Blacksmith’s craft showcased at West Bohemian international symposium

Photo: Michele Morsa

The charming and historic West Bohemian town of Bečov nad Teplou has just hosted its third international symposium showcasing the blacksmith’s craft. The two-day event gave the public the chance to get up close and feel the heat of the braziers as a series of top smiths showed that this is very much a craft making a comeback.

The sound of metal on metal together with the more modern mechanical sound of an electrically powered hammer that substitutes some of the muscle power of the smith could be heard in Bečov last weekend and down the Tepla valley.

The sound would have been familiar in the not so long ago age when horses had not been replaced by horsepower and almost every village would have had a blacksmith.

A few decades ago the craft looked like it had almost died out in the Czech Republic. But now, as the Bečov symposium, testifies this is a craft that has come back from the brink and can pull in a lot of public interest. The national association of Czech blacksmiths has around 350 members.

Ivo Rudolf  (left),  photo:
Ivo Rudolf who lives in the next village downriver of Bečov and has been a blacksmith for the last 30 years is the organiser of the symposium. He got into the profession first of all as a blacksmith mending farm machinery.

His more recent artistic craftsmanship can be spotted frequently around a town dominated by a medieval castle and baroque chateau. The work of other smiths was also on show at an al fresco exhibition under the arches of the bridge leading to the baroque chateau.

“This is the third international symposium and nearly all of Europe is represented here. There is Germany, Ukraine, Slovakia, France and also Japan.”

When it started three years ago there were a lot of Czechs but just a token presence from Slovakia and France. Representatives are mostly prize winners in their field who have been invited to take part in what is very much a showcase event. This year there was a record attendance at the symposium of 53 blacksmiths.

“We do this to raise the profile of the craft of the blacksmith which was almost forgotten not so long ago so that it has the recognition that it deserves. This is a craft which has a future, the craft today has a new lease of life. When you do good work, with the help of exhibitions and actions of that sort, it is very popular.”

Hundreds of people must have watched enchanted as up to five craftsmen at a time hammered away in public. The event continued into the night with the fires casting mythical shadows of the men at work. Without much doubt the craftsman from furthest afield was Ken Akiyama. Originally from Tokyo, he is now studying with a master blacksmith at Tišnov, near Brno. The slight 30-year-old says that he could not have found this sort of training in his homeland.

“It is difficult, in Japan we do not have this culture of blacksmiths European style. We have a culture for making this out of iron but this is for katana.”

It should be pointed out here that katana is the traditional Japanese single edged, slightly curved warrior swords often associated with the samurai feudal traditional.

The student of architecture says that iron attracts him for its plastic qualities that lend itself to sculpture after experimenting with other materials such as glass and wood. He hopes to set up his own business in Europe after his studies have ended.

Jean Pierre Fullenwarth has returned again to Bečov for the symposium from his home in the capital of the French region of Lorraine, Metz. He had what might be described as having a supporting role which he nonetheless enthusiastically fulfilled.

Jean Pierre Fullenwarth
“I am here to help one of the professional smiths who is here, Martin. I am what you call the striker. He is the one who basically gives a hand, holds onto the hammer and hits the block of metal. That’s it.”

The local government worker explained the attraction of the event. “I am attracted by the whole world of the forge, sculpting out of metal and the whole way of working. That is the crux of it.”

One of the younger professionals participating was Jiří Oplt from around 50 kilometres away in the engineering and metal bashing west Bohemian city of Plzeň. I spoke to him after they had just finished a two hour session fashioning a work of art out of a steel bar. I asked what the finished piece was meant to be.

“This piece of work has not got a title. It is more or less a fantastical piece. We originally wanted to fashion an angel out of iron but we stylised it so much that it might just now be a wing, but it could still be a stylised angel.”

Jiří Oplt says that he decided to become a blacksmith although there was no such tradition in the family and there is no likelihood that it will make him rich quick.

“I think that this is the sort of work which if you enjoy and do it properly and well, then you can make a living out of it. But it is not the kind of work that will make you wealthy.”

He and a grouping of other blacksmiths from the city contributed to its successful bid to be in the European spotlight in 2015 as the joint European city of culture that year along with the Belgian city of Mons.

“I am a member of a Plzeň grouping, or rather the Plzeň regional association of craft blacksmiths. As far as recent craftsmanship, we made the logo which was used for the campaign to be the European City of Culture in 2015. Plzeň got the title and this was very interesting work.”

There is clearly a hope that the city of culture will bring more commissions their way. For him the symposium is a pleasant get together which also has a serious side to it.

“For blacksmiths, this is interesting because we meet with everyone from the craft. We talk to each other and share problems that we share that are associated with it; what is troubling us and uniting us. It is a really pleasant partake, we can come here with our wives and children. We in the craft regard it also as a sort of presentation to the public because they can come here for nothing and see what we do, our craft, our work and see some nice pieces.”

Organiser Mr. Rudolf has been followed into the profession by his son. And he is pretty upbeat about the future for blacksmiths. “The craft is developing. Of course we have just been hit by the economic crisis which has left a mark, but a good craftsman always finds a way. There are young people here, you can see some young blacksmiths here. But this sort of symposium is really for seasoned smiths that have been invited to take part.”

His preparations for the fourth symposium next year are already underway.

Photos: Michele Morsa