LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — The Clifton neighborhood workshop is a step back in time, more 1800s gothic novel than 2021 America with its myriad of ancient tools blackened by years of use.
Billowing sheets of plastic hang from the ceiling and a massive mechanized hammer salvaged from a WWII battleship stands at the ready, waiting to pound steel into submission. It’s a working man’s shop filled with chains, pulleys, forklifts, and c-clamps the size of small dogs. Breathtaking in its otherworldliness with massive anvils sitting in a sewing circle atop felled tree stumps.
America was built on the sizzle and strength of hot metal being cajoled into railroads, bridges and buildings that connect the nation, all wielded by men like Louisville blacksmith Craig Kaviar, with their sheer brute strength and hammers.
At 67, Kaviar is a quiet man of few words, but with a deep and hearty laugh. Though he wields a hammer with as much strength and fortitude as those who built this country, the art he bends from metal has a “softer” tone as it uniquely mirrors the flora and fauna that surround us.
As a young man, he apprenticed with a sculptor and developed an interest in working with metal while at the School of the Museum, now part of Tufts University, he told the Courier Journal in his forge one morning. “A husband of one of the teachers was a blacksmith and he influenced me into thinking that making functional art might be a more reasonable way to make a living.”
Decades later, he’s made more than a reasonable living and estimates he’s made thousands of metal architectural pieces. Each project begins with the same process, a sketch of what he hopes to create and a swig of coffee. He starts this day by cleaning his workbench with a hand grinder, then dives into his current project. The work is slow and painstaking and not as easy as it was when he was a young man.
After more than 100 blows with a 4-pound hammer, fatigue sets in and he braces his right arm with his left. Through all the pounding, an image of a horse’s head slowly begins to emerge from a copper plate that he has beaten, pinched, heated, cooled, beaten, beaten, and beaten a little more.
For an aging artist, the process becomes as vital as the art itself. There’s a satisfaction with the piece you make or the photograph you take, but the joy of creating is in the exercise that brings it to life. With age comes learned patience of letting the medium and the moment determine the art.
It’s a dance with the devil you create.
“I challenge myself on projects, trying new techniques and new styles to help me keep growing,” he said. “It’s nice to get paid and it’s nice to have a finished product, but really I just love to create.”
On the thought of laying down his hammer one day, Kaviar says, “I have no plans on retiring. I don’t know what I would do with myself. Each time I take on a very large project I wonder, well is this going to be the last one? I really enjoy the work and I’ll do this as long as I’m able.”
What separates Kaviar from blacksmiths that shoe horses — a common practice in a state like Kentucky — is the metal he uses, copper, bronze and steel, the art he creates, and his unique style. His technique connects the user to nature with vines, stems and leaves he pounds into life. He fabricates natural and delicate forms from some of the hardest substances on earth, the polar opposite of what we think of as nature. It’s an art that is both functional and pleasing to the eye.
“When you heat up metal it forms itself the way nature forms. I’m able to let it flow into what feels right,” he said. “When I’m making it, it feels very natural. The metal tells me where to go.”
Over the years he has been commissioned locally by the Brown-Forman Corporation, Norton Healthcare, Woodford Reserve, The Temple and multiple churches for his work, along with countless projects for individuals. He’s proud of each commissioned work.
Emerald light dances across the forge’s ceiling with each electrical jolt from a MIG welder as he attaches the horse’s head to the body. It’s one more piece of an elaborate entrance to the Crab Orchard Animal Sanctuary in Oldham County. The commission, which includes the horse, a large archway, several trees and multiple small animals, has taken a year and a half, and he’s unsure when it will be finished.
He stands back to take a first look and snap photos with his phone of the completed horse and admits, “There’s a ... load of hours in that thing, but I don’t keep track. I’d get depressed if I did.”
A painting may last centuries under careful guardianship, but there is a permanence to Kaviar’s work. It just may last forever, enduring the very nature it mimics.
“It feels great when I go around town and see my work,” he said. “It’s nice to be part of the community in that way.”