Anvil Interview with E.A. Chase

published in ANVIL Magazine, December, 1995

Starting as a sculptor working in wood and stone, as well as fabricated steel and bronze, Image not available. entered the world of blacksmithing during the early '60s. He is self-taught and values the strong sense of self-discipline required to learn on one's own. In addition, he knows the importance of maintaining his own good physical condition. He has been a distance runner for 35 years. Chase has pioneered mixed metal work, and he is responsible for many major commissioned pieces, including a massive 4,000-pound gate in Los Gatos, California

ANVIL: You are an infamous blacksmith. I say infamous because your art is dramatic in its size and shape and its departure from the traditional.

E.A. CHASE: The individuality, if you will, of my work has to do with a very fierce stubbornness. In the early '60s I was a sculptor working in wood and stone, and fabricated steel and bronze pieces. I peripherally became involved in forge work during the early '60s and started developing my own techniques, basically for use in sculpture and also for making tools for wood and stone work. During the late '60s, I started forging bronze belt buckles and these became a principal source of income. I made buckles from about 1968 until the mid '70s. During that time, I forged over 10,000 one-of-a-kind buckles. They were sold all over the world. And at that time, I produced architectural metalwork and sculpture for public sites.

ANVIL: Well, if that is the extent of the production that you've had to go through to survive as a blacksmith, I'd say you are very fortunate, because doing one of a kind of anything allows you still to be your own artist.

E.A. CHASE: Well once again, the fierceness of my sense of individuality came into play. I am not a practical person, and would sacrifice a lot of comfort in life to maintain my sense of self. And that is as an artist and as a craftsman. For example, if someone asks me who they should study with I'm inclined to say, 'Study with yourself. Find your own ways of dealing with things. Learn from other people, but listen to your own methods and your own thoughts.'

ANVIL: Would you say that to any artist, as well as one who aspires to be a blacksmith?

E.A. CHASE: It's important to know technique, and we learn the material's possibilities from other craftsmen; but the way in which we are taught technique may be natural for some personalities, but unnatural for others. One advantage to teaching the self is that you don't have to be concerned about protecting your individual self from powerful influences of other people. You can grow in your own way at your own speed. But this is not, I realize, a very practical way, and probably not a very good approach for some people. A strong sense of self-discipline is essential to stay with the learning.

ANVIL: Would you say that the vast majority of your work to date has been in iron?

E.A. CHASE: Most of it has been iron since 1970, but there has been a lot of bronze, a lot of copper, brass, and stainless steel. I like to think I'm one of the innovators, in fact, which has led to mixed metal forge work being done in the United States by contemporary smiths.

ANVIL: I remember a piece you had at the ABANA conference in San Luis Obispo - a beautiful, large piece.

E.A. CHASE: I think you are talking about the piece Celebrating Gaia. That is stainless steel and mild steel.

Image not available.Image not available.

Displayed at the 1992 ABANA Conference in San Luis Obispo, California. The photo on the right is a detail of the sculpture.

ANVIL: It was interesting; one metal seemed to play off the other.

E.A. CHASE: Right. That is why I started doing mixed metal work, because I like the way they 'talk' to each other. I first started mixed metal pieces back in the '50s. These were fabricated pieces, but even then, as a relative novice in the craft, I was very excited about how different metals work with each other, and different methods of forming that applied to various alloys. Those methods also create different feelings in the piece. The softer the metal is, the softer the feeling of the piece.

ANVIL: Does that hold true for the actual forging of the metal? For instance, copper seems to have a certain look to it and a certain feel. When you are in the forging process, do you get the feeling that the copper has a certain personality?

E.A. CHASE: Yes. It's much more yielding than iron. So the forms tend to show the hammer more, because you're moving more with each blow. But I often like to use the nonferrous metals, very highly refined. A lot of my work in recent years has been toward refined shapes rather than rugged-looking shapes.

ANVIL: By refined shapes, do you mean highly polished or very smoothly formed?

E.A. CHASE: The emphasis here is not on forging the textures, but on the form itself.

ANVIL: Bronze forges differently from iron. The feel under the hammer must be different too.

E.A. CHASE: That's true. In fact, one of the reasons I prefer forging silicon bronze alloy 655 is that it is stiff, more like iron than some of the other bronze alloys. So it doesn't tend to be as droopy. What you have to be careful of when you are forging silicon bronze is that, even though it is forging somewhat like steel, it melts at a much lower temperature!

ANVIL: How do you tell when your bronze is at a forging temperature?

E.A. CHASE: By the color. You start forging at a dull red and work until it feels like it needs to be reheated, depending upon what you are trying to accomplish.

ANVIL: How do you tell with aluminum?

E.A. CHASE: With aluminum, I use a technique that Germans use - a pine stick. When the metal is rubbed with a pine stick and it leaves a carbon mark on it, it is ready for forging. But you don't want to take it any higher than that. If you take aluminum to color, then it's gone.

ANVIL: What about stainless?

E.A. CHASE: I love forging stainless. I use 300-series alloys, either 306 or 316. They forge very well, and are very malleable when hot. It needs about 25% more force to flow. For that reason, a power hammer is really very handy.

Unlike steel, you should quench the material at a bright red for the final heat, rather than letting it cool down by air. What that does is reduce the slag buildup on the metal and it also tends to bring the chrome molecules to the surface. Then you have to go through a de-scaling process and what is called a 'passavation' process, which eliminates the iron molecules from the surface.

ANVIL: You are currently working on some exotic floor lamps. These lamps are about seven feet tall; what do they weigh?

E.A. CHASE: 150 to 200 pounds, and they are mixed metal. All of them have a basic structure of iron and they will have a lot of accent pieces in bronze and copper. Sometimes copper enameling techniques are used, and sometimes very high quality artist colors are used for accents. But commonly, chemical patinas are used on the nonferrous metals. They are very colorful. Each of the lamps takes approximately two months to make. The shades are being done by an artist in Paradise, California, Doug Kickelhahn, who specializes in Tiffany reproductions. I think his work is actually significantly better crafted, however, than Tiffany's.

ANVIL: Oh, really?

E.A. CHASE: Well, Tiffany's work, especially when he became popular and had a lot of people working in his studio, got pretty sloppy, frankly. Of course, you can't diminish the superb creativity of the designs. That stands by itself. But the craftsmanship got a little loose.

ANVIL: Have you ever worked with apprentices?

E.A. CHASE: Yes, and I've had some very good ones. And if I have a large enough project to require help, I still have a pool of people who are willing to help.

ANVIL: I should think that a lot of them would consider it an invaluable learning experience.

E.A. CHASE: Well, I feel that may be true for some of them, but it's important to make a living, and I don't feel I can afford to pay an apprentice enough to live in an area like Santa Cruz, California. This reality is another reason I choose basically to work alone. That is a comment in itself on the state of our economy and our world today.

ANVIL: Not a very good comment!

E.A. CHASE: No, not at all. But then again, I don't have a lot of good to say about where we are right now. I think we are an incredibly commercial and rude society today and the values expressed by our society are becoming more and more inhuman and separated from the human spirit - and that spirit is the part that is especially important to me.

ANVIL: Do you try to reflect the human spirit in a lot of your work? Is that why it tends to be flowing?

E.A. CHASE: Yes. You will notice that there is a definite absence of straight lines in my work and that is because I choose to see the world as a more complex arrangement than a series of straight lines.

ANVIL: A more complex arrangement, or a more beautiful randomness?

E.A. CHASE: Yes, that's right. In fact, one idea that I came across years ago by a biologist - was the concept of random orderliness. The essay he wrote made a deep impression on me. It helped me realize that the natural world, including not just life on earth but also the universe we live in, is far more complex than we are able to ever understand. And so, by rejecting the design approach dictated by straight lines, I reject the simplicity or the notion that the world is reducible to that component. Currently, for example, scientific thought is hot on the chaos theory.

ANVIL: Could you tell us a little bit about the concept of the chaos theory? How would it apply to your personal view of life?

E.A. CHASE: Well, that the world is not a neat package of orderly objects and events. A lot of what we perceive as orderliness is probably superficial observation. It is a reflection of our limited ability to conceptualize what is really going on. Hence, the world is full of mystery and wonder!

ANVIL: Actually, there is a beauty in not knowing what is fully going on.

E.A. CHASE: Yes, I guess I'm a bit of a mystic, still.

ANVIL: Obviously you have a lot of inner spiritual motivations. Do you find that the art that you practice is a reflection of your inner self?

E.A. CHASE: Absolutely. I've always used an axiom that if you want to know who I am, look at what I do.

ANVIL: It's interesting that each one of these lamps has taken two months. Most people in creating something would have gone berserk by then!

E.A. CHASE: Well, it's approximately two months' work on each. In fact, most have taken a little longer than that. But I don't keep a precise time schedule. If I did, I wouldn't be able to work the way I do. The complex unfolding of each theme keeps the pieces exciting to work on. It never gets dull.

ANVIL: Do you work on other commissioned pieces at the same time?

E.A. CHASE: No. I may be working on designs for other things, but not actually working on them. Because with my intuitive approach, I like to paint myself into corners - which means that I'm forced to come up with creative solutions to problems that I had no idea I even had. And that is very much a part of my work technique.

ANVIL: In looking through your portfolio, I found this one massive, intricate and beautiful gate, the one with the panther. Can you tell us about that? Is that your biggest piece to date?

E.A. CHASE: Yes, I believe it might be the most massive all-forged gate in California. To my knowledge, there is nothing more massive that is not at least mostly fabricated. It is a 4,000-pound gate and it resides in Los Gatos, California. That area was once home to a large cougar population - thus, the cougar theme. That gate is very much a philosophical expression of how I feel about form and structure. I even gave a lecture at Stanford University to the graduate engineering department based upon the structure of that gate. My inclination was to try and encourage these young engineering students to find creative, nonlinear approaches to solve structural problems.

ANVIL: For the architect, a straightedge and a pencil are his basic tools. Is that era coming to an end?

E.A. CHASE: I think with computer-aided design techniques, we will probably be able to evolve three-dimensional blueprints which will finally free us in structure from the straight line limitations.

ANVIL: And as a consequence, do you see the opportunity for architectural ironwork on the increase?

E.A. CHASE: I see the romance with architectural ironwork as being a post-industrial phenomenon, and I think it works in several ways. From the craftsman's point of view, the freeing up of tools like power hammers from industrial applications makes the equipment available for the artist who can use it for creative applications. So it's like a post-industrial renaissance, and it also frees the use of metals for the artist's application, particularly steel. In our country, coming into its full bloom through the industrial age, the art of the blacksmith has traditionally been a practical matter. I think as a post-industrial process, iron becomes a much more creative medium and the public is starting to understand that, too. The future can be very bright for the application of architectural metal.

ANVIL: In that sense, I have a feeling we lag behind the Europeans.

E.A. CHASE: Well, yes, but we don't have the same demons, either. Where they have a lot of cultural definitions for how the blacksmith is supposed to work, we are relatively free in this country. One of the reasons that the renaissance in metalwork has progressed so rapidly here in the last 20 years reflects the chance-taking freedom that American artists have been allowed. I think it's very important that our sense of adventure-taking is not lost as we become more structured in our approach to metalwork. There is a great tendency to regulate ourselves and how we work, as a culture. But we have the freedom right now to create a metalwork renaissance that I don't think any other culture has had.

ANVIL: How can we best take advantage of that?

E.A. CHASE: The development of organizations such as ABANA and the California Blacksmith Association, for example, are reflections of that phenomenon. Until we started doing demonstration conferences in this country, Europe was, as I understand it, mostly a closed shop where people didn't share techniques and, in fact, had grown so competitive that an open, creative approach was very seriously stymied.

It's interesting that we've had a reverse effect on Europe, where now conferences are happening commonly, and there is a lot of openness and exchange. I think we can pat ourselves on the back for that. After all, it's a contemporary phenomenon that started in the United States because of general openness. It's very important that we maintain that. I can see signs already, though, of some of that tending to shut down and we need to be very much aware of what we would lose in the process.

ANVIL: What's causing this shutting down?

E.A. CHASE: I think there is a certain rigidity that comes with professionalism. And it takes discipline to avoid that. It's stopping to see that your material is something fresh and alive and has endless possibilities. We should avoid the tendency to pigeonhole and categorize how it should be used, and how it shouldn't be used - and that includes my own theorizing!

ANVIL: In order to do architectural ironwork, isn't it first necessary to influence the architect to call for it?

E.A. CHASE: I work mostly with clients directly. I find, although there are architects whom I have worked with successfully, that there is sometimes a conflict as to who controls the metal design. I do not allow anybody to control the design of my metalwork. I will definitely listen to an architect or a designer or a client in terms of what they are trying to achieve, what images are important to them, and what the sense of the building is. All those things are just as important to me, certainly, as my own creativity. And looking at my work, you will see the tremendous variety of approaches. That variety of approach has to do with my sensitivity towards the architecture in the siting of different works, where I like to think that even though I will work with architecturally very different styles, you can still look at something I did and say, 'Ah! That's something that Chase did.'

ANVIL: As it stands now, you have clients all over the country who commission you to do work for them. You must have a backlog of work.

E.A. CHASE: Yes, I have other work that is pressing, and after this lamp I will get on to some other projects that have been waiting in the wings. But I usually find my clients are willing to wait. I like to think that the life that I lead is, in fact, completely principled and I really don't make compromises. A lot of people would find that to be absolutely absurd today. I feel that maybe there is too much compromise in our world.

ANVIL: Has your family been supportive of your artistic endeavors?

E.A. CHASE: My wife has been wonderfully tolerant! And she is also my very best critic.

ANVIL: Are you looking forward to other large architectural pieces like the panther gate?

E.A. CHASE: I don't know. That was an extremely strenuous piece, it took 15 months, and I used 5½ tons of coal, forging it! So it was a very major operation. If the right offer came along, I would do another big project. You see, in our society, there's nothing like size. Although I feel there are other things that I have done that are certainly as aesthetically valuable. The mere size of a piece like that has its own priority.

ANVIL: It must get very complicated, doing something on that scale. You obviously need help.

E.A. CHASE: Yes. I had a wonderful helper working with me on that gate, 30 hours a week. I must say the worker was very patient with my ranting and raving and my idiosyncratic way of working, which is never quite knowing what to do next!

ANVIL: I overheard a conversation you were having with someone that you draw plans for pieces, but you then explain to the client that it may or may not turn out exactly the way you've designed it.

E.A. CHASE: Yes. In fact, it never does. I explain to them that this is the sense that I want to achieve with the piece, but that the actual piece will probably evolve to be quite a bit different. And if they are skeptical about that, I usually tell them that when a piece is done if they don't want it, they don't have to pay for it - so far, so good!

ANVIL: Do you find that sometimes you become a victim of the piece, in that the piece is growing itself?

E.A. CHASE: I'm an aesthetic junkie, and as the piece is developing, I get very much involved in the beauty that I see unfolding. And I can't help but try to enhance that aesthetic. I want the piece to be as perfect as I can get it. And consequently, I feel I would like to get back to sculpture full time and gradually phase out of architectural work.

ANVIL: Really? Sculpture? Define the type of sculpture you would like to do.

E.A. CHASE: I have a lot of things I still want to say, and I am a sculptor who believes art is not merely a reflection of the world in which you live, but rather it is the sensitizer and the educator to the world. I see that as a responsibility of artists. But I think a lot of artists today don't see it that way. There is too much emphasis, I believe, on decoration and not enough on meaning.

ANVIL: And you feel that you can fulfill your need for meaningful expression in sculpture?

E.A. CHASE: Oh, yes. I think any technique that deals with three-dimensional form is rightly called sculpture. One of the reasons I feel that ironwork is a post-industrial process is that steel was a very uncommon choice of material for a sculptor before this century. That was because it was always considered a practical metal, one used for architectural ornamentation or weaponry or armor - things that had little to do with symbolic language. I think we're being freed of that thinking today, so now we are able to see much greater latitude in the use of metals, particularly iron. Suddenly, the metals have been freed to be used in art - much to the benefit of all concerned..

ANVIL: Your piece Celebrating Gaia - is that typical of what you are referring to as the type of sculpture you would like to do?

E.A. CHASE: Yes. It has an enormous amount of symbolic content in the piece. That's important to me. I wanted to take the emphasis away from the fact that it's done by a hammer. I wanted to emphasize the symbolic content of the piece.

ANVIL: What will become of that piece?

E.A. CHASE: I'm saving it for a show. I need to get a few more pieces for a major show.

ANVIL: And when will the show be?

E.A. CHASE: That I don't know. When it happens.

ANVIL: Are you going to try fitting in sculptural pieces between finishing architectural pieces?

E.A. CHASE: I don't have the endurance I once had, so I don't work the 60- to 70-hour weeks anymore. I try to work at the shop less than 45 hours a week. I'll try to fit more sculpture in when I can.

ANVIL: And how successful are you at keeping a limit on your work week?

E.A. CHASE: Pretty good - my wife makes sure that I don't abuse myself too much by working too long.

ANVIL: Do you exercise at all?

E.A. CHASE: I do yoga, and have been a distance runner for 35 years. I run several times a week, usually about five miles. To me, maintaining the discipline of physical conditioning is very important to be able to continue my work. And it also is important to me in the sense that a lot of the activities that I enjoy that aren't work related have to do with the outdoors . . . things that require physical conditioning.

ANVIL: Do you find when you are running that you are also able to be mentally creative?

E.A. CHASE: No. I'm blank. Absolutely blank; meditative, rather than creative.

ANVIL: So your running not only is a physically enhancing experience, but also a meditative process.

E.A. CHASE: Oh, yes. It's a way of relaxing the mind as well as taking stress from the body.

ANVIL: When you are sculpting, you employ many different types of metal, but you also employ a variety of methods as well. You demonstrated here today the use of the power hammer as well as the press (see photos on the next page). What other methods do you use to manipulate the metal?

E.A. CHASE: Small air hammer techniques, with which I do a lot of repoussé work. Usually I use air hammers in this work as opposed to hand hammering. I find it to be a very fruitful way of working.

ANVIL: When you say air hammer, are you speaking about a pneumatic hammer?

E.A. CHASE: They are hand-held, riveting-type hammers.

ANVIL: That must require a certain amount of physical stamina.

E.A. CHASE: Well, yes, but not as much as a million hand hammer blows to achieve what you can in a fraction of that time with a pneumatic tool. I have several and they are used according to their capacity. I use the large 560 shank tool and also a 401 shank tool.

ANVIL: Any other methods that you employ?

E.A. CHASE: Well, as you know, I have two power hammers. The one is a 100-lb. Little Giant and the other is a Nazel 2B. I use the Little Giant basically with box ties for specific kinds of operations. I will often use both hammers during the same heat, which is an interesting transition.

ANVIL: Taking advantage, then, of two different sets of dies?

E.A. CHASE: Right. Two different tools to achieve a specific result.

ANVIL: You seem to apply a certain amount of whimsy to your work.

E.A. CHASE: Yes. And I think that's my romantic leaning showing: that I believe in whimsy, I believe in myth, and in values that are not necessarily tangible. Of all the groups that I'm associated with, I think my favorite group of people is blacksmiths. There is a certain inherent honesty that the work demands - honesty which shows through. I feel that often, artists working with other mediums are not as forthright as blacksmiths almost always are.

ANVIL: Yes; blacksmiths are basically honest, with a soft, artistic core.

E.A. CHASE: I like to believe that I am not inclined to be a macho-type person. I'm the type who cries at movies and that sort of thing. The rough-hewn side of blacksmithing is not what appeals to me. Even though people say, 'My God, look at the things that you make!' I don't feel that they're being done because I'm a physically obsessed person as much as for the reason that I have a spiritual nature with an aesthetic leaning.

ANVIL: I've really enjoyed talking with you today; thank you for your valuable insights.¨

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