Steel, my canvas. Hammer, my paintbrush.

Algoma Forest
Algoma Forest, J.E.H. MacDonald, 1920

A few years ago I was looking through my cherished book of Group of Seven paintings titled, The McMichael Canadian Collection. This book contains works that were collected by the McMichael family during the 1930s and 40s.  I began studying the composition of the paintings. I was fascinated by the way the artists moved the paint around and intentionally left the lines from their brushes in the paint to enhance the effect that they were going for. There was one painting by J.E.H. MacDonald titled, Algoma Forest, that I found most intriguing. He had painted a tree using one single continuous line of paint. By subtly and expertly moving his paintbrush he had created the impression of a rugged jack pine tree.

What I loved about this tree was its simplicity. Mr. MacDonald could have created a pine tree in which he drew every single pine needle on every single branch with every single pinecone exactly as it was. He had the skill to do so. But in the spirit of Impressionism he chose to create a pine tree with the fewest brush strokes possible. And in this case, that was one single brushstroke. The end result is an image that connects more vividly with your memory of a tree. When you think back to your favourite hiking trip and the amazing trees that you saw, you don’t remember that tree – that amazing, incredible tree in exact detail. One does not remember every pine needle, every branch and every pinecone. What you remember is your impression of that tree. You remember the awe-inspiring strength. You remember it’s towering presence. You remember its beauty and majesty. These are the impressions that you have of that tree and they are connected more to your emotional responses than to the exact reality of what made up that tree. What is so phenomenal about J.E.H. MacDonald’s tree is that he managed to capture what I just described in one single line of paint. That’s pretty cool.

Sitka Warrior 2014_36x21_Hampton Gallery
Sitka Warrior, Paul Reimer, 2014

Then I wondered if anyone had ever tried to capture in sculpture what the Group of Seven had created with paint. I thought, “What if I viewed my steel as a canvas and my hammer as a paintbrush? What if I applied to my steel, the same philosophy they applied to their paint?” I was immediately inspired. I threw some steel in the forge and began to hammer out a tree on the anvil using this philosophy. Create something that captures one’s emotional impression of a tree rather than creating a tree. Leave the marks from the hammer in the steel the way the painters left their brushstrokes in the paint. These two principles guide me as I create and I’ve been very blessed that these sculptures resonate with my clients as much as they do with me.

Sitka Warrior 2014_36x21_Hampton Gallery Version 2

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CLOSE ENOUGH ADDS UP TO A LONG WAYS AWAY.

While I worked at Fort Steele Heritage Town, I spent the summers working as a historical blacksmith in an authentic, 1898 blacksmith shop. When summer came to an end I would move the blacksmithing operations to the maintenance area of the park where they had a modern blacksmith shop. Although lacking in the charm of the historical shop, my winter accommodations had two wonderful advantages – heat and electricity. The idea was that through the winter, while there were no tourists in the Fort, the blacksmith could continue to generate revenue by completing custom projects that had been ordered during the summer months.

Historic Shop Fort Steele
Historical Shop at Fort Steele Heritage Town

One of the first projects that I undertook was a passage gate for a garden fence. It was commissioned by a retired Irish couple with whom I developed an immediate rapport. Being from the old country they had a deep appreciation for the beauty of hand forged wrought iron. The second thing that I appreciated about them was that I didn’t need to explain that blacksmiths were capable of making something other than a horseshoe.  (Reading my blog post from September 30th, “Too Young To Be A Blacksmith” will explain the horseshoe reference.)

Paul Reimer Fort Steele Modern Shop
Working in the Modern Shop at Fort Steele

While making this gate, I learned some of the most important lessons that I was ever to learn as a blacksmith. The first was, that I didn’t really know what I was doing. Fortunately, I was smart enough to figure out what I didn’t know and to teach myself how to do it.  Although I was highly proficient at making individual, standalone, functional items for the home, I did not understand the precision that was required to make multiple parts that fit into one project. I didn’t make every part and piece of my gate exactly the right shape or exactly the right measurement. When I started to put the gate together it began to take on a certain Dr. Seuss quality. It wasn’t straight or square. It looked rather childish. So I had to remake many of my pieces to a higher standard than I had when I started. The result was a lesson that I use as a guide for myself and for every apprentice that I have trained since that time. I coined the phrase, “close enough adds up to a long ways away”. Since that project I learned to demand of myself a high degree of precision and accuracy, a standard that when applied to all of the small parts of any project, result in a flawless completion.

I try everyday to apply those blacksmithing lessons to all aspects of my life.  I often ask myself the question, “Is – Ah, that’s good enough, really good enough”?  I’ve learned that if I put in the effort today, tomorrow will be just that much more rewarding.