Stepping into the blacksmithing studio at the Jackson County Green Energy Park in Dillsboro, the continuous sound of hammers crashing down on metal echoed loudly out of the warehouse and into the high peaks of nearby mountains.
“And when I hear that hammering, I know we’re on the right track,” said Timm Muth, director of the GEP. “It’s a fantastic thing for us to see this, because this is what we’re here for—to give artists a place to work, to bring in people from around the community and far away, people who want to learn these skills.”
Muth walks across the large studio and flags down Brock Martin, a blacksmith and Western Carolina University alumnus, who now teaches an array of courses at the GEP. Martin looks up from his station, filled with handmade tools and a 2,400-degree metal forge that can be felt several feet away before you even realize it’s there.
“It’s pretty much who I am and what I love to do,” Martin modestly said about his passion for the craft. “It has its challenges for sure, but I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life.”
“Doing this, and having the Green Energy Park here, gives people a better appreciation for people working with their hands and a better understanding of how things are made.”
— Chelsea Miller, Green Energy Park program assistant
Martin was the first metal intern at the GEP, which runs on methane gas from an old landfill a stone’s throw across the parking lot. He came to the GEP when he was a freshman at WCU, majoring in entrepreneurship and Japanese. Martin soon found an enduring love for blacksmithing once his art instructor suggested he check out the program at the GEP, which has had a long and bountiful partnership with the university.
As with anything worthwhile, practice makes perfect. Martin kept coming back to the GEP. He honed his skills, rigorously studying techniques and fundamentals. After a few years, he felt confident enough in his evolving skillset to start teaching courses around the region. He also hits the road doing demonstrations at cultural festivals, Renaissance fairs, and comic conventions (that couples with a recent rebirth in Medieval history and fashion, as seen by the popularity of the HBO series “Game of Thrones”).
“These skills are important because they’re fundamental to our lives,” Martin said. “It’s a primitive skillset, one that also applies to today, too. It’s very self reliant. You can make anything you can imagine or improvise. And it’s crucial that we keep these skills and traditions alive.”
Martin holds these monthly blacksmithing classes at the GEP. It’s in an effort to share his ancient skills, and also grow his career as an artist and educator in a space that fosters such intent. Watching Martin instruct the class, Muth can’t help but feel justified in his mission, which is the foundation of the GEP: making a career out of your passion.
“It means a lot to have alumni come back and teach courses, and to see folks coming in to learn from these talented artists,” Muth said. “It’s hard to not be impressed with that, just with the amount of skill it takes, and then when you figure in that the property is running on gas from this big pile of trash over there—it blows people’s minds.”
The Jackson County Green Energy Park offers numerous classes for metalsmithing enthusiasts and professionals. GARRET K. WOODWARD PHOTO
Meandering around the GEP is Program Assistant Chelsea Miller. Another WCU alumna, she found herself at the GEP one day, and seemingly never left. A “jack-of-all-trades,” she has apprenticed with Martin, becoming one of the few female blacksmiths around the area. She also has acquired skills in glassblowing, which the GEP offers in the other side of the building.
For Miller, she’s been able to put her art education degree to good use, leading tours of the GEP and also hosting live demonstrations for school groups, children, and the curious alike that wander in.
“Doing this, and having the GEP here, gives people a better appreciation for people working with their hands and a better understanding of how things are made,” she said. “It shows how viable the arts are in a community, the amount of skill it takes to create these pieces, and the amount of talent the resides within these walls.”
Learn more about the Jackson County Green Energy Park.