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Francis Whitaker, Master Blacksmith, Oct 23, 1999

 
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PostPosted: Wed Apr 21, 2010 4:17 am    Post subject: Francis Whitaker, Master Blacksmith, Oct 23, 1999 Reply with quote

California and the West Blacksmith Francis Whitaker Dies Tradition: His skill and art sparked a revival of the ancient craft. He was 92.
Los Angeles Times (CA) - November 5, 1999

Francis Whitaker, a master blacksmith whose devotion to handing down 3,000-year-old techniques sparked a revival of his ancient craft in late 20th century America, has died in Colorado at the age of 92.

Whitaker, who had colon and stomach cancer, was at work in a Colorado forge just a month before his death Oct. 23, crafting andirons for a son's house in Northern California. He died at a hospital in Glenwood Springs.

He was a hero to blacksmiths across the country for a lifetime devoted to preserving an almost lost craft and raising the standards of the blacksmith's art.

The federal government came as close as it could to declaring him a national cultural treasure in 1997, when he was honored at the White House by the National Endowment for the Arts as one of 11 National Heritage Fellows, one of the few remaining NEA prizes earmarked for individuals.

"He had no peers in the smithing world," said Carmel blacksmith and artist Dorothy Stiegler, board member of a national blacksmiths association that has grown from 30 to 4,700 members since Whitaker helped found it 25 years ago. "He really made a difference."

He was born in Woburn, Mass., in 1906. His mother was a suffragist who once was beaten in a demonstration for women's rights. His father was the editor of a journal for the American Institute of Architects and, Whitaker said, "a much wiser man than I gave him credit for." He knew that of the four Whitaker children, Francis was the one who should work with his hands.

Through his architectural contacts, Whitaker's father sent him to Philadelphia to work with Samuel Yellin, a Polish-born blacksmith who had been commissioned to build the ornamental ironwork for the Federal Reserve Bank in New York City. It was the largest ornamental iron commission of the century, requiring so many blacksmiths that Yellin recruited immigrants at Ellis Island.

Whitaker, who was only 15, was instantly smitten. "Hammering hot iron was what fascinated me," he said recently. "It was magic. It is still magic."

Within a year of taking on Whitaker as an apprentice, Yellin assigned him the task of forging 400 rosettes for the teller windows at the Federal Reserve Bank.

Whitaker finished the flowerlike ornaments, then he went to Germany, where he worked under another master blacksmith, Julius Schramm of Berlin.

In 1927, he returned to the United States and settled in Carmel, where he worked in the blacksmith shop of a contractor. He eventually established his own shop and stayed for 35 years, producing custom projects ranging from door handles and foot scrapers to elaborate balcony railings and candelabra. He was elected to the City Council and was instrumental in battles to preserve open space in Big Sur and Point Lobos. While in Carmel, he became friends with authors John Steinbeck and Leon Uris, who each created characters based on Whitaker in their books.

In 1963, when an influx of wealthy residents had begun to change the character of the cozy Northern California artists hamlet, Whitaker moved to Aspen, Colo., where he opened the Mountain Forge. He again became involved in local politics and environmental battles.

Although Whitaker often pointed out that the West was won in large part by the blacksmiths who shod the horses and made the wagon wheels that carried the pioneers here, by the 1970s, smithing was a nearly dead art. What changed that was a book by Alex Bealer called "The Art of Blacksmithing" and Whitaker's decision to begin teaching his craft using the Old World methods that he had learned from Yellin and Schramm.

Being a good blacksmith is not just a matter of brawn, although it requires a strong individual to wield a hammer and anvil. "Being an artist blacksmith," Whitaker once observed, "is a combination of visual perception and manual dexterity."

He told his students that it was essential to visualize their projects. If you cannot see the chandelier or the doorknob or the balustrade in the piece of metal, he said, you cannot get it out of the metal.

What he was saying, said Stiegler, a former student of Whitaker's, "is that the blacksmith's art is philosophical as well as brute force and logic."

He taught that there were no modern shortcuts that could match the beauty of an object crafted through traditional methods. Whitaker hammered hot iron; he did not turn on an arc welder. He split metal with a chisel, not with a band saw or hacksaw. He hammer-finished his work, eschewing files that may have made the last touches easier but lacked authenticity.

He gave hundreds of workshops across the country and established two Francis Whitaker Blacksmithing Schools, one at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale where he lived, and at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C.

He was the author of three books: "The Blacksmith's Cookbook," "My Life as an Artist Blacksmith" and "Beautiful Iron: The Pursuit of Excellence." He was one of the first presidents of the Artist Blacksmiths Assn. of North America.

The Carmel Heritage Society will open an exhibit of his work in late November at the First Murphy House on Lincoln Street.

Whitaker is survived by daughter Sheila Hutchings of Monterey and son Stephen of Davis. He also is survived by four stepchildren from his marriage to the late Portia Curlee, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Facing surgery for colon cancer in 1996 caused the revered blacksmith to think about how he wanted to die. He told his surgeon: "I want a hammer in my hand."

He did not need the hammer that time. But on Oct. 23, a week after surgery for stomach cancer, he made good on his vow. He was grasping a hammer in a hand stained black from coal and metal as he drew his last breath.

PHOTO: Francis Whitaker

PHOTOGRAPHER: EDITH OGILBY Author: ELAINE WOO
Edition: Home Edition
Page: A-3
Copyright (c) 1999 The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times
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