|by Rob Edwards
published in ANVIL Magazine, June 1998
ANVIL: Stephen, I understand that you will be putting together a panel discussion at the ABANA conference in June.
STEPHEN: Yes; this has been confirmed with Conference Chairman George Dixon. The first presentation would be on the project to date and the work of Alessandro Mazzucotelli and also that of Carlo Rizzarda, showing what the work is about. I will talk about the history and the importance of it. The second part of the presentation will be a panel discussion, so to speak. Maybe a better way to put it would be to say it would be an open forum with a leading panel. I've spoken with five people whom I think would be important to cover the breadth of what we have. They are: Carl Jennings, an honored smith who worked during that dormant period of the early 20th century. He would have a perspective of that time period. Claire Yellin, Samuel Yellin's granddaughter, is another, if she can arrange it around her other commitments. She would present us the Yellin history -- that is three generations right there. She is well educated on the work. James Wallace, who is the Director of the National Ornamental Metals Museum is an historian, in a sense, who has seen the development of works. Albert Paley said he would participate. He is important because he is probably most like Mazzucotelli. Albert had a formal education and has been incredibly prolific. Come hell or high water, he is making his work. His early pieces are in his collection because they weren't made for sale. They were made much like Mazzucotelli made his gate of gladiolus. They were made because he had to make these pieces. And also he was in a teaching environment. He made people aware, just by his presence, and also the prolific nature of his works, that this stuff was happening and that there was something to do in the field of artist blacksmithing. I think Albert is a pivotal figure and would be important to have on the panel. The fifth is going to be a sculptor from Tucson, Fred Borcherdt. I wanted Fred because he is sort of a counterpart to Albert Paley. Fred is a sculptor who came into using metal as the tool for his expression. We will look at specific works of Mazzucotelli, an undeniable master who, at the turn of the century, was a major influence doing very progressive work. The people on the panel are creative people who are also articulate, and will be able to explain their justification for liking or disliking a work. We are going to get their impressions of the piece, which may help people understand the way they think about work. A dialogue and an assessment can be made by each person observing this. Hopefully, it will be a dialogue with people in the audience as well. At the moment, I'm not really letting any of the panel members prepare for this because then it becomes predetermined rhetoric. This should be something much more instinctual because that will help people understand more clearly how they think and how they see things.
ANVIL: It makes a lot of sense, and it certainly sounds like it will be one of the highlights of the ABANA conference. Members are looking for something more that they can bring into their work and this panel would certainly offer that. It's interesting that it is going to be based on work that was done nearly 100 years ago!
STEPHEN: It's going to be work that has validity today as contemporary expression. Samuel Yellin's work has validity today, but I think it is in a more historical vein. Everybody who has seen Mazzucotelli's work -- those who are interested in doing more contemporary work -- has just been stunned by his work. The vocabulary, the forms and the compositions that the man was doing 90 years ago are what we are trying to establish as a reality today.
ANVIL: Stephen, how did you become a blacksmith?
STEPHEN: I was teaching at Catholic University in Washington, DC, and I was starting to do some blacksmithing work in my garage; but was mostly involved in sculpture and working with plastics. I was working with plastics in a real 'plastic' state, in the sense that I would heat the pieces up and push them and stretch them and squeeze them.
ANVIL: What were you teaching at the university?
STEPHEN: Sculpture and metalsmithing.
ANVIL: Do you have a degree in that field?
STEPHEN: Yes, I have a Master of Fine Arts degree in sculpture from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. When looking retrospectively at it, I think there are additive, reductive and manipulative ways of working. I think that's also true in terms of the way one thinks, and I found that I gravitated towards manipulative processes. I enjoyed working with clay and with hot glass. As far as iron went, I didn't enjoy it at that time because it was cutting, fabricating and assembling pieces. I developed a technique with plastics where I would heat it, push it and stretch it -- materials like plexiglass and acrylic. I had seen some blacksmith work -- early work of Albert Paley's and some of Samuel Yellin's work -- and I realized that steel could be a plastic material. The processes that I used on the plastic itself were so labor intensive that I stopped doing larger-scale work and worked with jewelry shapes. But forging steel was going to enable me to get back to working on larger-scale pieces. So while I was starting to work on combining the two, my father, who is Italian, had gone back to Italy for a family function. He met up with an old friend of his from school who, at that time, was a foremost art critic. And each man was talking about what their kids were now doing. My dad explained that I was getting involved in sculpture and I was starting to do forging. The guy said, 'Well, I can arrange for Stephen to come and work with the foremost sculptor in iron in Italy, and one of the foremost in Europe, if not the world: Simon Benetton. My father's friend arranged for me to send pictures of my work to Simon, and Simon in turn sent me photographs of his. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was definitely work that I was interested in. One of the problems I was having with mine was it was very linear, or graphic -- much like the art nouveau work, or American blacksmith Albert Paley's work -- things worked from a bar of steel. My orientation was still to work in sheets or blocks of plastic and Benetton was actually forging large blocks of steel, not working with bars in a linear context. When I saw the shapes and forms, in my gut I related to it right away. Simon invited me over as a guest to his studio. At the time I went, I thought he was just a sculptor. As it turned out, he had one of the largest ornamental architectural ironwork shops in Europe, working on some of the largest architectural projects. His shop allowed him to continue making these pieces. It was through the monies generated by the shop that he then worked on his own sculpture projects. In addition, it gave him the facilities to do what he was doing and what I wanted to do.
ANVIL: Could you tell us more specifically what Simon was doing in working with large blocks of metal?
STEPHEN: He started out doing what one would call traditional work in the modern vein, figurative images. It became more and more stylized. The only way to describe it is that the shapes and forms he was achieving are things that you would get if you had a block of clay -- a block that you would and push and model, maybe chop some pieces off -- not really adding things to it. These kinds of abstract forms he would then arrange by welding them into different blocks that occupied and dealt with space in different ways. He would also work with heavy plate -- some were 1" to 2" plate -- and he would forge on the plate as a plastic piece of material, not just pierce it and cut it and bend it. He would actually forge on the edges and thicken and upset the edges, which would cast different kinds of shadows onto the pieces -- things like that.
ANVIL: How long did you spend with Simon?
STEPHEN: The first period at Simon's shop was about nine months; I'd intended a year, but he had just had heart bypass surgery. When I first went to meet him, he kept saying he'd be back to work in a week or so. Well, he didn't realize the gravity of bypass surgery in the early '70s. It ended up taking about six months for him to recover. So I went back to Rome for about three months because I had family there. A friend of my father's had a jewelry studio in Rome and he was an eighth- generation master jeweler. Since I'd been working on plastic jewelry and things of that scale, it gave me a chance to pick up more techniques. So I stayed there five or six months and then went to Treviso for about nine months. At that period, I was a guest sculptor. I worked on my own stuff and assisted some of the people if they needed a hand on something; that way, I could learn more. I basically spent all of my time there. Toward the end of that nine-month session, my brother Mike came from the United States to visit me. He knew I was getting pretty disillusioned with teaching. We both thought that what we saw going on in an architectural context would be a viable thing to do here. When I finished my teaching commitment at Catholic University, I was asked to teach at Rhode Island School of Design, and I did. But the same kinds of problems were occurring at this school. It was a period where schools were beginning to realize that it's a business - whether the faculty likes it or not, it's a matter of making the numbers work. The students at R.I.S.D. were getting very dissatisfied. The faculty still had the idea that the students were there for the 'Rhode Island School of Design experience.' And the students were finding they were going out in the world without any viable skills. There was a lot of dissension and dissatisfaction. The same thing was being experienced at a lot of schools then, and I decided I didn't want to be involved in it. In the meantime, I'd found this work that I just loved to do; I couldn't get enough of it. I decided to quit teaching and to go back to Simon's shop in Italy. I went back for another year, where I looked further at what was involved in the architectural projects. I felt I had gotten a good handle on the forging aspects -- the modeling end of it. What I didn't know I felt I could pick up on my own. I looked more into what was involved in the layout procedures for doing stair rails, how they did the measurements and how they built those projects. When I returned after that year, I moved to California. Relative to what was being done in the United States, Benetton's work was much more modern -- much more contemporary. It was not dealing with scrolls and quatrefoils and the more traditional kinds of elements. They were composing in an abstract manner somewhat randomly forged shapes that they would do compositions with. They did still do classical work, but most of what they were doing was the more abstract and modern work. And we felt with the kind of architecture that was being done in California, there would be a better chance of doing that kind of work. In Washington there were older brick buildings that had ironwork around them, so you had to do something that lent itself more to that venue.
ANVIL: So the West coast offered you more opportunity to be contemporary.
STEPHEN: I hoped so. My father and mother moved from Washington to Monterey, California, and Mike and I set up shop in Berkeley, California, around 1976. What I wanted to do from the beginning was architectural work. Though we'd never done any of it, I just felt it was a matter of struggling through the geometry of it and learning how to do it. There was too much competition if we were going to try to do household items such as small fireplace tools, fireplace screens, handles and latches and the like. It seemed that most of the blacksmiths at that time were afraid to do architectural projects because if you blow it, you blow it big time. If you're off on a degree, when it manifests itself over 20 feet, it becomes inches. But I figured we could wing that. I would rather deal with that kind of confrontation than the competition in a physical sense. There were much finer blacksmiths around. I am still not interested in blacksmithing as people often think of it. I'm more interested in forging. If I use certain blacksmithing techniques or what look like them, they are usually used as a design element and, to be honest with you, a lot of them I didn't do traditionally. I faked it, because I'm after the visual effect, and to actually do it properly, I would lose more time than devising a way to use it once or twice just as a purely decorative element. A lot of my rivets, for example, when I was using them on my sculpture and on other pieces, had a certain very 'mushroom-type' form to them, or horse's hoof form. I might do six or seven of them to get the shape I'm after, then drill holes through them and pass a bar and weld that in place. I'm more interested in the form of the rivet head than the fact that it rivets the pieces together.
ANVIL: So you're using the structural elements as decoration.
STEPHEN: We wandered around Berkeley and found a big industrial forge shop. We rented 4,000 square feet right next to it, in the Oakland Granite and Marble Works.
ANVIL: What was your first commission?
STEPHEN: It was in Monterey. Our first job was doing exactly the kind of stuff that we wanted to do. It took a lot longer to do, however, than we'd figured. We did a freestanding fireplace -- suspending a circular fireplace hood from the ceiling -- and a large bowl firebox for it with a circular bench you could sit on. We did door ornamentation -- not the hinges, just the decorative cornice for the door -- and a pair of rails in the front and a large handrail that ran up the back wall. That job took us a long time!
ANVIL: So after your reputation spread by word of mouth?
STEPHEN: For the most part, yes. There was a real mix -- we did what everybody has had to do: straight picket rails and reproduction kinds of work -- just sort of struggled and stumbled along.
ANVIL: In the meantime, had your brother Michael been a practicing smith?
STEPHEN: The year I took off and went back to Italy, he moved down to Los Angeles and he worked with George Martin. I contributed to a book on artistic metalwork and blacksmithing that was done by Dona Meilach back in the early '70s. I got her photographs of the work of Simon Benetton, which really thrilled her, and George Martin was one of her consultants. I had met George prior to that time, and I arranged for Mike to get some training from him. I didn't know what George was doing at that time, but any metalwork training was better than none at all, which was where Mike was. He went to school and had learned some welding and had some exposure to metalwork, so he actually wasn't a total novice when he got started. Most of it was on-the-job training.
ANVIL: When Simon Benetton came over and demonstrated at the ABANA conference in Santa Cruz in 1980, your business, Bondi Metals, was a relatively new enterprise at that time, wasn't it?
STEPHEN: Yes, it was.
ANVIL: It was a wonderful conference, having Simon demonstrate.
STEPHEN: It was the first international contingency at an ABANA conference; there were others there, too, from abroad: a German metalworker was there and they also had the Japanese sword makers. Simon is so magnetic -- he really drew the crowd! He is an excellent forger and a very fine sculptor.
ANVIL: So you and Michael were starting to do the type of architectural ironwork you had been wanting to do.
STEPHEN: It was coming in, yes. I'd read all the statistics, that a business is either going to make it or break it in the first five or seven years. I figured with the esoteric nature of what we were doing and what we were trying to offer and where blacksmithing was and where I thought it would be going it would take us at least 10 years. There were many people who wanted architectural pieces, who had preconceived ideas of what they wanted, and I didn't feel that it was our right to insert or force my design esthetics into their environment. If I could educate them and show them what was going on or what would be possible in a more modern context as opposed to a traditional way, that was progress. Of the work we did in the beginning, probably 10 or 15% was work that we really wanted to do -- our own designs. The rest was picket rails, taking an idea they had and adding some of our own inventiveness to it -- just trying to get by.
ANVIL: Were you working mainly with architects, or directly with the homeowners?
STEPHEN: Mostly with homeowners. In the past I'd given a few presentations to architectural firms. At the time, nothing really came back to us in the form of work. All of that takes time. You have to meet with them, and it has to be more than once. You have to give them something that, in one way or another, is in their file, but will attract them to it immediately when they go to pull out an idea. They have to have a sustained memory of you and your work in their own head. All of that cultivation with an architect takes time.
ANVIL: As time went on, though, you got more and more accounts and made more architectural pieces. Then what happened?
STEPHEN: My brother and I eventually split the business; we worked out an arrangement, and he has been able to go on. In ten years I had eight major operations with varying degrees of severity. So I'm pretty much out of the physical part of blacksmithing. When Simon Benetton's father Tony died in 1996, I felt it was a great loss; Tony had been a wonderful blacksmith, and very well known throughout Europe. Only a few in the United States knew how adept he was, and about his work. He hadn't gotten the recognition he should have. Tony won major awards in Europe for his modern and contemporary ironwork. He was happy to be able to execute his magnificent pieces and to do what he did and show them when he could. In his garden in Italy, you could see a vast display of his work. When I presented photographs of Tony's work at the 1996 ABANA conference, I started out with a description of some of the turn-of-the-century Italian iron, art nouveau-period work. That was the beginning of the modern movement, and I wanted to show how that influenced Tony and how his work followed this stream. At that point, there were people who had never seen this type of art nouveau work. They had seen the art nouveau work from France and Austria, but not the Italian work. The Italian art nouveau blacksmiths were very involved in the natural quality and aspect of the material and they work in collaboration with architects, which is not the case in most of the other European countries. Their designs had the art nouveau flair for line and floral and foliage forms, but there was also much more of the feel and nature of the material in them. This is because they did collaborate with architects and they knew how the material worked. They knew how to express through the material. Gaudi was possibly the only one who had that kind of nature to his work and that was because he was from a family of coppersmiths. So he knew about forging, about moving material and about working with the artisans who produced his work. So he could design work that had inherent material qualities. Other than that, the Italians were about the only ones who could leave the nature of the material and the process as part of the expression in the design. I showed how that influenced Tony Benetton's work and there were people who hadn't seen it before, nor seen this kind of tie between early 20th century -- which was Tony's work -- to the end of the 20th century. So as I started talking with people, they were saying it would be very good to have some kind of documentation on this.
ANVIL: Gaudi's work is best exhibited in Barcelona, Spain, isn't it? The huge cathedral there is cement but there is ironwork intermixed in it.
STEPHEN: I would say, in a certain respect, the Italians' work was richer in the design form. The design aspect of the Italians was more complex. Italy has always been in the forefront of design. Gaudi's work is beautiful, incredibly well executed, and designed within its own context. But I think the Italians' work has more of the northern part of Europe's flair for complexity, or more extensive use of a myriad of images in it. Gaudi is really known for his linear work and the large palm fronds that he used -- things of that nature -- which are rendered beautifully. The blacksmiths themselves in Italy designed the pieces and executed them. So they were designing from an in-depth knowledge of the techniques, processes and systems, and I think had a more complex design structure going. What you had in the Italians is that people designed things because they were designers and executed them beautifully because they were skilled craftsmen. So it was a two-part process. The majority of projects were collaborative efforts with architects. When you see that in terms of how it is integrated into the structure of the building, such as the main supports to hold up balconies, for instance, they are all ornamented and tie into the railings. They have forms that complement the concrete architecture being done at that time. It definitely had to have been a collaborative effort.
ANVIL: You presented an analysis of Tony's work at the ABANA conference in 1996.
STEPHEN: After showing Tony's work and the work that led to it, several people came up and told me that it helped them because they had been in a quandary -- they had been working in metal for 15 or 20 years and knew that they could do whatever they wanted to do, or could learn to do it. But they didn't know what they wanted to do anymore. So much of their orientation had been learning the techniques, and so the pieces were designed from the inside. They didn't know what they wanted to make because they'd never really been dealing with the problem of designing something and then executing it. They had always started out with the techniques in terms of how to rivet, how to mortise and tenon, and 'how am I going to deal with this?' always thinking of the technical way of doing their work instead of designing it for the piece and using the techniques as they needed to. The way I tied Tony's evolution of his work to a growth or extension of Mazzucotelli and what the other nouveau people were doing in Italy helped them see a different way of looking at their own work. It helped them to see that other people reached the point where maybe they didn't know what they wanted to do, but they stopped thinking about the technical stuff.
ANVIL: In regard to the technical aspect, there became more contemporary ways of dealing with metal along with different welding techniques. Plate became more available, and that certainly had an influence on their ability to go beyond traditional techniques.
STEPHEN: This brings up something else. In America we only have 25 years of blacksmithing history, as far as I'm concerned. You can't include Samuel Yellin as part of our history. He brought us all of Europe's experiences in one person and in one lifetime, and we established a style of blacksmithing that took Europe thousands of years to develop. There was a dormant history here in the '40s after Yellin. Until the early '70s, there wasn't really any blacksmithing going on as a visual, creative, applied art. I'd say '76 was the first important blacksmithing conference, put on by Brent Kington at Southern Illinois University. There was a big grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. It was the bicentennial, and Albert Paley came and worked. Tom Bredlow was there also -- a lot of people were very fired up. If you look at 1976 to 1998, that's 22 years. Look at what we've done in 22 years, starting from ground zero! We had zero -- you can't count Samuel Yellin because he spent years wandering around Europe and saw thousands of years of work, all the way back to Etruscan ironwork and all the way up to turn-of-the-century work. His genius was being able to take images from the disparate periods and also from different cultures. French work is different from German work, and German is different from Austrian. Even thought there is a certain attitude or stylistic commonality to it, the way they treated the work was different. Yellin was able to take all those attitudes and come out with something that was its own. So he brought us this packet of the finest ironwork that there has ever been in history. And it's one man doing it. That's quite a gift to be handed!
ANVIL: So you think that in that period Yellin embodied the work of the entire European continent.
STEPHEN: Yes, I do. I think what is happening now in such a short period of time, we are where the Europeans were at the turn of the century. We're there in only 22 years. Mazzucotelli wanted to drop traditional styles and designs -- they were going into a new century and a new decade. There were new things happening, new things were going to happen. He utilized any and all the techniques available to him to execute his work.
ANVIL: Let's back up a bit. Tell us something about Mazzucotelli, because he was a predecessor of Benetton's.
STEPHEN: Oh, yes. Undoubtedly he was the single most important person in the rebirth or renewal of ironwork in Italy. It had started to die out. The traditional ironworking was just so old and so beat and downtrodden. There isn't a lot of information on what got him to the point of doing what he ended up doing, however. He was born in 1865 and he was a working blacksmith by the time he was 20. At the beginning -- even pre-nouveau period -- there was a lot of wealth, a lot of new construction, new architecture, and new concerns in architecture going on. He was designing for that. He felt the reason ironwork had died was because it had become boring. It had become overly ornate. There was nothing new going on. He was one of those people who made the leap. In Italy, for instance, there is a distinction between the artist and the craftsman. The craftsman does not feel any less proud than the artist, but what happens with the artist is they become so in tune with something that they make that leap. My personal feeling and from what I gather from others is that is what happened with Mazzucotelli; he was just way ahead of his time. He was able to do works that people questioned, but when they saw them, they were whole and complete and they were justified.
ANVIL: Mazzucotelli had several students; did they carry on in his tradition?
STEPHEN: He did teach at the Institute of Decorative Arts near Milan, Italy. He also had people in his shop as his assistants. From what I gather, Carlo Rizzarda was one of his allievo: that translates to not quite a student and not quite an apprentice. It's someone who comes in to work with you and he is more than an apprentice -- you see their potential and you nurture it a bit more. My understanding is that that was what happened between Mazzucotelli and Rizzarda. As to the other art nouveau ironworkers in Italy, I don't know if they worked with him specifically or went to the school and studied with him. Their work was undoubtedly affected by him and by his influence. One of the interesting things about the Italian nouveau workers is that Italy has different provinces: Lombardi, Tuscana and Veneta (around Venice), to name a few. And they are very secular; each one of these retains its own identity. In fact, they have different dialects in each zone. This secularism also manifests in their culinary tastes -- they are very different -- and also in their ironwork. They manifest their provincial or communal culture differently. You can look at the work of Mazzucotelli, who is from the Milan area, Rizzarda's work, and especially ones like Caligaras and Mateuci, which are from Umbria and from the Friuli, and you see a distinct difference in their work. Yet, you can see an underlying commonality. And that was from Mazzucotelli, because he was ahead of them. They were born in the 1880s and he was born in 1865. By the time they were ready to do creative work, he had already set a format. My impression is that they applied to it their regional tastes -- their regional interpretation. But the basic structure of the work came from Mazzucotelli. One of the things about Mazzucotelli's work is that almost all of it has some kind of underlying formal structure. We tend to think of verticals and horizontals; those are there in a lot of his works, but you see that he breaks them up into rectangles. There will be the use of the horizontals and verticals but instead of in a very concise, systematic pattern, he will use them in more of a random pattern, and then add the foliage. The idea of taking a systemic structure and an organic structure and putting them together is a nice idea and it works, but the difficult thing to do is really pull it off. You could have the cold, systemic pattern working in the background in its own pattern and you could have the foliage and the floral forms working on their own on top of it. Because they are so distinct and different, you have two things going on at the same time and they actually work. There are people now in the United States, for instance, who do a lot of floral forms. When they tie them in to other kinds of work, it doesn't quite make it. The idea is there, the composition is there and may be nice, but it's almost as if the floral forms are made to be that, as opposed to becoming that on their own. There are certain things that can happen in forging, where you can move the material in a certain way and if you don't touch it, you get a certain character on the edge -- it's a certain porosity that happens -- that is only the material. It's natural to the material. Mazzucotelli could leave that; he'd know when to stop and not try and get that final push to the shape of the leaf because he didn't need it. The material gave you that gesture itself by stopping there.
ANVIL: So he allowed the material and the design to essentially speak for itself.
STEPHEN: Exactly. And in certain leaf forms, for instance, the way he would get a main vein in the leaf was that he would take the piece of sheet metal, fold it, hammer the folded edge, open it up and he would have a pinched line or crease that would make the vein. He wouldn't go in on large pieces and put in extra veins because your mind will project that. As soon as you're given the form and that main center line that renders it as a leaf, you bring all of your intuitiveness to it. He gives you the surface -- it flows. There is a certain undulation to the leaf that reflects light differently. He left the material to do that. The Italians do this all along in their work: they walk hand in hand with the material. They will direct it and there are certain things that the material is going to do spontaneously. They just have an excellent sense of when to leave it.
ANVIL: You were showing me a couple of pieces of his work that you felt were designed and built to exhibit his ability to design -- to 'show off' his work, so to speak, and not for any other specific purpose.
STEPHEN: Yes; that was the Gladiole Gates and a large rooster.
ANVIL: It's interesting, you mentioned that if you took segments of this gate, they are in and of themselves complete. In this particular case, the sum total is much larger than all of the parts.
STEPHEN: I think that's a gestalt way of looking at it, yes. I personally think that gate is an example of the fact that Mazzucotelli was a genius. There are emulators, there are innovators and there are geniuses. And there are only a few geniuses. We don't really know who they are until what they have done shows you that. I think he was a genius. I think he was ahead of his time by hundreds of years. When you look at that gate, it has movement, design, pattern, and systems going on that we are only beginning to touch upon and consider revolutionary now. And remember, we're 100 years after the fact; this gate was done in 1903. It doesn't have any curve or linear forms that are traditional in blacksmithing; however, there is a suggestion of them in the top -- in the plate work. There are certain kinds of 'almost' scroll forms and there is a very heraldic kind of feel to certain parts of it. You can take a square or a frame and move it around on this work and you will find literally endless numbers of compositions. People look at these and they see things I hadn't seen, and I've been looking at the picture of this for a year! When people see the whole piece, they are just stunned. It takes their breath away. As soon as you start to show people some of the compositions that make it up, their mind is jump started and they start finding their own. You can find an endless number. It's a remarkable piece of work. Personally, I think it's the most important piece of ironwork I've ever seen, and I've seen my fair share.
ANVIL: When did you first decide you wanted to document Mazzucotelli's work?
STEPHEN: About 22 years ago.
ANVIL: But recently this has become an obsession even more, wouldn't you say?
STEPHEN: Yes. I feel it needs to be done. I think we're going to lose the work if we don't. A lot of it is gone already. As a nation, the Italians just didn't feel it was important to preserve. I think it's incredibly important work to blacksmithing and to the arts as a whole. Italy has a certain manner of contributing in ironwork that just hasn't gotten recognized.
ANVIL: You did get some help from ABANA and the California Blacksmiths Association.
STEPHEN: The first group I proposed it to was the California Blacksmith's Association. This was almost a year before ABANA came into the picture. I proposed the project, told them what I wanted to do, and CBA jumped right up and gave me $1200. They stacked two years of grant money and gave it to me. ABANA did the same. And then I sent out letters and tried to solicit assistance from other chapters, and quite a few helped. And then there were a couple of individuals, also, who helped. Fred Borcherdt and his wife from Tucson, as well as some private individuals who were friends of mine and had met Tony Benetton. They had read my proposal and contributed towards it. A few other people contributed $100 each, as well.
ANVIL: Actually, only about one-third of your expenses have been covered by these generous gifts, I understand.
STEPHEN: That's true. We did get into the finals for a Fulbright grant which, in itself, is significant. If you pass here in the U.S., that is considered getting into the finals. Then it goes to the mother country and if it succeeds in passing there, you get the grant. We passed here, but we didn't pass in Italy. That wasn't unexpected. However, I am reapplying because since that time, this project has gained significant recognition in Italy, meaning that we were given official patronage of the province of Trevisa, or support for the project. We don't have that here, but in Italy that is very important. They did pay me some for doing a presentation on Tony Benetton's work and how it related to Mazzucotelli's. It now gives me unobstructed access to any archives and collections without going through the formal processes. It gives me credence with anyone else, such as private individuals like building administrators in Milan, whom I have to contact to photo Mazzucotelli's work. All I have to do is let them see the document from the province of Trevisa and it means that I'm 'believable,' and that I have a legitimate reason to photograph the items. I think we have a good chance for a Fulbright grant this time around.
ANVIL: Tell us about the trips you have taken to Italy in this regard to cover the work and about the photographic process.
STEPHEN: I went in September, 1997. My plan was to shoot the exterior work done by Mazzucotelli in Milan while the weather was good in September and October, and then to photograph at the Rizzarda Museum in the latter part of October and November. I found out that the Rizzarda Museum had closed down indefinitely for a complete restoration. Since I had officially gotten permission from the province, I went to the museum and talked to the directors there. They allowed me to go ahead inside and start photographing the work while the workers were on my tail! When the workers were ready to get going in earnest, at a certain point we had to stop and close up. But what they tried to do was direct them in such a way that I would have more time. I ended up shooting that first effort under some time constraints. I was able to get the significant bodies of work that I wanted at the museum. Years ago, I had taken photographs at the museum -- a basic overall view of the different galleries of the museum -- and also some specific works. This time, since I had those done, I had a better idea of what I wanted to photograph, so that was helpful. I'd forgotten how much work there was, though. So this time I photographed more particular pieces and gave details to each one. I have about 950 slides of Rizzarda's work alone. These are just the objects and the exterior gate to the museum, plus the monument to the dead. Afterwards, I started meeting with my various connections that I had in Milan. One of them is Professor Rosanna Bosaglia, who wrote the only book that is out now on Mazzucotelli, written in 1971. I went to meet with her and a gallery owner in Milan. It is one of the foremost galleries, on nouveau and deco work, the Galleria Balzaretti. Through Bozaglia and Balzaretti, I had gotten contacts at the city archives of the province of Milan. So I went to meet the director there because they have the drawings of Mazzucotelli. Bozaglia was extremely interesting; she is a very important figure in Italy and in Europe as an art historian. Virtually any book I have seen on that period in Italy, the nouveau or floral period, she is in it for something. Either she is footnoted or she wrote the introduction or wrote the preface. In the beginning when I met her, she didn't know how she could help me. After about the third visit, I guess she realized I was for real and she just opened up! The next day when I went back to see her she had a full list written up of places from her book, what works there were, what works she had shown, what exhibitions she had put together, and what pieces were in exhibitions. Some of the pieces were from private collections and that implied that she could get me the names of the people, at least, for me to contact, to be able to get access to private collections. Once we started looking around Milan, I realized that the project, as far as Mazzucotelli's work went, was much larger than I'd ever expected. There are major projects all over the city. As I went to photograph some of them, a lot of them were just exterior pieces and that worked out okay, but then there were some that were large interior works -- large railings, and lots of lamps and things like that. I just couldn't go in and photograph those; I had to get permission from the building administrator. Having Bozalia as a reference and the patronage of the province will help me without a doubt.
ANVIL: When do you expect to go back to Italy?
STEPHEN: This September and October, and maybe into November.
ANVIL: What are your plans as far as making this available to the rest of the world?
STEPHEN: I haven't finalized anything yet as to how I am going to go about that. I have been putting information about my work into the various blacksmith association newsletters and magazines. California Blacksmiths Association's magazine recently had an article, and Anvil's Ring has one coming out shortly. And now ANVIL Magazine will also, with this interview.
ANVIL: At this point, you have a couple of posters that you are selling.
STEPHEN: Yes. There are four posters of Rizzarda's work and there are five posters of Mazzucotelli's work which I am hoping to sell to help secure funding to continue with the project. My goal is to do a book on Mazzucotelli only -- on his work. I'm doing a series of monographs on specific projects of his. One of them is on the Gladiole Gates he made. I go into the project and concentrate on different aspects of it. The preface will explain how this portfolio idea came about and the introduction will talk about Mazzucotelli and the gate. Several of his projects are large enough in scale and nature that they warrant a booklet in themselves. So what I'm hoping to do is a series of five or six monographs on large projects that he has, as preparation for doing the book. They will basically be booklets with prints of the projects and details. They'll be loose, so they can be framed. The one on the Gladiole Gates is already finished. But I want to have a text explaining some of the history of each of the places before he did them and hopefully by seeing the archives and drawings, I'll be able to get some idea of some of the conceptual things that were going on then, as well. Rizzarda's work will be easier to do that with because he was very good at forming and collecting all his drawings. When I went to the archives in Milan for Mazzucotelli's, there were over 50 drawers of his drawings! And they are not catalogued. There are napkin drawings to full detailed shop drawings included there. What I would like to do is go through the drawings and find those which relate to specific projects that I've photographed. Then we would have a complete picture of the project from the sketches to the drawings -- whatever ones relate to these specific large projects. Each chapter would have a small discourse on where the project is located in Milan, and also what I see to be key features about the project that is different from others. I might include a common theme that is running through the whole thing and being able to focus it down -- this kind of thing -- where we have pictures of the entire project and then details of different sections of it, talking about some of the design aspects of it and what made it revolutionary.
ANVIL: Our best wishes for its success, Stephen, and we appreciate your talking with us