In a sense, Huntly resident Nol Putnam sees beautiful swans in ugly ducklings. When given a plain chunk of iron, Putnam molds it into a piece of fine art, anything from tiny flower petals to animal shapes to abstract sculptures.
“Most people view iron as plain, inflexible slabs of metal,” he said, “but we blacksmiths see something else. We move it, pinch it, push it, and make it take a much different form.”
Putnam has been pinching and pushing metal for almost four decades.
“I grew up around artists, but when I was young I didn’t think I could be like them,” he said. A Boston native and graduate of Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. and the University of Massachusetts, Putnam settled into various teaching positions before moving into the field of iron forging.
“I taught creative writing, German, sociology and history,” he said. It was his position as chairman of a history class that opened him up to the possibility of blacksmithing.
“I bought books of many subjects to entice the kids to read,” he said. “In the collection was a book called something like, ‘Move Metal and Create from It.’ I read it again and again, thinking ‘I want to do this.’”
In 1973, the 39-year-old Putnam cashed in all his savings, moved to Virginia with his wife, and started working as a blacksmith.
“It was a bold, risky move, but I read a lot about it, worked with other blacksmiths and prepared every way I could,” he said. His tenacity paid off because in a short time he was working full time as a blacksmith.
In 2001, Putnam settled permanently in Rappahannock County, where he designed his own forge building, or “smithy.”
Putnam’s smithy, White Oak Forge, is like other blacksmith shops in that it holds a hearth to heat iron to a malleable temperature of 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit; an anvil and hammers; various sanders, presses and hand tools to add detail and smooth edges and a slack tub to cool the molten metal. But it differs in that its large windows and multiple skylights give it a noticeable brightness, and the sound of classical music is usually intermingled with the clanging of metal against metal. Iron sculptures are scattered throughout, and photographs of Putnam’s metalwork adorn the walls. Many of his photographs are also displayed in the small studio attached to the forge.
“It got expensive hiring professional photographers, so I taught myself,” he said. “It’s a good second business.”
Putnam utilized his photography skills in his new book, “Lines in Space,” which was released this week. Described as a “coffee table book,” it features Putnam’s writings, along with photographs of his most recent sculptures. During the holiday season the book will be available exclusively at Caulfield Gallery in Washington, where there will be a book signing party on Sunday (Dec. 19) from 1 until 4.
Putnam’s friend, Ed Thomas, a blacksmith in Rockingham County, thinks that through the book’s release Nol’s talents and the craft of blacksmithing will be introduced to a new crowd.
“Nol has significantly raised awareness of forged work to a level of respect it hasn’t seen in probably 70 years or more,” Thomas said. “What Nol and a few of his contemporaries are able to do is steadily raise the bar back to its demanding former height, thereby paving the way for blacksmiths to make a living forging wonderful, hand-crafted iron.”
Thomas said that his own work has benefited enormously from Putnam’s influence, as has almost every discerning aspiring American iron artisan today, directly or indirectly.
“I cannot overemphasize his contribution to the state of health of our community,” Thomas said.
Because of his reputation and the rising popularity of blacksmithing as an art form, Putnam stays busy in his forge.
“I started out doing almost exclusively architectural work, but now I concentrate on sculptures and other art,” Putnam said. “I love having the ability to take something solid, rigid, and immovable, and change its dimensions into something beautiful that is equally as strong. The process never fails to excite me.”
Most of Putnam’s architectural and sculptural work is commissioned by private citizens, but some can be seen in public places, one of the most famous being the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., where four six-foot candelabras, three gates and lots of railings are visible to visitors. Locally, his work is displayed in Caulfield Gallery, the gate of the Robert and Elizabeth Haskell residence in Tiger Valley, and in his forge in Huntly.
To learn more about blacksmithing, Putnam recommends contacting a local guild such as the Central Virginia Blacksmith Guild of the Potomac (www.bgop.org) or visiting a local blacksmith.