ABANA 2002, La Crosse Wisconsin

By Amy Pieh


Published in the August - September 2002 Issue of Anvil Magazine

The Artist Blacksmith Association of North America's 2002 Conference was set outdoors along the once well-traveled Mississippi River. Bordering the woods of western Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota is an area known to foster our country's symbolic bird, the bald eagle. A symbol of our freedom, our historical strength and expansion and knowing no bounds for restriction to the personal adventures that we all embark on. Whether it is one of expression to ourselves and brothers through our much diverse advancement or to remind us of our connection with nature and GOD and that should humble us to our truth and essence.

When I arrived in La Crosse, Wisconsin, I felt impressed by the choice location. Having decided to camp in a tent while covering this event proved to broaden the experience for me. The conference is a "reunion" and a "beginning" for the artist blacksmiths of North America held every two years at various locations attracting international visitors, vendors, demonstrators, and artist blacksmiths of the greatest of talent to the very novice. The ABANA acronym was a household word for me, growing up in the home of Centaur Forge. I remember the wonderful stories and photographs my parents expressed to me on this remarkable event.

The organization of the conference was impressive as was the opportunity to watch, learn from and visit amongst some of the greatest blacksmiths in the world. The scene depicted yellow and white striped tents speckled across the University of Wisconsin La Crosse campus. The foreground was amid one of my favorite scenes with the many tailgaters displaying a diversity of new and not so new goodies many blacksmiths would drool over. Set up with campers, trucks and their own tents and refreshments to survive the weeklong ever-changing Wisconsin weather of rain, cold and heat. Tents housed the demonstrations and vendors eager to show off their air hammers, forges, anvils and the like. ABANA also had two wonderful indoor galleries at Cartwright Center, which displayed the wonderful works by the well-traveled artists.

The event began with the Opening Ceremony on June 5th with the symbolic lighting of the first forge. After a thoughtful and humorous opening address by artist blacksmith Elizabeth Brim, the forge was lit. Witnessing this is most memorable for me since Francis Whitaker's daughter had sprinkled some of his ashes onto the coals. A silence overcame the audience as a proper mention and honor was completed to both he and the late Manfred Bredhol. Sparks and smoke came from the forge and a loud poof as the fire started. The apron of Manfred Bedhol was given to Scott Lankton thanking him for his personal support in the ABANA community.

The Guild of Metalsmiths had built a remarkable 8' plus steel chime made of railroad rails that were suspended from chains; each rail carrying a note that enabled the musician to play the United States and Canadian national anthems. The audience participated by standing and singing as the hammer struck each beautiful note. I marveled and felt moved at the unity and comradery of all in attendance.

I spent the next few days mingling around, photographing and learning. Frequently I was drawn to the large group under the European tent as the team worked in unison to build a large sculpture. It was humorous for me to view Cees Pronk, of the Netherlands sporting the classic wooden shoes as he worked at the anvil. The American tent surely captivated much interest as the female duo Corrina Mensoff, of Georgia and Meagan Crowley of New Jersey performed various demonstrations throughout the week. They seemed to have a strong connection with the audience entrancing quite a crowd. Peter Renzetti of Pennsylvania could be viewed while under his jeweler glasses. He was always busy creating his miniature world of soldered people and scenes. Unable to resist, I did purchase one for myself and it sits on my living room coffee table reminding me of my ABANA trip.

The third evening I found myself at the Pump House gallery, where a terrific art opening, which consisted of many of the ABANA member's pieces, was in motion. I have visited so many outstanding art openings in my travels, especially while living in San Francisco. However, this opening overwhelmed me creating moistness in the corner of my eyes. Maybe it was due to the simple fact that I knew many of the artists whose pieces were on display as well as the visitors amongst me. Or was it the splendid artwork, facility, the fruitful array of snacks and drink as well as the classiness and style that made this into a perfect end to a full day.

Friday evening, after another terrific day of spectating I decided to take a spin by the campus. Along the dorms where so many stayed, I heard this awful but happy sound. I parked my car and walked up to the patio off Cartwright Center's cafÆ. It was here that many from the European team and others were celebrating their gathering and long days work. They were singing something in opera style with beers in hand. They were having a gas! I was quickly welcomed into the group as they swung their arms with merriment! However, the fun did not stop there. At midnight, I left and drove past the rest of the grounds where I discovered no one had yet gone to rest. The tents had filled with evening forgers, hammers pounding away and flames coming out of the coals! However, there was more clatter! This was not of hammer on anvils but of a sort of music, which with ample drink and the blacksmiths of ABANA orchestrating entertainment through makeshift musical instruments. All the while, the forging went on! I was truly in heaven! How fun, and no wonder they all look forward to this event. They really know how to celebrate life!

I was unable to stay for the final day, Saturday. I understand viewing the artists completing their final pieces was exciting as well as partaking in Iron in the Hat. My memories of the conference are far more than the artwork and techniques presented. It was the camaraderie, friendships and international flavor portrayed. This is the essence of how I had been raised and the experience so many seem to miss in their daily lives. It is these experiences that have drawn me to remain in the blacksmithing industry today. We are a fortunate bunch to have each other to laugh, dream, learn and cry with.

Reprinted with permission of Anvil Magazine.