Smoke from the metal chimney was spiraling upwards as we approached Melissa Cole’s forge in the beautiful Wiltshire countryside. Passing through the white wooden doors we could see the flames rising as Melissa was busy working some steel on the anvil. Her space, formerly a pig shed is in a long brick building. The majority of tools are set around the forge, the heart of any blacksmiths dwelling. As work spaces go this has to be as traditional as they come with the aged anvil sitting on a weathered tree stump. Both the anvil and the stump are covered in layers of ingrained soot through years of use. Just like the anvil and stump the majority of tools are also made with wood and metal and hang within reach of the forge ready to be used at any moment. Melissa pointed out some wrought iron she had salvaged from a local church saying, “that would have been forged in the 17C using the same techniques as I do now and I can use that metal to create something new. Repeating this old process is a lovely experience.”
Melissa was introduced to blacksmithing by her dad who taught metal work and ran his own forge. He was a traditional blacksmith but let her experiment, from the tender age of 7, under his watchful eye. She said, “I remember making snakes and tent pegs, just learning the basics. It wasn’t until my late teens that I experimented a bit more and knew I wanted to pursue a creative career but I wasn’t exactly sure in what.” After working with ceramics and plastics at university she found her way to metal where she felt more at home “I’ve always been very comfortable with metal. It is just such an expressive medium. I felt that this was more me.”
Her dad took early retirement and built a bigger workshop for himself with two forges which gave Melissa the opportunity to continue her work with metal. She took it. She made a chair for her sister as a wedding present then was asked to make another for someone else, then curtain poles and various other items for people who appreciated her artistic style. Working with her dad allowed Mellissa to polish her traditional blacksmith skills, but also allowed her free time to be creative. She wanted to spread the idea of being creative with metal and developed a community art scheme for local schools. This involved taking her mobile forge into schools to teach blacksmithing skills. It was a huge success. “I have worked with 1000’s of children and visited over 35 school and community groups across the south of England.”
In 2007 Melissa was awarded a prestigious 'Bronze Medal' from The Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths (an authority set up in 1325 to support blacksmiths that use traditional techniques) in recognition of the blacksmithing skills seen in her public and private work and the successful ‘Forging-in-schools’ project. Melissa still runs workshops and courses but fits them in around commissions and sculpture work each year. Indeed she set up a gallery in a nearby converted barn to show her work as well as those of other selected artists. She talked us through a beautiful selection of her steel, iron and bronze work that combine traditional forging techniques with elegant flowing fine art designs. It was great to see the final pieces and every stage of the process is fascinating. We flicked through her notebook that had sketches of ideas, flowing lines and notes… the starting point for all her pieces. We then saw Melissa working with steel heated to a yellow glow in the forge, skilfully manipulating it into shape with hammer and anvil. It became two hearts linked… a present for us to take away.
We have previously met a traditional blacksmith who produced metal work for practical solutions, so it was great to see those same forging techniques and hammer work used to produce something completely different… metal work that flows and wraps around itself, taking your eyes on a journey producing pieces that are solid in make up but light and free in their aesthetic quality. It is possible to see every physical mark made by Melissa with every blow of the hammer, recreating her original 2D sketches with hot metal, hammer and anvil producing a truly unique piece of art.