Artist-blacksmiths prove quality knows no
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
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
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.
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.
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.
railing created by Japh shows the clean, simple lines that he has
a reputation for producing.
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,
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
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
responds more to their emotions.”
architectural details Japh creates, reflect his training and
experience working with masters in Europe.
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.”
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
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
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.
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.
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
You can learn more about Flicker Forge at www.flickerforge.com or call