“Just what did I find in Santa Clara? Why did I feel this mountain village surrounded by pine forests was the culmination of ten thousand things, and I no longer needed to move on?”
In 1967 as word spread that an American had moved in to work with the coppersmiths of Santa Clara del Cobre, in the Plaza one day, a prosperous peasant on a horse towering above the gringo exclaimed in disbelief, “What! You’ve come to join the Smoky Smiths?” It was a legitimate question. James Metcalf’s fellow artists asked it too, as well as his Paris and New York galleries.
Metcalf recalls, “Smoky doesn’t give the idea of Los Humados as I found them. They were more like ‘Smog the smith’ soot faced, black from head to toe, sleeping next to their cendradas (the hot ashpit of their forges), washing but on Sunday before Mass. In those days a smith was considered a social pariah. They were barely holding on.”
Among the other young sculptors (Niki de Saint –Phalle, Jean Tinguely, Claude and Francois Lalanne) working in the shadow of Brancusi at the Impasse Ronsin, Metcalf was recognized as “the American who knew everything about metal.” By 1965, however, he was ready to heed Rilke’s injunction “You must change your life!”
He explains, “In the middle sixties Paris was changing very quickly. Ever since Brancusi died in 1958, it was only a matter of time before his studio and ours clustered around his would be torn down. Twelve incredible years of making sculpture at a time and place where art seemed to make itself in the very cradle of modern art had come to an end. A new place had to be found.
“Through my friend Bill Copley I was close to the surrealists who were aging in Paris and who talked a great deal of the wonders of Mexico where native artists abound. The surrealists saw in Mexico the ultimate expression of their cultural inferiority.
“After a half-hearted try in my native New York, I found the cellar loft I rented in Soho too depressing. When the Mexican government offered me a large retrospective in Bellas Artes (the citadel of modern Mexican culture) and a trailer truck to transport the pieces, I jumped at the chance to leave for good. Melville wrote ‘What one needs in life is a driving desire, some one to share it with and a place to do it.’ Santa Clara fell into my lap.”
Metcalf’s last Paris exhibition at Gallerie J opened December 1, 1965, the day of Saint Eloi, the patron of smiths. Writing the catalogue essay “Phidias and Duchamp,” he came across a critical passage in R.J. Forbes’s history of metallurgy: “In primitive times all craft is sacred, and we find smith-gods among all peoples of Antiquity. Brahma as a blacksmith creates man and the Michoacans of Mexico believe that they were created from copper by a god of the forge.”
In Mexico, he asked about the Michoacans. The Aztecs named the lake region to the West on the central plateau where their rivals, who came to be called Tarascans by the Spanish, possessed an advanced copper culture. In Nahuatl, Michoacan means “place of the owners of fish.” Like the Triple Alliance, the Tarascans were a confederation of tribes, and they were never conquered in large part because of their copper tools and weapons. On the chance that something of this coppersmith culture survived, he asked where copper might still be worked and found his way to Santa Clara del Cobre, a small town twelve miles south of Lake Patzcauro. In New Spain, the town was known as Santa Clara de los Cobres. The plural “of the coppers” testifies to its extraordinary production. The Tarascan forge became the heart of the colonial smelting industry.
In Mexico City, Metcalf had inspected a double-handled kettle or cauldron: el cazo de Don Vasco, named for the first Spanish bishop of Michoacan who instituted its making. The cazo looked like the Spanish kettle he knew from the gypsy caves of the Sacre Monte in Grenada. It came in many sizes, and, at first, the unusual grain on the outside at first did not register. The one craft store in the capital offered other copper pieces too, pitchers and trays that were poorly designed and crudely executed. Nothing about these interested him. They were naïve imitations of European styles.
Metcalf was told of a bodega in Santa Clara that sold copper, the only store where finished copper could be purchased. He found the proprietor closing taros on an iron stake from copper jobbed out to artisans. The stranger’s questions were rudely dismissed. “Go find the forges yourself. If you want to buy, come back.” He walked across the street into a moribund forge and happened upon a few artisans bewailing the town’s ill fortune. They seemed old with an air of desolation. Metcalf didn’t introduce himself. He simply started talking. Felix Parra, who turned out to be exactly his own age, couldn’t contain his excitement. “Come with me! You are just whom we need. This is perfect!” he exclaimed and took Metcalf out to see the working forges.
Severely depressed, Santa Clara was nevertheless a functioning community of independent forges, each a family unit that produced the cazo from start to finish with local materials. It’s very survival was a great paradox.
“I found a group of artisans making a copper kettle being sold to the poorest social strata of Mexico. In Europe and the United States, wealthier people seem to get along with iron or aluminum substitutes. Yet the Santa Clara cazo is a necessary household item for a great many Mexican families. Culturally, this is very interesting. How is it that these peasants still prefer copper kettles? As poor as they are, they can still afford a copper kettle, more and more of a luxury everywhere else.
“This is what impressed me most when I first discovered Santa Clara. After thirty years, it is still the foundation of my interest in this community of artisans. The artisans of Santa Clara with an unimaginably primitive technique predating Homer and the Bible (where smith forge on iron not stone) have been able to underbid modern industry for at least a section of the Mexican market.
“If we believe Adam Smith and historical common sense, this should not be happening. Artisans lacking the wherewithal to exploit the technical advances of our age are meant to fall listlessly into the annals of industrial inefficiency. However, they survive by forging for their own needs by means of what has been bequeathed to them by an economy that produces material recycled at an ever faster pace.
“They melt scrap copper without crucibles or any other necessity for production or blocking: hammering down into the thick hunk of copper until it expanded like a piece of bubble gum, not on iron anvils but on stone quarried from the basalt skirt of an extinct volcano. They hammered the inside of the cazo. The grain of the stone was visible on the exterior.
Some were just beginning to work with iron anvils to do smaller, decorative pieces, most smiths still couldn’t afford them; instead, they hammered on scavenged tools: railroad tracks, truck axles, and grinding stones cut in two from Trapiches (sugar mills). Train couples “a type of universal tool” were their most prized “modern anvil.” Otherwise, to forge what they call puro cazo the smiths used three stone anvils.
The first were large anvils which “you can sit right down on.” The second, yaparas, were two smaller stones anchored into the ground at right angles. The third was a riveting anvil on which the kettle fit exactly. In the large anvils and the yaparas, Metcalf saw the Tarascan axe-forging method itself. The smelted ingot was cleaned balanced on the yaparas. On the large anvils (piedras a extendar), it was cut into workpieces (tejos). “Up to that point, they could just as easily have forged axes.” Instead, the tejos were hammered into sheet. For large kettles (some measure three feet in diameter), the tejo was only cut in half. To produce medium sizes, the smiths hammered the tejos in a packet, the mancuerna of 3-8 tejos, and sank them all at once. The master turned it around the yaparas, as the smiths executed the andarquari, a word Metcalf realized was the Spanish verb to walk compounded with a Tarascan ending. They walked their long hammers (candongas) around the edge. He notes, “We know of no example of this particular phase of the Tarascan technique in any historical description of the past anywhere else in the work. This manner of making a kettle is a stone age solution to the problem. Until iron was used for anvils, it wasn’t possible to make an anvil that would reach inside the object being forged.” It was an adaptation of a stone age technology for forging axes to produce a laminated object. As Metcalf explains, the small anvil (piedra a remachar) was invented to rivet handles onto the cazo.
The smiths were using a kind of bellows he had never seen before, horizontal with two accordion air chambers mounted on a wooden frame. The tuyos were often covered by an earth-work structure. Simultaneously pushed and pulled with both hands, it provided a strong, continuous draft. Agricola describes a variety of vertical bellows, but refers only once to a horizontal tin bellows in Portugal that he says did not work. In Fremont’s History of the Bellows, Metcalf discovered a 19th century engraving of a similar bellows used with a Castilian furnace to smelt the iron blume in Peru. Certain that Tarascan smiths could not have smelted such large quantities of copper with blow pipes, he concluded this bellows was native to America. Later, he found references to its use by the Spanish who noted its greater efficiency.
The smiths did not use a crucible. They were melting scrap copper through a hearth of oak, pine, and charcoal into their cendradas reinforced at the bottom with stones. The master of the melt made a mold of oak ashes, purchased from women in the Plaza, and circled it with basalt stones. On top, he built the hearth. Metcalf was looking at the first reduction fire of human history.
The smiths were using copper wire stripped from electrical generators or old cazos, but Metcalf had no doubt this method had been used for centuries to smelt native copper and oxide ores gathered below the central plateau in tierra caliente (hot country) along the Balsas River. The Tarascans brought the ore to the dense forests and volcanic rock of the high sierra. The perfect stone for anvils, basalt was hard enough to endure the shock of hammering but porous enough to withstand the fire’s heat. They distinguished fire stones from anvils. The smiths dressed the stone with other stone tools just as one would grind a metate. Metcalf never expected to see a survival of a prehistoric copper forge anywhere, least of all in the Americas where the conquistadors so devastated tribal cultures.
The smiths were able to hammer the thick copper anywhere they pleased. To be so fascinated by this, perhaps one needs to have studied the classical art of the European metalsmith. At the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, Metcalf apprenticed to one of the last great smiths of Europe, Francis Adam, who drew his attention to “spoon block” and showed him how thickness was hammered artfully into the heel of a spoon. He remarked it as a vestige of a much older type of metalsmithing before the advent of rolling mills in the 18th century. Metcalf experimented with thicker blocks of metal but found it almost impossible to thicken the edge of a finished piece appreciably. Fifteen years later, he walked into a town forging copper with a method that preserves thickness as a matter of course. The Santa Clara smiths, however, were squandering their formal strength by rolling the edge of the kettle over an iron wire. Metcalf observes, “Brought up in a pure artisanal tradition, I was shocked. They would beat the cazo out of a block and then do this recent thing of rolling the edge over a wire. It was historically ridiculous!”
The contradiction was his way in: “To change the traditional wired edge to a luxurious thick border was quite difficult. Rolling the edge of all vases and kettles over an iron wire was the lone tradition of the smiths. I even heard the before iron wire was used, they rolled the thinned edge over a copper wire. I have no idea how this industrial expedient for the production of cheap tinned iron ware should have found its way into the craft tradition of Santa Clara del Cobre. Their objects were substantially cheapened by its use. If they were unable to change this practice, not only would their work lack dignity, but they would never be able to work successfully in silver. It took almost twenty years for the wired edge to disappear from almost all their objects. At first only three or four smiths were able to learn how to keep the heavy border. Even they, if they had a mishap, would thin out the edge and roll it as they had been doing before I arrived.”
Metcalf discovered that “artisans are notoriously conservative about changes in design or technique. Although it may take place in a classroom, formal teaching of art and the techniques of plastic expression are essentially the instruction of individuals. Any development of the craft tradition of a community of artisans, it goes without saying, must be acquired collectively. The grafting of different technical and creative attitudes of working onto a homogenous guild of skillful artisans has very little to do with academic instruction.
“The immediate response of the artisans is to reject anything that is foreign to the way they and their ancestors have worked. One discovers very quickly that those ideas and techniques that appeal directly to their innate opportunism have the best chance of general acceptance. Fundamental to the successful development of Santa Clara over the last three decades has been the principle that they should never fall so low as to work from someone else’s design. They understood that a designer must have a profound familiarity with the material and technique for which he designs, and they have learned to design other ways of working copper that would have made little sense to them before I taught them. Because of their tradition of not accepting others designs, they have developed a distinct style of their own even working with outside influence.”
At the end of his Paris career, Metcalf was doing figurative sculpture hammered from brass sheet, a departure from his abstract work. In “Phidias and Duchamp” he reflected on how sculpture first liberated itself from the awkward frontality of stone to achieve the plasticity of flesh with hammered metal in the Greek forge. “Suddenly they could see volume from inside, the thing they couldn’t do in stone.” He discovered a core form, the hyperbolic parabola, to model the surfaces and volume of the body: “all those subtle passages from one round form to another are nothing more than the smallest surface that will include both forms. These rounded valleys that make up the human figure, that are so difficult to produce in a mass of clay, were first mathematically defined by the 18th century topologist Leonhard Euler when he showed that all minimal surfaces must be saddleshaped.”
The smiths of Santa Clara were astonished to meet someone who understood their technique. Parra asked Metcalf if he was coming back. “Next year after I close my studios in Paris and New York” the sculptor replied. “We’ll all be dead by then,” the smith answered ruefully. Metcalf did return almost to the day, and Parra wasted no time. “Now we’ll have to get moving!”
Metcalf arrived with an arsenal of tools and equipment. “My used white Chevy pickup carried a large assortment of all types of metal working tool including thirty assorted hammers, stakes, and anvils; two large French annealing torches; even an impressive English wheeling and rolling machine; and electroforming equipment, tanks and a rectifier. The artisans had never seen anything like it. They were most impressed by the stakes in which one can see his reflection. Felix found me a one room house that I made into a studio. I set up my tools, built a forge and began to work.
“This was what I had done in Majorca where I worked with Robert Graves and in Paris. Promptly I forged the first copper vase in Santa Clara with a thick edge instead of a wired one. I filled it with pitch and formed six large grains of corn with repoussé, very much in the style of pre-Columbian Colima pottery. I thought that making pieces would demonstrate to them the possibilities of their basic technique and that this was the best way to stimulate the development of their craft. One morning Felix came to my house and said, ‘Don Jaime, how do you expect to help us if you work alone all day? Come and work in our shop, so we can see how you do it.’ That’s when the artisans of Santa Clara introduced me to the possibility of participating in a creative social reality that I thought had disappeared in the twelfth century.”
The forging method Metcalf taught them became known as the tradition of The Thick Edge (El Borde Grueso). Hammering down into the tejo, the smiths distribute the mass of copper from middle to edge and form a ring that rises to control the shape of the piece. “Once you have that combination, the rest can be thinned and blossom out. The piece becomes very light. The core is the ring and the edge.” Metcalf forged several examples with a voluptuous thick edge and “pushed them towards using the paradox of a thin sheet, this hypothetical thing of two dimensions,” so they would play with the transition “like doing a musical scale. This controlling combination is the thing a good silversmith tries for. But you have to pound and pound to get a luxurious thick edge. You can’t do this in stone. Copper can move with the fluidity of clay, with an incredible play of dimensions. Ceramics doesn’t have the freedom to be as thin.” The secret is always leaving in reserves of copper and “never getting to the end too soon.”
Bishop Quiroga established Indian communities based on Thomas More’s Utopia and strictly forbade decorative objects. Nevertheless he preserved Tarascan crafts in Michoacan. If the forging of the cazo destroyed the aesthetics of Tarascan copper, it saved this Calcolithic technique by hiding it in a European kettle. The smiths had no idea of a beautiful object. Nor were they aware their technique contained the dynamic of El Borde Grueso. No Mesoamerican culture of the late Classic period hollowed metal, so Metcalf looked elsewhere. Sir Arthur Evans first recognized Greek vases were imitations of gold and silver objects that had disappeared into the melting pot. Metcalf chose pottery from Colima to reverse the process. The smiths and he studied books and visited museums, but he didn’t exclude other traditions either. Styles from Celtic and Mediterranean metal also entered the hybrid tradition of Santa Clara. He has introduced other ancient and modern techniques since.
“They had the domination of metal but no design. All of a sudden I liberated them from centuries of ignorance. The minute I gave them polished tools, they ran away with it. There were an infinite number of possibilities. They had a technique. Then not long before I came, they were beginning to get used to iron anvils collectively. I brought them concepts developed since Greece in metalworking. Before, they just sat and hammered. They had the patience to make the tejo bloom.” When he showed them slides of ancient metalwork, they asked where work like this was done. “There are other people who do this?” They thought they were the only smiths in the world who forged copper. This work was thousands of years old, he told them but he exulted in the fact that it seemed contemporary to them. It became a challenge for their pride to equal, and they knew no fear.
They had never seen polished hammers before he demonstrated his balanced European hammers and taught them to grind and polish them. They thought he had put mirrors or silver in them. Theirs were large, clumsy blocks. The sculptor lent out all his tools. Soon the blacksmith made copies for the whole town. Metcalf distinguishes individual learning from the collective learning he set in motion. “The things begins to whirl. I’d teach one of them something, and it would go around like wild fire. Eventually somebody would come back and try to teach it to me! They expressed their excitement in learning by teaching someone else!”
A direct sculptor who discovers the work of art in the material, Metcalf belongs to the tradition of Brancusi, Epstein, Gaudier-Breska, Modigliani, Gill, De Creeft and David Smith. He recognizes the Santa Clara technique as a superb example of this creative process “shared by all artisans and some artists.” It was not design in the abstract sense he taught. “That’s an idea you can buy. I don’t do design. Design is just a cheap patent, the worst part of Bauhaus, folded paper. That’s not where creativity lies. You can do that kind of things forever and never engage the material actively which is the basis of creation.”
The 1968 games in Mexico City were the perfect opportunity to make his work public in a town with a copper forge as old as the Greeks at the time of the ancient Olympics. Metcalf obtained the commission for the smiths of Santa Clara to produce a “cultural” torch for the entrance of the National Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec. To give them a sense of scale, he showed them a picture of the Krater Vix, the largest forged object of the Gallo-Roman world. They chose a large Colima bowl as the model for El Pebetero Olympico. On the surface of two huge bowls riveted together, to symbolize ancient Mesoamerican agriculture, the smiths hammered corn kernels in repoussé over pine pitch for support so it wouldn’t break. Metcalf recalls, “Felix suggested, ‘Let’s put in pitch.’ He was always taken with a new technique. I had done the model over pitch. When they got a wild idea, I let them go. They poured in immense quantities.” The event was an occasion of joy. It was the largest melt ever done: some 400 pounds were melted to forge two enormous tejos. Metcalf made tuyos of refractory cement. Clay would have melted in the fire.
The Santa Clara forge truly rekindled the Olympic fire. The smiths dragged the ingot with tongs from the fire to the large stone anvil and arduously split it. The heat is so great the hands of the master who holds the chisel must be protected. Once split into tejos, annealed and dragged from the fire again, as many as eight smiths in a ring hammer it. Captains of the right and left choose where to thin the copper by their strokes. Hammers whirl back and forth, rise and fall in a perilous wave. A smith’s pride is not to stop until the master turning the tejo says so. Their kinetic dance of hammers fascinates visitors to the town when they demonstrate the extendar at the annual copper fair in August. It is rarer to see the cazo forged completely in the traditional technique today. The melt is still done in every shop that makes pieces with El Borde Grueso. This is done by the so-called “elite smiths.” Most other smiths now spin and finish smaller cazos. Only a few still forge the larger cazos and produce them from start to finish from melted ingots.
Stone is now replaced by iron, and two iron slabs are wedged into the ground at right angles over the stones to function as yaparas. The horizontal bellows has been replaced by modern ventilators to provide a more powerful draft with less exertion. Yet many of the “elite smiths” committed to preserving the traditional forge still use it. Rolling mills, mechanical hammers, and spinning lathes have changed and expanded cazo production dramatically. Industrial production stems from Metcalf’s decision to learn how to use the lathe to solve difficult production problems. From his machine shop and working with the blacksmith, he still provides a stream of new tools.
Silver pieces forged by Santa Clara smiths have long enjoyed fame and patronage around the world since Metcalf introduced silver in 1972. He pounded out a crucible, melted silver and gave it to his students. Then he took them to the Taxco Silver Fair where Etelberto Ramirez won the first Galardon to the consternation of the Taxco smiths who pointed out that Santa Clara pieces often wobbled. It was true. To help them center their pieces, Metcalf designed a pointing machine that allows them to measure symmetry as they work. Today it is used by all the “elite smiths.” Just like copper, the silver pieces are hammered hot, and they ring.
In the few shops where the cazo is forged in the ancient method, copper scrap is carefully prepared. All impurities of tin and lead are clipped off. The hearth is carefully constructed in the same place, as it is every week. The master begins to feed copper into the fire. The pace quickens as more and more is added. After he completes the melt, he breaks down the hearth and covers the burning ingot with charcoal, to let it cool slowly unexposed to oxygen. Hours later, it is dragged still burning hot, like a round pie, from the hold and struck a massive blow to see if the melt was sound. Then it is split into tejos on a flat iron anvil. Each tejo is cleaned, balanced on the yaperas. Instead of hammering by hand, each shop today avails itself of one of the mechanical hammers. In the only shop where the largest cazo is still made, sinking is done by a trip hammer one by one. Here too the yaperas are preserved to guide the smiths who turn the piece. In other shops, tejos are stacked together into the mancuerna and blocked on the yaparas. A mixture of cisco (ashes and clay) is placed between them so they don’t stick together. As they deepen, the smiths ease them down with their candongas (the plural of a donkey in heat). The embra (female) at the bottom is wrapped around the others. The macho (male) on top bears the hammer blows directly, as the copper is sunk. The cazos are then chiseled apart, and each one is finished separately. The bottom inside is give its edge by another hammer called a yorcho. The top edge is clipped straight, hammered around a wire, and the handles are riveted on.
In one shop, the handles are still forged on stone. Recently Metcalf asked Maestro Gilberto Hernandez, the oldest smith still working, to show him the mark of the stone. His son beat him to the punch, pointing with pride. “There it is!” Metcalf observes, “For certain things it is better. It grabs the copper in the tooth that iron doesn’t have and they feel it. The copper doesn’t cool as fast as it does on iron.” Oxide accumulated from annealing is cleaned off the finished cazo with sulfuric acid. Each cazo used to be filled with burning straw and flipped over onto horse manure. Finally each one is carefully planished. The work cycle lasts the week. Today, smaller cazos are spun hot on spinning lathes from sheet produced by one of the local rolling mills, using a tool Metcalf made that presses the copper around a wooden form. The spun cazos are then jobbed out to other shops where they are edged and planished, and handles are riveted on. The cazo industry of Santa Clara is more productive than ever. The cazo has become an aesthetic object too. To exhibit their virtuosity at the copper fair, smiths forge ceremonial examples of the Spanish form that preserved their forging method.
In his first years Metcalf was alone with the smiths in idyllic isolation, and the town was completely ignored by outsiders, hard to imagine today when government administrators and private individuals take such active, and often acquisitive, interest. When he taught them El Borde Grueso, the smiths considered Metcalf not only a rain-maker but a magician, almost a Prometheus. Once he guessed the weight of a piece by figuring the specific gravity of copper quickly in his head. He hit it right on the nose, confounding them. They stood when their benefactor entered a room on public occasions. At fiestas, they raised their glasses to him.
Using their copper, he was absolutely reliant on them. He entered production completely, joining the faena (the collective work crew) at the beginning of the week when they rode across the valley in an ox cart to fetch new anvils and fire stones at the quarry, a narrow hidden cul-de-sac only seventy five yards long called “the corner of the kitchen”. On Sundays, thinking he was looking for buried treasure, the smiths followed Metcalf around, as he investigated the ancient terrain of the copper forges under the volcano. Chavez Garcia, leading a band of renegades from Pancho Villa’s army, burned the town in 1918. Alvaro Obregon had stopped their victorious march to Mexico City at the Battle of Celaya, and soldiers turned bandits ravaged Michoacan. Before that, the Indian smiths lived in their own villages under the forest canopy. When the town was abandoned by the owners of the smelting works that had employed Indian labor for centuries, the smiths took their stone anvils and bellows to set up shops in the great colonial piazzas with carved stone lintels and beautiful wooden doors. In the wide valley, where Tarascan yacatas (temples) are buried, Metcalf found old ingots and tools and great slag heaps. Peasants told him how they unearthed enormous quantities of axes plowing their fields and sold them to the smiths for the smelting fires.
While triggering this forging revolution, the sculptor took on as his student a young woman from Mexico City. Ana Pellicer made the tejo the basis of her early work. “As an artist” she says, “I am the individual reflection of Santa Clara.” She eventually became a powerful teacher and politician too. Heirs to the vision of Mexico’s revolutionary generation of artists and intellectuals, Metcalf and Pellicer are unique in the cultural specificity of their work. From the roots of an archaic tradition, they have created sculpture and cultural institutions within a singular historical event: the renaissance of a Mexican pueblo.
To institutionalize the town’s extraordinary growth, they founded La Casa del Artesano, the first educational institution in Mexico with a faculty of artisans. Looking back, it is hard to recall that El Borde Grueso was not established all at once. Pellicer explains, “The merchants used to pay the smiths more for the wired edge, because it used less copper. We had to fight for it. It was our banner!” They founded a museum to preserve recent history. Younger smiths continue to learn from it. In contrast to the town Metcalf found, today Santa Clara boasts ten times as many smiths who are young, proud, and confident of their tradition.
Metcalf and Pellicer established their own shop and taught the technique to peasants outside the traditional forges. Winning the confidence of these new smiths, Pellicer executed a huge work La Machina Enamorada (The Machine in Love) that celebrates different types of industrial production. The melt of six hundred pounds produced three tejos. A huge green sea of molten copper, it was about the largest possible in the Santa Clara forge. In 1976, Metcalf and Pellicer founded a school to initiate women into the labor force, first teaching the wives of the smiths who had collaborated with her. The sexual division of labor was a difficult boundary to cross. Working on the lathe, Metcalf produced tools and matrices for the women, and Pellicer taught them to not only make their tribal jewelry but work from around the world. Fascinated by the fact that the women would still only wear their own jewelry, as they mastered techniques that allowed them to create a variety of styles, she did an artist’s homage to this pioneering generation. Jewelry for the Statue of Liberty, five pieces in repoussé hammered to scale (28 times life size), were hung in the World Trade Center for the Centenary celebration of the Statue. A great American icon became a Native American woman.
In 1991, the Mexican Government completely re-built the institution that today is the town’s principal vehicle of growth. On land donated by Metcalf and Pellicer, the Adolfo Best Maugard School of Arts and Crafts is equal to any in the variety of metal techniques it teaches. Metcalf has fulfilled his vision of creating “a Limoges in the new world” where he has found “the most rewarding manner in which to live in this extensive community of artisans.” He explains, however, that “a mono-culture of forging copper is not enough to engender the diversity of crafts the community needs to maintain itself against the onslaught of capitalism. Teaching in the apprentice system is the fundamental essence of the artisanal mode of production, but it is disastrous to think it is enough to pass on only the accomplishment of one tradition.” The new school has its own museum, a superb library with an emphasis on the history of metal work, a lecture room with a capacity for 30 students equipped with modern multi-media (slides, CD-ROMs, and satellite programs from Mexican Education, essential for demonstrating the technique of creative drawing with Autocad), a language laboratory for English as a second language (for students from tribal communities, a third language), and a computer laboratory where applications of “this most contemporary tool” are taught with emphasis on creative computer aided designs to decorate works in copper and silver. The shops include a well-equipped machine-tool shop, jewelry studio (with most students today predominantly women), a dark room for photographically decorating copper and silver, a stained glass studio, the blacksmith’s forge, spaces for traditional European copper and silversmithing (the second most popular shop), a foundry that casts pieces both in sand and lost wax, a spinning shop that has developed innovative practices, and a sheet metal shop. Placed significantly at the center of the school is a pavilion for the traditional copper forge similar to the shops Metcalf found 30 years ago. There is also a pavilion “of our own construction” for making and decorating miniature copper objects.
In the traditional forge, the elite smiths and their students are stretching the technical possibilities of El Borde Grueso with Metcalf, curling the thick edge as the Greeks did and chiseling the mass of copper to make the vessel even more sculptural. Electroplating, used primarily with flatware before, today stimulates design of thick edge pieces. Metcalf is absorbed in creating new occupations for the ever growing population of young artisans. The new American immigration law makes this imperative even more pressing. The school has an exchange program for students from Indian communities from Chiapas and Oaxaca who concentrate in blacksmithing. They learn to forge agricultural implements from scrap steel. Metcalf’s latest plan is to smelt charcoal iron as fine and malleable as the renowned charcoal iron of Norway and begin artistic production in iron. Ore is available in Michoacan and fine charcoal is now produced at the school with wood harvested from the reforested mountain nearby. In Santa Clara, the demographic explosion has produced “a sea of young artisans.” In a recent essay “News From Somewhere,” Metcalf defines the town as “a reserve, a sanctuary of technical diversity in the craft of metallurgical production, ancient as well as contemporary, a live museum and archive of a kind of history that can only exist as a living reality with living artisans. The artisans and apprentices of Santa Clara have long possessed the capacity to satisfy all requirements for work in metal, exploiting its reality for their own well being. They function as a dynamic community and continually develop new tools and skills to further their creativity.”
Roy Skodnick has worked with James Metcalf and Ana Pellicer since 1987 and is currently completing their biographies. His article on Metcalf and Robert Graves appeared in Gravesiana (Vol. 1, No. 2, Dec. 1996). His translation of Artisans of the Future/Santa Clara del Cobre by Jorge Pellicer is available in Santa Clara at Galeria Tiamuri (Pino Suarez No. 110) or directly from him, 175-20 Wexford Terrace, 4M, Jamaica, New York 11432. [$24 plus $4.00 for postage and packaging]