Later in the month he’ll travel from Georgia to Ireland as one of only 20 artists invited to participate in “Wild Geese: The Irish in America,” an exhibit opening on March 31 at the National Craft Gallery of Ireland in Castle Yard, Kilkenny.
Smith and his wife, artist Rhonda Fleming, have been busy for months as they take their 25-year custom metalwork business in an exciting new direction.
Yet the candid and talkative metalsmith says he’s less animated than usual since the drowning last month of Shaune Lucas of Guyton and Shaune’s 7-year-old son Shannon. Lucas worked with Smith for twelve years as his apprentice, shop foreman and right hand man.
“I knew him for almost 20 years. He was like my son. He was my friend,” says Smith. “He was a good knife maker and all-around craftsman. I trained him in the blacksmith business.”
An international art exhibit in Ireland is a long way to go for a Georgia Tech-trained mechanical engineer from a farm near Spartanburg, South Carolina. In 1960, Smith and his cousin Ron Gaston went exploring in an old shed behind their grandmother’s house and discovered their great-great-great-grandfather’s ironworking tools—anvils and hammers dating back to the 18th century. Patrick Hoy immigrated to South Carolina from Ireland in 1804.
“Typically back then a craftsman would train his oldest son in the trade, but he had six daughters and no sons,” says Smith, so when Hoy died in 1860, his tools were packed and forgotten as his land was passed down through generations of heirs.
Together, the cousins began working in metal like their ancestor. Smith was drawn to blacksmithing, while “my cousin was always making knives. Twenty five years ago we turned our hobbies into our livelihood. It’s a storybook tale.”
Gaston died in late 2006, another reason for Smith’s more somber mood of late.
In 25 years, Smith’s works of art have found their way from Savannah’s historic district to distant destinations--grand hotels in South Beach/Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, and exclusive homes in San Jose, California. Wrought iron gates, railings, sculptures and sconces evoke the natural beauty of Savannah’s flowering trees, marsh grasses and graceful wading birds.
Contemporary designs are more in demand for larger scale pieces and in other parts of the United States. The PBS series This Old House, and HGTV’s Modern Masters have featured Smith’s works, as well as Southern Accents, Southern Living, and Interior Design magazines.
Smith’s pieces for the Wild Geese show are a tribute to his grandfather’s legacy and to Smith’s unique southern-meets-Ireland heritage. “Wild Geese” is a historically based term used to describe the Irish diaspora since the 18th century, particularly young men like Foy who made their way to America and made new lives for themselves. All twenty artists in the show are either descendents of Wild Geese like Smith, or are themselves Irish born artists living and creating in the United States.
Other artists include Paul J. Stankard, a glass artist whose floral works and paperweights are collected by dozens of museums, and Sean O’Meallie, whose whimsical wood sculptures are in public and private collections from Sweden to Colorado.
A workaholic who is in his shop seven days a week, Smith relies on his wife Fleming to cover the globe, seeking the natural and artistic inspiration behind his craft.
“Rhonda is a photographer,” he says. “Her travels feed our imagination.”
The husband and wife team meets together with each client to discuss a proposed piece, and Fleming draws the concept sketch. His engineering background is critical in the creation of each functional gate, table, or sculpture, capturing Fleming’s delicate drawings in iron or bronze while taking into account size and weight of foundations, and strength of materials.
In Smith’s Garden City blacksmith shop, iron filings turned to rust cover the floor in fine orange dust. Massive steel tables hold piles of slab metal, some cut to crude forms, others taken to the next phase after heating to thousands of degrees in one of several forges, then shaped with the hundreds of hammers hanging in heavy racks near two massive anvils.
“This London-style anvil hasn’t changed in 3,000 years,” says Smith. “It’s the perfect tool. It can make anything.”
With the “Marshlands of Savannah” furniture collection, a limited edition series of glass-topped wrought iron tables, Smith will be able to address two consequences that have come with his success over the past quarter century. The piece-by-piece individual nature of his craft has kept his work out of the hands of what he calls “upwardly mobile professional people” who are not in a position to pay for a custom piece. Other collectors able to afford Smith’s specialty work who were unwilling to wait many months for delivery will be able to acquire a limited edition table within about six weeks.
Each furniture design will be made into fewer than two dozen signed and numbered pieces by Smith and handpicked craftspeople, constructed in a Spartanburg workshop that he’s used as his second home base for years.
Smith will continue custom art and functional pieces in the Garden City shop, although that plan is being retooled after the death of his foreman Lucas, who was to be the guiding hand of the local operation.
“Now that Shaune is gone, all of my dreams went up in smoke. He was going to run this shop,” says Smith.
At the same time that the Ireland exhibit is launching Smith to a new level of international recognition, he envisions the furniture line as a sort of homecoming, an opportunity to reconnect artistically with Savannah, the city where his work began in the wrought iron gates he crafted for historic downtown gardens.
“It’s time for me to come back home and get my roots. I’m introducing my work to Savannah once again.”
Robin Wright Gunn is a local freelance journalist. To comment e-mail us at email@example.com