In a time before composite plastics and polycarbonate resins, before machine tooling and mass production, there existed the blacksmith, master of the dark metals. His craft was hauntingly intense, near-biblical in its fiery imagery, but it's hard to question the allure: heating iron rods into white-hot slabs, then hammering them into submission, ker-twang, against an anvil shaped like a snub-nosed bullet, ker-twang. To harden a piece, it was plunged into a bucket filled with water, releasing a hissss that could wake the dead. The end product: maybe a latch. Or a single nail, semistraight.
The industrial age ended the fun, however, as the stock in trade of the American blacksmith -- locks, hinges, farm equipment, cooking utensils -- became mass-produced in factories and shipped by rail. The era of pounding iron, it seemed, was over.
But in the early 1970s, artists such as Stephen Bondi began tinkering with the old tools, and a new cadre of "artist blacksmiths" revived the craft, forging staircases, window grills, railings, and decorative ironwork. These smiths used traditional techniques but added modern tools: electric grinders, power hammers, oxyacetylene torches.
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Bondi typified the burgeoning field. A trained sculptor initially interested in plastics, he traveled to Italy in the mid-'70s to work with Simon Benetton, a blacksmith who ran a large architectural ironwork shop and created the kind of contemporary, figurative pieces unknown in America at the time. Bondi liked the Italian's approach, which broke from tradition. "Benetton was actually forging large blocks of steel, not working with bars in a linear context," he told Anvil Magazine in 1998. "When I saw the shapes and forms, in my gut I related to it right away."
Inspired, Bondi returned to America and opened a blacksmith shop in Berkeley with his brother, Michael. Working on the West Coast, Bondi found a market for abstract architectural designs in addition to the decorative household items most smiths made a living on. In the 1980s he became ill and could no longer take the bodily demands of the metal shop, but the artist was still sculpting plastics when he died in 2004.
His pioneering work is saluted in "Stephen Bondi and Friends," a group show at the Braunstein/Quay Gallery that features both the functional and fine art of the current blacksmithing scene. On display are surprisingly graceful lamps, wall mirrors, and free-standing sculptures from Bondi; forged copper wall plaques and scale-model miniatures of full-size architectural installations from his brother (who's known for his gorgeous gates); a tiger wall grill and interactive bucking-horse sculpture from Bill Roan; trivets from Toby Hickman (whose work you may recognize from the majestic restaurant interiors of Jardinière, Boulevard, and Postrio); and stylized figurative sculptures from E.A. Chase. This is art that cements the bond between old-world techniques and new-world style.