The sharp, metallic ring of Matt McGee’s hammer striking the glowing metal on his anvil echoes through the thick wooden rafters of his shop. It is a warm, clear night in Milledgeville, the wide barn door at the back of his shop is slid open. The sound bounces off the underside of the clay-shingled roof and rings through his supply of metal packed into claustrophobic shelves. His shop, in what was once the former capitol’s livery stable, is dark, sprawling, and filled with items he’s collected over his lifetime.
Lights interspersed through the gloom draw out curious, angular shapes in faint relief. An exposed bulb hanging under the racks of lumber in the wood shop blankets a table saw with a thin layer of sawdust. A streetlight, seeping in through a filmy window, profiles the chipped face of a female mannequin on top of a metal storage cabinet – legs twisted into unnatural angles. A doctor’s lamp shines through one of the grated metal tables McGee welds on and casts a checkerboard of light and shadow on the gray cement floor. With each blow of his hammer, a cascade of sparks fly from the bullied, black anvil and scatter around his feet – winking out in a rush. The ringing sound is hollow and pure – like a tuning fork struck on a stone.
He grips the hammer’s grooved wooden handle with coarse hands. Snaking veins just under the skin of his forearms tremor. His grimy shirt wavers. The coal fire at his back whooshes into the domed entrance of the forge chimney. He is beating out a heart – bending the metal into a rough mold.
It is not hard to “see” in the alleys and isles of clear space weaving through his shop – it is hard to distinguish. Things seem one thing and appear another, enigmatic in their transience. The mood is not unlike the romantic image Henry Wadsworth Longfellow conjures in his poem, “The Village Blacksmith,”
UNDER a spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.
In one of the blacksmithing newsletters McGee keeps around, a smith considers Wadsworth’s spreading chestnut tree and wonders “whose den is paneled with the wormy chestnut now.” A poignant metaphor for the regression blacksmithing experienced as a result of the industrial age. What use is a handcrafted nail when they can be churned out by the thousands at a plant? Little in the eyes of efficiency, but what is efficiency to the man who bends iron to his will? Even less. The blacksmith stands a symbol of human ability, of the triumph over nature by the capture of fire, and McGee is an iteration of that symbol.
He drives his old truck around town with a constant load of odds and ends. He keeps two dogs, Skillet and Bean, as constant companions. He lives with his longtime girlfriend and fellow smith, Clair Guy, in a single level home a few miles from his shop. There are if you point out the spreading cactus beginning to overtake the walkway to the front door, he’ll tear off a piece and give it to you to plant. He drinks his fill and takes most his meals at Buffington’s in downtown Milledgeville where Guy is front house and bar manager.
He’s done metalwork for most of the downtown restaurants, but Buffington’s is perhaps his most elaborate. Over the bar stretches a metal ceiling of sorts that is as much about function as it is décor. There are racks for wine glasses and liquor bottles, and a metal bottle hanging by a welded ring that gets a sharp rap from bartenders when they get tips.
Apart from the bar ceiling is another sample of McGee’s work, this one a collaboration with Guy. The pair combined found items into 3-D collages to invoke a time in America when “Made in China” was an infrequent engraving.
“We don’t really like new stuff, and we’re motivated by stuff that isn’t necessarily plastic,” McGee said. “We’re trying to get people to remember who they are and where they came from, that most of what’s in Buffington’s.”
It is this idea of tradition that draws him to blacksmithing – the tools, the trade, the heirloom knowledge, the tradition stretching back to first flames mankind ever saw.
That tradition was almost lost after the Industrial age, and it was Alex Bealer, an Atlanta advertising executive, that acted as the modern savior of blacksmithing. His book “The Art of Blacksmithing” published for the first time in 1969 and still in print today is one of the most comprehensive collections of blacksmithing techniques available and was the first spark to the trade’s resurgence. This came to a head in 1973 when metallurgical artisans from across the country traveled to Westville, Ga. for the first conference of the soon to be Artist-Blacksmith’s Association of North America (ABANA). There were demonstrations, performances, and scenes Velázquez could have used for “Vulcan’s Forge.
Dimitri Gerakaris stayed up with a group of blacksmiths swapping tricks and techniques until he bade them goodnight around 2:30 a.m., but he did not sleep immediately. He scribbled into his conference notebook the credo for the eminent blacksmith’s organization of North America
“With hammer and anvil, we will forge for mankind a richer life. We will preserve a meaningful bond with the past. We will serve the needs of the present, and we will forge a bridge to the future, Function and creativity is our purpose and so is our joy.”
He revised the proposal when he woke up and read it to Bealer and few others at breakfast, and before everyone broke for lunch Bealer had him reading it to the rest of the group. When he finished, C.A. Long, an old-time “village smithy,” held some money over his head saying “I want to be the first to join.” Nineteen men followed behind him, eleven of which were from Georgia.
Now, ABANA has almost 4,000 members on five continents. This organization paved the way for dozens of similar blacksmith’s societies across America – one of which being the Ocmulgee Blacksmith’s Guild where McGee is acting president.
“We’re always seeking to improve the way that we maintain and pass down information,” McGee said. “These men have thousands of factoids that are so small no one has written them down, but they’re so big someone should.”