. Using hammer and anvil Japh and Alice can forge tapers, twists, tenons and even organic shapes like leaves.

“Design is real important,” says Japh. “You have to make something no one else is going to make, not because they can’t but because they didn’t think of it. There’s a lot of this work. It’s letting people know you can do it.”

You can learn more about Flicker Forge at www.flickerforge.com or call (660) 777-3508.

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