"Fire and Finery" by Tiffany Aumann
Publication: The St. Augustine Compass
Article Date: Volume 5, Number 44 - November 9, 2001

Centuries ago, their art forms were considered part of the daily grind Dennis Bernhardt, blacksmith, and Wendy Tatter, batik artist, use techniques that were utilized before modern machinery replaced the need for manual labor.

Blacksmiths were originally known for utilitarian crafts such as creating tools and weapons, not sculptures. And batik designers, though certainly talented at producing ornately-dyed masterpieces, directed their efforts largely toward fashion.

Bernhardt and Tatter have found challenge and romance in the time-consuming but rewarding practices.

Jean Troemel of P.A.St.A. Gallery recently invited Bernhardt to join the cooperative gallery on Charlotte Street. Now tucked among the paintings are strong, steel creations, derived from a trade begun thousands of years ago.

"He's superior in his craftsmanship. People like his work and it adds to our gallery", she said, stressing however, that the sculptures are more than the product of craftsmanship. "You don't get the emotion in crafts. It's workmanship plus emotion."

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Bernhardt spent 15 years as a welder and pipe fitter for Proctor and Gamble before his plant was shut down. Through a job re-training plan, he trained in air conditioning and refrigeration and later took a job in the field, but he soon missed working with metal. Bernhardt enrolled in a fe summer courses at Peter's Valley Art Center in New Jersey, where he learned the basics of blacksmithing.

Although he had not training in art, he enjoyed the creativity of smithing and received compliments from a fellow student, an art teacher who told him his oversized hand project was very Picasso-esque and encouraged him to explore his own ideas, rather than taking art schooling.

In 1998, he moved to St. Augustine and built his own forge.

The blacksmith works with low carbon steel, brass and bronze, fashioning an array of creatures and forms from the malleable metals. Donning dungarees, safety glasses and ear plugs, Bernhardt brings forth dragons, giant shield-like tortoise shells, plants and human forms from the flames.

His latest project was a philodendron plant that weighed 92 pounds when completed. Sculptures of such size must be made a piece at a time and can take months to finish.

Another characteristic that lengthens the process is the constant attention paid to temperature. Depending on the type of metal or steel, the fire must reach temperatures from 700 to 1400 degrees.

" You have to watch the heat," says Bernhardt, who judges temperature by changes in the flame's color. "Even if the steel doesn't look hot, it could be 900 degrees."

If the fire grows too hot, the steel will disintegrate and splinter in a display the blacksmith compared to a Fourth of July sparkler.

The steel can also crack under too much hammering, a problem he encountered recently while making a skull. After making tin foil molds from his own head, Bernhardt began rounding out the hollow of the cranium. The resulting cracks, though unintentional, gave character to the piece, so he left them.

"Sometimes a mistake can wind up being beneficial," he said.

When the works are complete, they must be treated to protect them from rust. Bernhardt mixes a warm brew of linseed oil, bees' wax, turpentine and paste wax that is applied to the steel before it grows cold.

He prefers not to paint the steel or lacquer it, instead letting the metal's natural patina shine through. Areas brightly polished with sandpaper or trails of shimmery brass lend detail and contrast to the works.

"That's where you come out with the real special effects is when you take it out of the forge and must wipe it down," he explained.

Bernhardt is a member of ABANA, Artist Blacksmiths of North America, an organization started in 1973 that has, members. The group's annual conferences have been a great way to meet other blacksmiths and perpetuate the art form by sharing ideas. He does concede, however, that the many of members he has met are most interested in making detailed Damascus knives.

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