Design & Style, Made In The Prairies

Made in the Prairies: Meet Matt Jenkins, artist and blacksmith

Spectator Tribune contributor Jaclyn Wiebe of Fireside Design chats with the multi-talented artist blacksmith Matthew Jenkins to find out about the life of a modern man practicing an ancient art.  

Matt operates Cloverdale Forge on the family farm near Selkirk, Manitoba and between two jobs (he’s an engineer as well), and being an athlete, a homeowner, and vintage car collector, he’s got his plate full.

JW: How did you get into blacksmithing?

MJ:  While I was going to university for engineering, I needed a summer job and applied at Lower Fort Garry, they saw my name and said,

“Jenkins, your dad is a blacksmith…  So, do you have any blacksmithing experience?”

“We have a forge on the farm!”  (Dodging the “experience” question).

And then I had to learn…

I went about as far as you can teach yourself from books, and then I went to the Campbell Folk School for a couple of years to take classes down in North Carolina as a work exchange programme….   and I am still learning.

JW: What’s your creative process?  As in, how do your designs come to life?

MJ: I mostly just sketch.  When I say sketch, I mean playful creation, mostly rough forms.  Sometimes it’s on paper and sometimes it’s directly in iron. It all depends on the scale of the project. I fill about one sketch book a year, and always have it on me.  The tools of blacksmithing are so basic, like a pen and paper, I can create a lot of things with just a hammer and anvil.

My inspiration comes from everywhere from nature to historical examples.  Iron lends itself well to organic forms when you aren’t restricted by the specification from the mill sizes.

(I always thought it was funny that most of the crafts that use organic materials spend all their time making geometric shapes…  woodworkers make round tree into square tables, basket weavers make things “over/under,” knitter make wool, “knit/pearl”  and the crafts that use inorganic materials make organic shapes, blacksmith’s make scrolls, potters make curvey vases, glass blowers…  )

JW: What would your dream commission be?

MJ: My dream commission…   I don’t know about that…   (one that makes money?)

I really love to make things that are used….  I love the way that steel looks after it has been used repeatedly over years and years.  The handle on the front door of the house that my Mom and Dad built has slowly, with use, been developing a mirror shine that make me really happy.  I guess if I was responsible for making something that eventually had the polish of Timothy Eaton’s statue’s shoe, I would be pretty ecstatic.

Close-up of Matt’s work. Photo by Leif Norman.

JW: If there was another art medium you could explore, what would it be?

MJ: I found myself drawn to crafts that had a high “workmanship of risk.” I’m not sure if you are familiar with the term, but it was coin by David Pye in his book “The Nature and Art of Workmanship,” to describe the situation, where at any point in the creation, you can mess up the work, and is the counterpart to “workmanship of certainty” where once the process is started the product is guaranteed.  So something like handwriting/calligraphy was something he identified as having a high degree of workmanship of risk, but introduce a ruler and you introduce some workmanship of certainty and shift in the spectrum.

(This is making me sound pretentious…  I like the idea, but the book was a pretty dry read)

Anyway,  all this to say… it’s not the medium but the methods that I find really interesting.

–and short answer…  “wood”

JW: Your work has a diversity of styles, from geometric to organic.  Would you say you prefer modern or traditional designs?

MJ: It’s all about fitting the design to what the situation needs.  370 Donald was a collaboration between the client and me.  They had a 2D graphic that they approached me and asked me about laser cutting steel panels. I looked at it an suggested that we could add some real depth to the screens if like traditional ironwork broke the 2D graphic into 3 basic elements, and layered them.  While, to keep within budget, we had to use lasered parts, I suggested that we use hand hammered rivets to joint the elements. (over 1600 rivets in those panels, yeesh, I still have rivets in my brain)  I think that the result was great.  The importance for me was to have the cold hard lines of the lasered parts come together with a soft hammer textured rivet.  I loved the contrast of modern and traditional. (There is a steel fence on the new Peace Tower at Princess and Logan, and the steel work on that building looks dead and lifeless in comparison, and it used the same type of lasered parts.)

As for what I prefer between modern or traditional…   I love using the traditional techniques to explore contemporary /modern ideas.  If you look at my favourite pieces with a macro lens, all you will see is the traditional, the forge texture or the hammer/tool marks. However, step back and the clean lines of the contemporary start to appear.  (like in the firescreen and the garden bench)  I like to think I strive to hit a balance, and the balance is what I prefer/love.

JW: Other than your two jobs, do you have any time for hobbies?

MJ: I love old cars, and spend time maintaining a 1959 Bugeye Sprite, which is super fun to drive.

Most of my friends think I am crazy, but I also run adventure races.  Last year I ran a 24-hour race in North Dakota. I don’t really fit the mold of the typical racer, and while everyone seems to know each other, I kind of drop in run a race and then disappear again.  One friend who knows me well enough found out the other day…   “Do you run it in steel toe work boots?!?  Do you even own running shoes?”

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I have a small fleet of canoes and once a year I tend to take a group of friends and misfits on a week long canoe trip somewhere.  Usually I have friends come up from the south and they stay a couple days and we fix the canoes, build some paddles or other gear, and then take off for a new destination.  Typically I lead a group of about 12 people on the week long trip, and sometimes a group of head out for day trips to the Whitemouth or Pinawa rivers.

JW: What are the challenges and opportunities being a blacksmith here in Manitoba?

MJ: The challenges and opportunities of being a blacksmith in Manitoba are two sides of the same coin. It’s the isolation.

The isolation has pretty much made work pretty unique in Manitoba, and has allowed me to develop my own style, and techniques and I am free from folk saying you aren’t supposed to do it that way…  but,  its sometimes lonely. If I get stuck on inspiration or need some help swinging a hammer, I have to teach someone from scratch, because there isn’t a community of smith’s to pull from, like I have experienced when I lived down in North Carolina/Georgia/Tennessee. Every region across Canada has a blacksmithing association, except Manitoba.  (There is one in each Sask, Minnesota, and Ont)  So I tend to bounce around… Blacksmithing attracts practitioners that like to be self sufficient, and its hard to get a bunch of feisty, severely individualistic people to get together to be apart of a group.   Maybe one day…  It’s one of the reasons that I teach classes out at the farm, about one a weekend a month in summer.   If there isn’t a group to join, you have to make your own.

JW: Soooo, are you feisty and severely individualistic?

MJ: I don’t know if I am feisty…  but I certainly don’t like being told what to do. I mean I don’t think I actually answered any of your questions directly.

(except maybe for the answer “wood”)

Jaclyn Wiebe is the co-founder of FIRESIDE DESIGN BUILD INC., a Winnipeg based full-service design build company with a focus on custom residential renovation: