Forge Welding

Mark has second thoughts about signing on for this welding gig. He checks the size of the steel,the heat of the fire and goes on the hunt for heavier gloves. Pamala is lining up her cameras, one for slides, one for b&w, one for color prints. She’s a film snob, disdains digital and would rather buy cameras than eat and is often too broke to do either. Pamala’s putting together a photo essay on people at their work. I’m forging joinery scarfs on the ends of two of the heaviest pieces of steel I’ve worked in years, mainstays in a free-standing retro-contemporary sculpture that I just happened to design with the right codified height and thickness to serve also as a handrail.

The lumbering old swamp cooler on the far end of the space really isn’t doing the job because its August and the forge is in South Tucson. This is a separate town inside a city; a planned community of sorts in the old days, planned for the marketing of numerous vices and a place where people of color could own their own homes and stay out of the spaces of the white folk. One rarely hears English on the streets. The building was once an ice barn. We work in the back two thirds and up front is a failing liquor store, the owner of which pumps very heavy iron every day, keeps a seven-foot komodo dragon and populates his office with half-a-dozen near-life-size Gene Simmons action figures. If he pays the utilities he can’t stock his shelves. If he stocks his shelves they cut the power and his beer gets hot. The guy with whom I share this space is a thirty-something, alcoholic sculptor who’s into the owner for about six months of back rent and it is a horse race as to which of the two will bottom-out first. When things get really pinched up front the owner comes back and tries to throw the sculptor out but somehow he manages to stay and the lights keep shining save for only six or seven days a year. The sculptor often doesn’t show until after four and just as often spends the full night here to stay out of his wife’s way. She studies for a PhD while he slaughters brain cells with a guy named A*** who looks like he still has rickets and sweeps up now and again for the privilege of sleeping in the bathroom when the weather’s bad and his room mate runs him off. A***’s cousin, P***, a crack whore, drops by weekly and bums loose change for smokes. From time to time a tall calaca in a threadbare trench uses the sculptor’s space as a show room to sell stolen bicycles.He and I are the only ones around who are levering any kind of income from the place. I stay because no other site would tolerate my coal-fired forge, the rent’s not bad and the unbuffered life’s mostly a delight in this procession of irrepressible variables and novel contingencies.

Mark is working on an MFA, turns out pretty decent steel sculpture and welds really well. But he’s never seen a forge weld and wonders why I just don’t do these with a machine. I tell him I’m too much of a prima donna. An aspirant once said to me,”I always thought you guys who can weld up steel with your hammers were gods.” and I’ve never looked back. I don’t tell Mark that I’m not as fond as he is of machines, or tools and gadgetry that are bad stand-ins for talent, but I do rejoice in fire, its always sinuous look, its odor, the menace and fever from it, and the cool, visceral wash of adrenaline I feel in its presence.

The scarfed ends of the two steel bars, side by side in the coke-bed, are a radiant, searing bright lemon color. Their surfaces look glassy and slick; they’re starting to sweat, I hold back on the speed of the blower, watch for sparks, tiny brilliant chips of iron oxide slag that shower off like fireworks when the metal’s ready to weld. The three of us, Pamala, Mark and I are all sweating just like the steel. The feel of this scene is so charmed I want to laugh. Mark knows what to do; we’ve practiced. He’s handling a 30 lb. length of 2” round stock; my end is a little thicker, noticeably shorter and two-thirds as heavy.

A burst of sparks—I say “Go!” and we plunge into a state of intensely focused and reckless speed. He drags his steel, fast, fast, from the fire, lays the incandescent end inside the chalk marks I’ve outlined on the anvil, braces himself and I press my piece, scarf to scarf, atop the other.

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I hold it almost loosely there and strike with sharp quick hammer blows. I’m trying to shock start the molecular exchange across the dimensionless space between the two. It will happen all at once inside the first few seconds or not at all. Four swift blows, five, and I feel my piece suddenly tighten against the other, feel the steel below the hammer double in thickness, The hammer’s ring drops an octave in the space of that single blow. The weld is stuck…integration…cohesion. What was dual in one split-second transcends to unity.

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That’s when I lay into the joint like I was possessed, yelling at Mark to turn it over…pull it back…push it, push it…turn…again! Pamala’s camera is clicking over like a tiny diesel engine on a fast idle. Sweat is running in my eyes, washing ash across my glasses. Mark’s face is turned away from the spray of slag from every blow. When the lemon color deepens toward orange we lay the piece back in the fire. The doubled-thick bulge in the length of it looks like an egg in a snake. Mark wanders around hunting for face protection. Pamala selects another camera, debates herself on filters. I crank the blower, chuckle and catch my breath. To work the bulge into a clean, unblemished, ever so slightly tapered, invisible joint takes five more heats, a 10 lb. sledge and a brake on the beat.

Working hammers of this weight—ten pounds—in this heat is a gourmet meditation on the priceless treasure of the body—that which we are until that moment we aren’t. The eyes and shoulders take care of the weld, wu wei, it doesn’t need another thought. This body is the only asset and care in the whole world now. One strikes right as if growing up, tranquil, from the earth with a dark, slacked core of original energy settled just above the groin as the center and source of awareness. It’s a little like a slow dirty, Latin dance and a dance to be regally, seductively dirty must look and feel as if it is the easiest thing two people have ever done standing up; a dance so certain of itself that the steps are barely there; just brief, cathartic afterthoughts that really aren’t thought of as much as they are small reflexive tokens to the music that, for its own part in the piece, is not so much the impulse for the dance but a restraint on its passion. So too, heavy hammers moves almost on their own, verging on beyond control. Gripping hammers that weigh like this will soon cripple the hands and the feeling of ease; being crippled spoils the fun to be had at the border with chaos. These hammers are held like a small bird—with just sufficient tension to keep them from flying away. They bounce, levitate on their own—boost the lift, stretch up with it, sense the apex, pause there. Throw the hammers down, try not to miss. Hammers of this weight in learned hands are always thrown at the work; softly guided there. They are never swung. The blow, steel against steel, generates power again into the core and that sense could be the entire reason to be right here. Care for the body—that is all there is—keep it straight, tranquil, upright and healthy so it can always feel this sublime and real, this close to the ground and a shout for delight and this fantasy of living forever that is spun up from the source.

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But for all of that, sledge hammers still get heavy.

After the first weld is finished we stick an only slightly thinner piece on the other end. Its the same drill; heat and adrenaline, thirst, water and trace mineral tablets, flecks of slag sizzling cool on wet forearms, racked breathing, laughter, shouting, floods of sweat, sulphurous steam when I damp the fire’s edge, the sun-bleached Snickers Pamala brings back from the liquor store and the savored ground of vitality that substantiates it all.

(This piece was excerpted and slightly modified froma much longer essay posted on Integral Liberties, the sister blog of Kabiri)

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(Photos by Pam Reed)

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One Response to “Forge Welding”

  1. I see you are still doing beautiful work! Thanks for the link! We now live in New Orleans. Drop me a line.
    pam@pamelareedphotography.com

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