Modern Artistic Blacksmithing Class

12 02 2010

I’m teaching a blacksmithing class at Hampshire College this semester. It’s a really cool opportunity for both me and the students. We’re going to be doing some really great stuff, and I hope to get a camera so I can document as much as possible.

The class is exciting for me for a number of reasons. It diversifies my income — I’m not relying solely on commissions to make rent. I’ll get some sort of Honorarium payment from Hampshire for teaching. The other thing it does is tell me a bit more about what I have learned in the past eight or nine months since I went to Europe. They say the best way to reinforce what you learn is by teaching. Since I want to be doing larger architectural works, I’m focusing this class on creating a window grille for the Lemelson office, and a section of fence, hopefully for the community garden.

We’re doing two projects, because the class is oversubscribed and I don’t want to turn everyone away. Since there isn’t enough room for a dozen people to work in the shop, I have to split the class up into two groups of six. Each group will design and carry out a different project.

This leads us to the nuanced difficulties of my task. I’m the only one in the room who really understands what it means to do one of these projects — I’ve been watching blacksmiths work on them for a while, but never really got a chance to do it myself. Now I get to be project manager and direct a bunch of other people. I have to plan out the workload so we don’t hit a bottleneck, relying on one or two people to get work done before the whole project can proceed.

I also have to teach blacksmithing techniques. The aim of this class is to build something large, because most of the blacksmithing that goes on at the Lemelson Center is small and relatively crude. People know how to make knives and hooks and bottle openers, because that’s all they’ve seen. No one has been teaching blacksmithing for a few years, so what’s been passed on is limited knowledge. I get to educate a bunch of almost-blacksmiths. Some of them have decent skills and hammer control.

Some of them haven’t ever swung a hammer in their life. About half my class has no blacksmithing experience. They don’t know the first thing about forging, and they just came to the class because it sounded really interesting. This group of people is also exciting to engage with — I have to figure out how to develop the right techniques without losing sight of the main project. They have to build muscle memory, a feel for the metal, a knowledge of which tools can accomplish what tasks, and they have to do it all while putting together a fence, or a window grille. I think they can do it though.

My hope is that the presence of a larger project will actually aid in our (nearly daunting) task. Once we get past the basics of hammer work, which will be an exercise at the start of next class, we can focus on the techniques specific to our projects. Does it have a rivet joint? We’ll learn to punch a hole and hammer over a rivet. Do we need twenty elements to be all exactly the same? We’ll learn to make and use jigs. Do we have a mortise and tenon joint? We’ll learn to put a tenon on a bar and drift open a hole. Of course, then we have to learn about proper cutting tools and making drifts of the correct size. I hope you can see how it all logically flows together.

The first hurdle, however, is getting the design together. How do you get a room of people who have never conceived of blacksmithing as anything larger than a bottle opener to design a window grille? You have to train their eyes and mind to perceive and think about the properties of ironwork. I started with books, lots of books with pictures of contemporary blacksmithing. I told them to look for compositions, joints, and textures of metal that they really liked, and share them with the class. The assignment was to go home and, from the books, choose elements or make up their own for ideal window grilles.

I’ll tell you how it goes! Next class, after a forging exercise, we’ll compile the drawings into our design. We’ll figure out how much metal we need, and by the third class hopefully we can start forging the final projects!


Comic writing vs screenplays

13 12 2008

A little early morning linking for your pleasure and my late-for-work.

Mark Waid, writer of um… comics, shares some thoughts on the differences between screenwriting and comic writing:

Screenwriter walks into my office. Famous, one of the two or three whose name is as instantly recognizable to movie fans in Iowa as it is to us Left Coasters. And he’s immediately on my good side because the first words out of his mouth are not “so I have this pitch for a supernatural western,” but, rather, “I know how to write for film but I don’t know how to write for comics, and I presume there’s a difference.”

The single most important difference between a screenplay and a comic book script is that a comic story is made up of frozen moments. Screen stills. Snapshots.

Read more thoughts over at Kung Fu Monkey.

I read an interesting blog on screenwriting written by John August, writer of Big Fish and a few other notable movies. He answers lots of interesting “how do I” questions and also writes about the industry. He was doing some good blogging on the writer’s strike at the beginning of 2008. Visit

Autumnal Fig Sauce

13 10 2008

While making this apple pancake dish with Lindsay, Chris, Ellen, Alice, and others this weekend, we invented a fig sauce. It was from the remains of cooking the apples, so I’ve tried my best to isolate it all on its own. For your pleasure:

Autumnal Fig Sauce

3 tablespoons butter
1 cups brown sugar
1-2 cups figs, chopped
2 cups apple cider
1 cup orange juice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon orange peel

Melt the butter in a pan and add the brown sugar and spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, orange peel. Pour in one cup of apple cider and the chopped figs. Let it cook down until fig seeds get mixed thoroughly throughout, about five or ten minutes. Then add the rest of the apple cider and the orange juice for more body, and let that cook down to desired thickness. Put on desired food.


My Exciting Two Night “Who Needs a Tent” Camping Stint

21 08 2008

I am a Residential Life Intern (RA to most other colleges) at Hampshire College. This means I have a great deal of responsibility and as such, my fellow Interns and I go through a great deal of training. I arrived ready for training on Monday so I am officially back at college for the year – huzzah! On Tuesday we left for a camping/bonding trip to a nearby Girl Scout Camp.

While other people were claiming cabins and bunks – Fearless Leader, three other Interns and I were claiming ground. (Fearless Leader has taken survival classes at Tom Brown Jr’s Tracking School and was quite knowledgeable in all things outdoors, I hope to learn as much as possible from him.)

Despite the fact that it is still August, nights are becoming increasingly more chilly here in Massachusetts. After an exciting evening marathon of fire and s’mores, it was time to turn in… to the grass. The first night was an attempt to sleep outside without blankets or pillows. One of our fellow Interns gave up and went to a cabin. 3:00am rolled around and I woke up (after a surprisingly decent two hour nap) and put my blanket over me (too cold for me!) Another Intern appreciated my blanket and joined me under it. Fearless Leader and the third intern were left outside without warmth.

The four of us made it to dawn, but we all agreed it had been incredibly cold.

Wednesday night we planned ahead. Fearless Leader showed me and one other intern how to make a Debris Hut. It took us three hours mostly in the dark to set up our three new homes. The construction is simple and satisfying to do, I really enjoyed making my hut. Unfortunately, by 1:00am we had lost our construction steam and we skimped a bit on the debris part of the hut. After another round of fire and s’mores, we turned into our new spider filled homes. (The other two Interns of the previous night joined us on the ground in sleeping bags. The three of us debris-hut folks used no blankets or pillows.)

Lesson: Do not skimp on the debris part of a debris hut. I was freezing. By 5:30am after trying to cover the entrance to my hut in an attempt to make it more tolerable – I decided I needed at least an hour of sleep undisturbed by the tumultuous shivering of my cold little body. I crawled under my blanket.

Debris hut attempt #2 should happen soon – I will let you know if I can finally find a way to sleep comfortably outside without a blanket.

Spiders crawling all over your face is really adorable.

Your Handbook for Building and Running a Young Writers Program

9 07 2008

In the final year at Hampshire College, students embark on a year-long independent project. Mine was starting and running a writing club for middle school students in Holyoke, Massachusetts — a depressed urban area outside Springfield. I recruited and trained volunteers (including Lindsay) from local colleges to work with the students after school on homework and writing. Though small, the club was meaningful for everyone involved. We produced three chapbooks and had a lot of fun.

I also wrote a handbook for others, encouraging others to start similar programs in their own hometowns. The handbook has a dedicated page on the blog here, and I’ve excerpted it below. If you think it is interesting and useful, please pass it along.

I run a writing club because I believe that writing education in particular is crucial.

Ours is a literate society. It runs on the written word. Business, government, community—all of these are defined in writing Walk down the street in downtown anywhere, and it’s clear that those who don’t understand the written word are at disadvantage. Street signs, billboards, storefronts, informing, directing, and advertising. The structures upon which our society is built—the codified laws, newspapers, books, all the ways formal information and discussion are transmitted, preserved, and passed on—are all written. Understanding and navigating the world around us requires an ability to read.

But to read is not enough.

A world in which we read but do not write is a world in which we do not have the tools necessary to exert power over our environment. Like toddlers, we would stand watching, unable to communicate our needs and desires in any nuanced way. We would be powerless to control even the forces that directly affect our lives—where we work, under what laws we live, how others view us, how we interpret our past and how we see the future. All this because we live in a literate society—one in which writing is the most accepted way to communicate in any formal sense of the term. Without writing, we are not free.

In my classroom, there is a boy who cannot really read. He can’t do math. He can’t write a coherent paragraph. When I ask him to write or even if we can figure out what he would like to write, he becomes very quiet. He gets his homework done because he copies off the girl who always sits next to him—she looks out for him.

“Do you have any homework?” I say.

“No,” he mutters, shaking his head.

“Mister, that’s because he forgot it!”says his friend, thrusting her copy in my face. She smiles sweetly and casts a sidelong glare at him.

He draws his skinny frame deeper into his big sweatshirt. “No I don’t have any,” he says, but can’t hide the sheepish grin that spreads across his face.

One day, he picks up a book on gangs. I watch him flip through it.


“No. I’m looking.” He pauses at a picture of some older men, and then snaps the book shut. “They were in a gang?”

“Read it,” I say. I flip back to the picture—it’s a crowd of Mexican immigrants on their way to court. They were arrested because they were wearing zoot suits, a fashion commonly associated with gang members in the 1930’s. The boy figures it out, but only after I help him sound out words like “arrested” and “associated.”

He says there are gangs in the neighborhood where he lives, so I ask him to write about them, based on his own experience. He writes a sentence he says is fictional, and then I prompt him with questions to get him to fill in details. He resists further writing after getting this far:

“One day I want outside to play when I saw gangs start fiting in the middle of the road and the names were the cockroaches and the rats and they are fiding over territory one of the ganges where talking alot of stuff to the rats. Because the cockroaches Don’t Like the rat so they started talking bad like go suck a d***.”

He is in seventh grade.

Read more of Your Handbook for Building and Running a Young Writers Program…