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VOL. 128 | NO. 124 | Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Lasting Impression

Metal Museum celebrates work of apprentices past and present

By Amos Maki

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Matthew Snape was working for a blacksmith in his native United Kingdom when he got the opportunity to do a demonstration at the Metal Museum.

Matthew Snape, an apprentice at the Metal Museum, waxes and seals a forged steel guitar in the Metals Shop. The museum is featuring an exhibit of work by former apprentices at the shop.  

(Daily News/Lance Murphey)

“I fancied coming back,” said Snape, 34. “I felt like it was time for a change, and I was fortunate enough to get it, and here I am.”

Snape and Mike Chmielewski are serving as the Metal Museum’s current apprentices, plying their trade as the Metal Museum pays homage to its apprentices past and present.

The museum is hosting “Metal Museum Apprentices, Then and Now” through Sept. 8, during which former apprentices from the Metal Museum’s shops will showcase recent art alongside work from their time at the museum and works from the current apprentices.

People might be familiar with some of the Metal Museum’s public art projects, like the 120-foot-long steel and copper piece representing the river flowing in the mezzanine of the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts or the seven-foot stainless steel and raised copper chrysalis swing inside My Big Backyard at Memphis Botanic Gardens, but the artists often remain somewhat of a mystery.

“People are very fascinated by what our artists do and don’t often get to see them,” said Carissa Hussong, the Metal Museum’s executive director. “It’s a great way to show what our artists do, where they come from and where they’ve gone.”

Snape was busy recently crafting a stylized guitar for an award commissioned by the Memphis Music Foundation.

“It’s not the easiest way to make a living,” he said. “I think you do it because you love it."

Metal artists who love their craft have been showing up at the museum since it first opened its doors in 1978. And the apprenticeship program has grown from a somewhat informal process into a program with a competitive applicant pool.

“The apprenticeship program has come a long way,” said Joel Parsons, exhibitions and communications manager for the museum. “Originally it was more informal and it was younger blacksmiths who wanted to work with older blacksmiths. Now it’s a more formal and selective process.”

Exhibitions coordinator Joel Parsons puts up a sign on the front gate at the Metal Museum. An exhibition of work by former apprentices from the museum is on display through Sept. 8.

(Daily News/Lance Murphey)

Apprentices serve two years, earn a stipend, and receive health insurance and their basic materials, such as coal and steel, allowing them to use the smithy in their own time to produce work for sale.

“During the day we work on the shop stuff and at night we work on our own stuff,” said Chmielewski, 36.

They also live at the museum, which is nestled on a 3.2-acre site on the western half of a former U.S. Marine Hospital that dates back to the 1880s and overlooks a scenic bend in the Mississippi River.

The apprenticeships allow smiths to work on a grander scale, producing larger objects, including some commissioned by private clients.

Chmielewski, who specializes in creating functional metal art, was recently working on a piece commissioned by Memphis-based Bryce Corp. The piece features gears, connecting rods and a crankshaft that makes small metal panels flip around.

The blacksmith trade involves a host of skills – grinding, machining, forging, welding, soddering, carving and engraving – that keep them busy and fascinated.

“It’s not something everybody can do,” Chmielewski said. “It’s hard to get tired doing things because there’s so much to do.

“It’s also a pretty permanent thing when you get done. Metal lasts a long time.”

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