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In Arts & Entertainment

Kent Knapp has been a blacksmith off and on for almost eight years. (PHOTO: Krista Rizzo)

In Arts & Entertainment

Blacksmiths work with iron that is between 1,800 and 2,000 degrees. (PHOTO: Krista Rizzo)

In Arts & Entertainment

Knapp creates a twist his his plant hanger. (PHOTO: Krista Rizzo)

Modern day blacksmith crafts a bit of his own Milwaukee history


Kent Knapp is standing next to pile of burning coal and pounding the hell out of a red-hot piece of wrought iron until the tip of it is tapered enough to curl into a spiral. When he's done, he'll have a beautiful black plant hanger, the start of a custom wine rack, part of a railing, chandelier or just about anything his hands are able to mold it into.

This, for the most part, is his workday. He's a modern-day blacksmith with a passion for the craft of the past and as a 34-year-old, he makes his living bending and shaping iron from his forge, Ornamental Ironworks, on the west end of the Blackhawk's Antique Market on the South Side.

Taking careful inspiration from industry leader and fellow Milwaukeean Cyril Colnik -- an Austrian-born blacksmith chosen to come to Chicago as part of an ironworking team for the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and who later settled in Milwaukee -- Knapp is dedicated to ensuring the survival of one of history's oldest professions, as well one that has solid roots in Milwaukee.

"The really neat thing about blacksmithing is that it's a craft that goes back thousands of years and there's a real sense of history about it," says Knapp, mentioning that much of Colnik's early 20th-century work is still prevalent in Milwaukee and can be seen at The Pabst Mansion, the Villa Terrace, Von Trier and Mader's Restaurant, as well as in gardens and gateways to several East Side apartment buildings.

One of Knapp's biggest projects to date, actually, is restoring Colnik's 100-year-old railings at an apartment complex at the 1400 block of North Farwell Avenue.

"You can find Colnik's work all over the place and some of it is 80 years old and people are still able to look at it and appreciate it in a modern setting."

Surprisingly, Knapp says, the centuries-old craft has not significantly altered all that much since its inception, save for the Industrial Revolution replacing the bulk of one-of-a-kind pieces with mass-produced ones. And even with modernization, Knapp says he's doing things today almost identically to how it was done hundred of years ago -- although he does admit to using a motorized air pump rather hand pumping a bellows into the fire all day.

"I like staying as true to the form as much as I can. Today there are mechanical hammers and things like that and a lot of guys utilize the modern conveniences, but I prefer not to. I like to keep it very organic and draw form nature, much like Colnik did."

But for all the inspiration he's provided, Cyril Colnik was not in fact Knapp's impetus for pursuing the craft. Instead, it resulted from his pursuit of his other passion: playing the blues.

"I learned to blacksmith from a blues drummer," he says. "When I was about 17 years old I snuck into the Up and Under every Tuesday night when a man named Tom Wilson was running the open jam. He took me under his wing, musically, and I found out that he was also a blacksmith. I started apprenticing under him in 1991 and worked with him for three or four years before I picked up and moved to New Orleans with my family to play music."

When Knapp returned to Milwaukee in 2002 he caught Wilson on his way to Italy. Wilson sold everything to Knapp -- a 35-year-old tool collection dating as far back as 300 years and which included some of Colnik's old tools Wilson had received from Colnik's daughter, Gretchen.

And if crafting with the very same tools that a Milwaukee ironwork legend used wasn't enough of a reminder, Knapp's got an anvil, a hammer and a pair of tongs tattooed on the inside of his left arm as a promise, he says, to himself to keep the work up.

In ways, however, Knapp is creating a bit of Milwaukee history himself. He designed the rings that secure the ropes to the dead eyes on the full-scale model of the wooden schooner The Challenge built by Rob Stevens at the new Discovery World museum.

"It used to be that the blacksmith's shop was the center of the community -- that's where everybody met because, whether they were cooking or farming or whatever, they all needed tools. Obviously it's not like that anymore -- now it's more of a craft and an art thing. People don't have the same eye for this type of art as they did 100 years ago, but there's still that niche that appreciates something done in the old school fashion."


Talkbacks

OMCreader | Nov. 4, 2006 at 2:06 p.m. (report)

Ellen Stutzman said: I am honored to say that I have known this ambitious, young, blacksmith since day one...I am his Aunt! He never ceases to amaze me with custom-made iron work! AND...If you haven't hear him playing the Blues, you're really missing out! I am proud of you, Kent! Auntie LN

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OMCreader | Nov. 3, 2006 at 6:45 p.m. (report)

Kath & Mike said: As proud owners of some of Kent's artwork (custom wine rack and custom gate latches), we can attest to his talent! This is truly an art!

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OMCreader | Nov. 3, 2006 at 5:45 p.m. (report)

Nicole Noonan said: I purchased a beautiful shepard's hook from Kent. I found not only was it completely creative, but much sturdier than what you could purchase at your local store. Thanks for keeping the craft alive!

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OMCreader | Nov. 2, 2006 at 10:28 p.m. (report)

Weenie said: Yeah Kent I'm so proud of you!!!!!!!!

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OMCreader | Oct. 31, 2006 at 11:46 a.m. (report)

mike said: cool! always nice to see people keeping stuff like this alive. I've always loved wrought iron. Keep it up.

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