Wednesday, December 30, 2009

December's Open Book

Blest Be The Tie by Alexander Lawrence (Larry's first in the Goins series)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Hot from the past -- Peter Ross Bio (published in December 2009)

Was sent a neat article today from a friend:

Hot from the past
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By his standards, the 1905 farmhouse Peter Ross shares with his wife, Louise Barnum, is not all that old. Ross, a nationally known blacksmith, has to explain to potential customers that when he says "historical restoration" work, he refers to buildings dating from 1650 to 1840.

After 25 years of heading up the blacksmith shop at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, Ross moved to Chatham County in 2006, after marrying Barnum, a longtime area real estate agent. (Ross moved from Forge Road in Virginia to White Smith Road here.)

Before renovating their home on 25 acres outside of Siler City, Ross first set up the studio where he makes custom hardware, tools and utensils for restoration projects. Current projects include supplying kitchen utensils and hardware for a privately owned 1750s kitchen in Virginia, making circa-1820s door hinges and locks for a museum in eastern Tennessee, and creating a lock to match an existing door at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, which dates to the late 1700s.

"Up until now I've worked only in the historic house restoration field, but this year I'm trying something new - a line of historically inspired but contemporary iron pieces that people can use in their homes," said Ross, 55. "Those could be kitchen utensils, tools for wood stoves and fireplaces, and brackets for lights."

Ross decided to add another line of work, although he typically has a backlog of restoration jobs, because he wanted to reach out locally; most of his clients are in other states.  "I wanted a way of being connected to the community, to develop relationships with other artists and the public," Ross said.  To that end, he signed up to be a stop on the Chatham Studio Tour, where artists open their workspaces to the public. The tour is this weekend and next.  Ross will give demonstrations with his forge, anvil, hammer and tongs, something he's used to after speaking with the hundreds of thousands of Williamsburg tourists over the years.

First a hobby

Ross' association with museums began when he was 17, living on Long Island, N.Y. He and his father took a blacksmith class at a carriage museum in Stony Brook.  "They had a blacksmith shop, and would teach classes in the community," Ross said. "They taught us to make simple hooks, and I just loved it. Of course neither one of us thought it would lead to a blacksmithing career."

Ross then became perhaps the only teenager on the East Coast to set up a blacksmith shop in the corner of his garage.  "I played around with it as a hobby for a while, and then I volunteered at another museum on Long Island, a reconstructed town called The Old Bethpage Village Restoration. That was enough to convince me to find a college that had some kind of craft program."

Ross ended up at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he met his mentor, Dick Everett of Connecticut, who specializes in restoring 17th- and 18th-century hardware and furnishings.  "He was in an old town, surrounded by old houses," Ross said. "I worked for him with the idea that I'd eventually open my own business."

And he did, in 1976 on Deer Isle, Maine, also home to Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. "It's just a beautiful, breathtaking spot, right on the ocean," he said. But the Williamsburg job beckoned three years later. 

Past methods

"It's a fascinating environment," he said of the country's most famous living history museum. "It's a great academic institution. You're surrounded with other professionals studying restoration - curators, architects, archaeologists. But you're also dealing with tourists who often have no or little knowledge, and so your job is to educate them. It's an interesting combination."

At one point, Ross as master blacksmith had a staff of seven blacksmiths.  "We had the same staff of blacksmiths for 12 years," he said. "It was a very skilled group."  About half his time was spent with the public and the other half working on restoration projects at the museum.  "I was hired to turn the blacksmithing into a more academic program instead of a souvenir-oriented program, so it was an exciting time to be there," Ross said. "There was a tremendous shift in many of the crafts there to do more research, to study long-developed techniques and to understand decorative arts from the maker's viewpoint. We got to look at everything with a fresh eye."

One of the things Ross learned and often lectured about was the difference between contemporary and pre-industrial aesthetics.  "Our job was to re-create old pieces, and the methods in which they'd been made. It was a revelation to me that when you don't have modern tools at your disposal, not only are the tools you're using different, but the whole thought process is markedly different. You don't use the same sequence of steps. It's like cooking without a recipe, when you go by taste and sense and feel."

Nature's model

The 18th-century worker, he said, was led by nature's infinite variety.  "The aesthetic ideal was nature. Like if you have two maple leaves. They have the same character, but are different in size and shape. That was the function of handwork through the ages until industrialization. Now it's all about uniformity and measured precision, sometimes even in ways that can be detrimental to the work."

Ross' more contemporary forged metal work won't be a huge stretch from his restoration work because he's basing the designs on historical pieces.  "I'm not sure how much of the new stuff I'll do, but it's something I wanted to try. We'll see how it goes."  No, he answered, he doesn't have a Web site showing his contemporary work. He is, after all, a little stuck in the 18th century.