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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014

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Iron man: Cyril Colnik


There are certain hallowed traditions that truly define Milwaukee's culture -- brewing beer, making sausage, handcrafting shoes, ironworking. During the late 19th-mid 20th centuries, Cyril Colnik put ironworking on the Milwaukee map.

Born in Austria, Cyril Colnik (1871-1958) was a renowned blacksmith who got his education at the Munich Industrial Art School. Having achieved recognition as a gifted student, Colnik was selected to go to Chicago along with the German ironworking team for the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. Upon viewing his work, Captain Frederick Pabst convinced Colnik to settle in Milwaukee pointing to the many commissions the craftsman would likely glean because of his great talent, and the hospitable German-speaking community.

As it turned out, Pabst was absolutely right. Colnik settled in Milwaukee where he opened a successful studio and worked until his retirement in 1955. Although Colnik could adeptly handle a wide variety of styles and techniques, he had perfected detailed naturalism.

For Colnik, this probably grew out of the strong German tradition of realism -- the attempt to imitate nature -- that lasted through the 19th century. Oddly, wrought iron is a paradoxical medium for such naturalism because of its bulk. But the best artisans, such as Colnik, were able to imbibe this weighty material with lightness through organically flowing designs that defy the heaviness of wrought iron.

Even today, ironwork in the tradition of Colnik and other craftsmen of yore has quite a following in Milwaukee. Just ask Dan Nauman, a 24-year veteran blacksmith. Nauman runs Bighorn Forge, an operation comprised of two successful workshops just north of here, one in Kewaskum, and the other in Cedarburg.

Right now, Nauman is working on a replica of a Cyril Colnik chandelier that hangs in Von Trier, a charming, dimly lit pub on Milwaukee's East Side. When finished, Nauman's model will end up at the Pabst Mansion.

"We are definitely in a renaissance of ironwork right now," says Nauman. "I find that many of my clients want pieces reminiscent of Colnik's work, and so I aspire to achieve that same high level of craftsmanship."

Through his sensitivity to detail and quality, Colnik achieved national fame as one of the foremost metal craftsmen of his time. His mastery of cast and wrought iron, as well as other metals led to a prodigious output of candelabra, balustrades, decorative panels, gates, fireplace tools and lamps.

Locally, he also received important commissions through the business relationships he developed with several architects. And because he was considered the best in his trade, prominent Milwaukee families like the Usingers (famous sausage) and the Smiths (A.O. Smith Corp.) wanted to work with him, too.

Colnik's work could be found in or on several major buildings and private homes around Milwaukee until the Bauhaus and the International Style became fashionable. At that point, several structures that featured Colnik's work were razed and replaced with more stark structures. And, although a man of modest means, the artist did his best to buy back much of his work, lest it perish along with the buildings.

After leasing his shop to another blacksmith in 1957, Colnik's daughter Gretchen -- who at one time had a popular Milwaukee radio show -- became the guardian of his life's work. When Colnik passed away in 1958, his will stated that his entire collection of art, literature, plans, tools, photographs and equipment should go to the City of Milwaukee as long as it would be permanently displayed somewhere in town.

For over 30 years Gretchen fought to find a home for the bulk of this collection and eventually found the ideal setting at the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum. It would probably please her to know that the Kohler Foundation just acquired for the Villa Terrace a huge collection of her father's drawings, blueprints and other important documents.

Jim Temmer, executive director of the Charles Allis / Villa Terrace Art Museums is thrilled that the archive will soon be incorporated into the museum's holdings.

"Because we have some of the finest pieces created by Colnik, the Villa Terrace is really the perfect place for this material," stated Temmer. "At first we were worried that the archive would be divided and sold to collectors outside of Milwaukee. But the Kohler Foundation worked with us to make sure this didn't happen."

Temmer and his team are seeking funds to make the archive interactive and accessible to people who want to learn more about the artisan. Museum officials also plan to do some thought-provoking exhibitions using pieces of the archive in conjunction with the permanent collection.

"I think we will eventually become a destination for Colnik scholars who need access to primary documents," said Temmer, who understands the value of primary sources since he was formally trained as an historian. "But there will also be lots of opportunities for blacksmiths, kids and museum patrons who want to learn more about Milwaukee's best wrought iron craftsman."

Today, Milwaukeeans interested in Colnik's artistry can still enjoy his creations at the Villa Terrace, the Pabst Mansion, VonTrier and at other key historical sites around the city like Wisconsin Memorial Park and Mader's Restaurant.

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