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San Diego blacksmiths as fine artists

Richard Schraeder explains love of ornamental iron

The black-caped, cast-iron devil figure was playing the violin and wearing a top hat and heavy horn-rimmed glasses. It rested on a cast-iron drum with a drumhead made out of a $450 piece of cobalt blue Brazilian marble. Stuck in its mouth was an S-shaped pipe with the bowl carved to resemble the face of Abraham Lincoln.

Blue lapis was used for the clasp. Cut into the creature’s rum-bottle belly were the words “Viper Rum” ringed by a necklace of cast-iron roses, and if you put a candle inside through the small door in back, the creature would glow as if alive. Written on the inside of the rear door were the words “Dear Mary: Happy Birthday, 2001, Love Doonie.”

Mary is the poet Mary Karr, whose third book of poems, Viper Rum, was published by New Directions in 1998, although she is perhaps better known for her memoir The Liars’ Club, published in 1995, the paperback edition of which was on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year. In 2000, Karr published the sequel, Cherry. Both memoirs dealt with growing up in Port Arthur, Texas, and in the second she mentioned Doonie, her buddy down the street. In the summer of 1972, she and Doonie ended up in the San Diego area to go surfing. Both were 17. Doonie had long brown hair past his shoulders; Mary was so skinny that she could hide behind a ski pole. Doonie had a ’63 Lincoln that had been abandoned by a dope dealer, and he and Mary slept in it for a while. Then, at the end of the summer, Doonie returned to Port Arthur to high school and Mary went on to Macalester College. A few years later, Doonie joined his family’s fence business. He became Kent Scott. Then in 1988, with the surfing passion still fierce within him, he returned to the San Diego area, started a fence business of his own, and settled in Carlsbad. Mary Karr went on to publish three books of poems, two books of nonfiction, and to become a professor at Syracuse University. And the two maintained the friendship that had begun when Mary had tutored Doonie in his p’s and q’s way back when both were in grade school.

But this is a story about blacksmiths — not the ones who shoe horses but the ones who can make a rose from cast iron so delicate that you’re sure you can sniff its sweet smell, the ones who will make you a $30,000 fire screen for your fireplace or a $100,000 gate for your driveway; the ones who handle molten metal the way a potter handles clay.

Mary Karr had been a student of mine in a graduate creative-writing program in the late ’70s, and we had remained friends over the years. I had heard stories about Doonie and Port Arthur, and when I happened to talk to Mary last April she had told me that Doonie — now semi-respectable — had gotten this “crazy genius Russian blacksmith” to make this amazing Viper Rum statue and I should take a look at it, which I did. Except the blacksmith wasn’t crazy but sad. Nor was he actually Russian. Though born in the Soviet Union, he seemed to be from Georgia. Basically, he is Armenian: Noair Khatchatrian, whom Kent Scott and the others at Scott Fence call Noro. Now Noro has been in the States for two years, having previously worked in the Czech Republic. As for the genius part, Scott had no doubt about it.

“He’s world-class, for sure,” Scott told me. “His stuff, his attention to detail and the talent to do that kind of detail work, really puts him almost into the classification of a jeweler. I went to downtown San Diego and bought him all those little intricate grinders and diamond-cutting chips and stuff like that to do Abraham Lincoln’s face on the pipe. Of course, being from Russia, he wasn’t familiar with Abraham Lincoln, so he did that face off of a five-dollar bill. I gave him a five-dollar bill and he carved it. He’s as good as I’ve ever seen. Like his work would attract attention anywhere in the world. That violin he did from going to the library and checking out a book on violins. He’s cool.”

At 46, Kent Scott hasn’t entirely put his hippie days behind him. “That crazy Texan,” several people described him to me affectionately. His combination office and home is a warren of dark rooms in a row of two-story apartments. They brought to mind the word “pad,” which I hadn’t thought of for many years, and at first glance it seemed that Doonie’s pad hadn’t been tidied up since the end of the Vietnam War. Nine surfboards hung on the walls. Within a huge fish tank, oversized piranhas nosed hopefully for bloody scraps. Balancing on its perch by a gray window and looking out onto an even grayer porch, a large and morose parrot defecated mini-volcanic mounds onto small sheets of paper towel, often missing. A giant projection TV faced the elderly low-slung couch. The sound was turned off, but the screen flashed with scenes from NASCAR races to kids doing bike stunts to motorcycle races to skateboard stunts. Clothes were heaped on the chairs; blueprints were piled on the tables. There were no bare surfaces. On the walls were snapshots from the old days — surfboards and cutoffs and endless summers.

Scott is a wonderfully affable man, a constant chewer of Nicorets, handsome, athletic, clean-shaven, with receding brown hair. “Cool,” he says with great frequency, but dropping the l — not making the pigeon’s “coo,” but General Pinochet’s “Coup!” He wore a blue gingham shirt and jeans; his feet were bare. He looked fondly around at his pad — “Have to get this place picked up soon,” he said. Various employees came and went. He has six crews and 20,000 feet of fence under contract: power plants in L.A., housing tracts, Coors Amphitheatre down near the Mexican border.

Scott continued to describe the Viper Rum statue.

“We wanted to do something to honor Mary’s work and her poetry, because that’s really what she is: a poet, even though she’s written these other books that have done real well. So we just took the concept of the viper rum, and the first thing we naturally came up with was a rum bottle or a rum glass, and a viper. And then we came up with doing a man out of the two. I drew a sketch for Noro, and he kind of misinterpreted it. What happened was he had the snake coming out of the top of the bottle, but it was curving the wrong way. So I told him to cut it off, and I stuck it back on there. Then we realized we could make that mouth actually coming out of the snake body. So that was just kind of happenstance, the way it came out. Then I did the violin. And the reason we had the snare drum and the violin is kind of a tribute to the music from my hometown area: Cajun music. Once he did the fiddle, we came up with the pipe, which is also a candleholder. And the top of the top hat also has a spot for a candle. And then, of course, you put a candle inside the bottle and it lights up the letters ‘Viper Rum.’ Now, I wanted to do it in a Civil War time period, and I wanted to do a gun, because Noro is also a gunsmith. He can make revolvers. So I wanted him to put a revolver up underneath the cape, but he insisted that Mary wouldn’t like it. So I called her, and sure enough, she didn’t like it. She didn’t want the gun. And so we ended up dropping the gun altogether.”

Scott described the cape, the drum, the flowers, the Brazilian marble. He would draw something and discuss it with Noro. Then they would modify it, until the whole piece came together.

“Noro is a super-talented artist that has never, in my opinion, really had anybody that was willing to pay to do artwork because it’s just a losing proposition. There’s no profit in it. He’s been working in production shops his whole career, pretty much. But he’s too talented to do production work, because the degree of difficulty to have it come out looking as clean as it does is just staggering. Fortunately, I’m in a position financially where I can afford to do the artwork and not have to worry about selling it. That’s the whole key, if you want to do true artist’s blacksmith work. For instance, that Viper Rum took two months. I mean, I’ve probably got $7500 in it, counting everything. And that’s not figuring anything for my time, that’s just hard cost. So compared to everything else I do, there is no profit in it. I mean, it’s a love. It has nothing to do with business, but in the time I did that Viper Rum piece I built $250,000 worth of fence.”

Noro came to the States in 1999 and showed up at Scott Fence in the spring of 2000. Before that, he had been doing blacksmith work for someone who Scott said hadn’t been deducting anything from Noro’s paycheck: an under-the-counter sort of job. In place of a résumé, Noro brought a cast-iron snake.

“The first day Noro was here,” said Scott, “I was just, like, in awe. And all of the men too. I mean, normally a new guy shows up at a company and everybody is kind of like, you know, who is the new guy? and all of that stuff. He has that snakehead that he made. George asked if he could make a cobra. He said, oh yeah, he could make a cobra. That was his first job — to make George a cobra. He made a cobra standing up with a full hood. It’s got all of the detail.”

Then he made full-sized grape leaves trailing around the frame rising up from the bed of Scott’s pickup truck. Delicately veined leaves on seemingly fragile stems clinging to the vines, and wispy tendrils winding around the metal bars — all made from forged metal. He did small jobs, like wine racks and candelabras — not cheap but with rose petals as delicate as rose petals. Then he worked on a $3000 pedestrian gate with designs of Torrey pines. Scott brought Noro a Torrey pine cone and Noro duplicated all its tiny, feathered edges. Then he took silica bronze and melted it over the galvanized-steel corner-post cap to make a moon. Then he hand-made the hinges.

“Hand-making the hinges took three days,” said Scott, “whereas I could buy the best set of manufactured hinges for only 75 bucks, you see? But it looks it when you’re done. I mean, the difference is staggering between the handmade products and mass-produced, just like anything else.”

Noro went on to do other gates for Scott, then staircase work, then specialty handrails with dolphins and pomegranates.

“The customers were really happy with it,” said Scott. “It created a lot of interest. So the guy who bought the dolphins turned around and also wanted dolphins for the backyard because he’s got an ocean view. He’s a surgeon down in Solana Beach.”

During this time, Noro made a cane for the novelist Stephen King, whose leg and hip had been smashed up when he had been hit and thrown by a van not far from his summer home in Maine. This was also a snake’s head, with a snake’s tail at the bottom and an expensive length of wood in between.

“The reason I did that for Stephen King: that was a gift,” said Scott. “We’re going to give that to him for being nice enough to mention Mary’s book in his book on writing. That was really cool. That’s a badass piece of work, man. I mean, look on the bottom of it, the hole that Noro drilled through it. He’s an incredible talent, no doubt about it.”

When Scott speaks of Noro’s work or the work of other artisan blacksmiths, he speaks of it lovingly, with a dash of yearning and a bit of envy, because Scott, too, uses a forge and does blacksmith work, has been doing it about seven years in fact, though he is quick to say that he is only a beginner and his work is only a hobby.

“This blacksmith work,” said Scott, “if you really appreciate it, it gets under your skin. If I could make the same money being a blacksmith as I do owning my own business, I’d be a blacksmith. If I won the Lotto, sure. In other words, it’s my chosen art form. But I’m a businessman first and foremost. That’s why, like I say, I consider blacksmithing a hobby. But after you’ve built 100,000 feet of fence, the next 1000 feet just isn’t that interesting. [Scott laughed and opened a fresh piece of Nicoret gum.] But blacksmith work is always interesting, just because the iron was forged. It takes on a different look. It’s like jewelry. It’s a fantastic craft. I mean, there’s good reason why it still survives today. Because, like I tell people, it will never lose its value. Even though it’s expensive, there will never be anybody coming along that can do it for any less. It’s just not going to happen. It’s always going to increase in value. Part of the reason why the rich get richer and the poor get poorer is because a wealthy person can afford a $20,000 set of gates. But in ten years, that set of gates is going to be worth $30,000. Whereas someone who buys a $2000 set of gates, in ten years the thing’s going to be worth only $1000. It depreciates, where true hand-forged work is never worth less money. So it’s almost an investment in artwork. It’s functioning artwork is all it is.”

Scott has a workshop in Vista for his mass-production work, but most of the blacksmith work is done in a reconditioned garage attached to his apartment: a cramped, dark space full of tools and unfinished projects. As for Noro, it turns out he hasn’t been to work for several weeks and doesn’t plan to come back for another month. Scott and I talked about this as we stood in the shop. It seemed that Noro was sick, or at least he thought he was sick. Several times he had promised to be back in a month; several times he had said he was giving up being a blacksmith forever. Besides being a blacksmith and a gunsmith, Noro also was a genius at growing giant mushrooms.

I asked Scott how Noro was sick.

“He says he has black lung disease. It was from working industry in Russia. That’s what he said. But he doesn’t know if it’s diagnosed as black lung or not. He’s got lung problems; like, he coughs all the time, but he’s not sure if it’s black lung. See, they work with coal forges over there, while here we work with propane. Anyway, he says that in Russia all blacksmiths die young.”

So Noro was taking time off to see if he would get better, and maybe he would come back and maybe not. He lived somewhere with his son and his wife, who had recently come over to the States, but Scott wasn’t sure where he lived — maybe in Vista — or where he had put Noro’s phone number. But Noro was supposed to call, and if he called, then Scott would tell Noro that I would like to talk to him.

The worst thing, said Scott, was that he and Noro had had some serious projects ahead: a full-sized statue of the singer Stevie Ray Vaughan and a full-sized statue of Vincent van Gogh. Scott had already bought a Stratocaster guitar just like Vaughan’s for Noro to copy. But it was the van Gogh that was the most important to Scott.

“I want to do van Gogh’s first self-portrait, the one with the felt hat. What I was planning on doing was him standing in a field of sunflowers, but the sunflowers are going to have amethyst for the seeds — purple Colombian amethyst — and then have silica bronze leaves. We’ll probably have something like five months in it. If you work on the same thing every day, it gets old, I don’t care what it is. And the bigger your project, the more wear psychologically on the people that are doing it. Because it just becomes grueling working on the same thing every day. Like Hell, Rodin never did finish the Gates of Hell. He died and somebody else had to finish it. But, basically, for me, if I can produce those types of works, then that’s what I want to do, because it’s much more interesting to try to do something that may come out really great. I would rather spend my time trying to do something really great than setting my sights low and just doing something that I’ve already done before that doesn’t hold any interest.

“But I’m a big fan of van Gogh because I had an uncle who was an artist and a paranoid schizophrenic, like van Gogh. The weird thing is that my uncle’s artwork was so much like van Gogh’s. My mother has some copies of van Gogh’s paintings and she has some of my uncle’s, and to me, you can hardly tell the difference. But, unfortunately, being insane, he destroyed most of his work. He developed schizophrenia when he was in college. So just the way the whole deal went, how he never achieved success during his life — it’s kind of a sad story. That’s partly why I want to do van Gogh and I’ll get my friend Kenny to be the model [Scott laughed] because he’s short and redheaded.

“Anyway, that’s my dream, to do some really fantastic artwork. I want to get into the full-blown statues. Most statues are cast out of bronze. That’s a fine craft in and of itself, but it’s not what interests me because the forging is a lot more difficult. That’s why you don’t see any statues being forged. Like I say, Noro can do it, I guarantee you. And craftsmen like him, they just don’t come along every day. For every guy like Noro, there are 100 who’ll never achieve that kind of work. It just boils down to sheer talent.”

But in the meantime, Noro appeared to have quit the blacksmith business — perhaps only temporarily — and there seemed no way to contact him. So I wondered about other artisan blacksmiths in the area. Did Scott know any?

Scott was quick to answer. “Richard Schraeder is the real guru of the artisan blacksmiths. He’s been around a long time. He’s known nationwide. What I’m saying, he’s the real thing. He’s, like, as far as an artist blacksmith goes. That’s why I call him the guru. And most good blacksmiths like Schraeder are also tool freaks. It’s what he does for a living, so he’s got every tool known to man. You’ve got to. There are a lot of tools involved. I mean, the hammers are imported from Europe, from Germany, and the anvils, and stuff like that. You can’t buy that stuff at Home Depot. There’re a lot of specialty tools, old tools, antique tools particularly, old anvils, all of it. Schraeder was very helpful when I first got started with blacksmith work six or seven years ago. As a matter of fact, he let me come over to his shop and showed me stuff. Blacksmiths are like that. Well, the average craftsman of any type of craft isn’t willing to show you anything, as a general rule. But blacksmiths are totally different. They’re artists, but they’re very cool people too. They’re dedicated to the preservation of the craft. Where in the other, like in the fence business, I have some competitors that I’m really good friends with, but some of them are just real resentful of you building a lot of work and aren’t friendly at all.”

Richard Schraeder lives on five and a half wooded acres surrounded by avocado groves on a mountainside to the east of Temecula. The property belongs to his partner, Laurel Croft, who raises exotic birds (mostly hornbills), which she sells to zoos all over the country. She also raises Irish wolfhounds — stately, prize-winning dogs that reek of nobility. Ms. Croft is also stately. She moves like a dancer and is very attractive and straight-backed. The property runs down to a stream, then up again with sycamores, oaks, and bamboo. Three or four peacocks step delicately among the trees. The 150 birds are mostly in a 30-foot roofed enclosure, with other smaller pens adjoining it — white-crested hornbills, yellow bills, Argus pheasants, and others. When I was a kid in the ’50s, there were several TV adventure shows that took place in darkest Africa. Now it seemed I was hearing all those jungle birds once again, as a wide variety of squawks came from the roomy pens. Laurel Croft takes care of the birds on her own, feeding them mice and frozen chicks, beef hearts, Romaine lettuce, and mangos. Schraeder and I talked quietly as we looked at the birds, trying not to disturb them, while slapping at the black flies that swarmed around us.

Schraeder is a handsome 61 but looks younger. He’s about five feet ten, with a gray beard, longish brown hair, and glasses. He wore jeans and a blue T-shirt.

“The beauty of the place is the trees,” he said, “but the creek is sure nice. I want to keep it as pristine as possible.” In fact, the only somewhat unsightly object on the property was Schraeder’s workplace tucked off at the edge: a 60- by 40-foot corrugated steel barn with a 20-foot ceiling, still not quite finished or organized, since he only moved to Temecula in the spring of 2000. Previously, his shop had been in Vista.

“I have the perfect dream of a place to work. This is far more than anything I thought to have for a facility. And that’s really funny because I say to my friends, ‘I’ve got my shop built, you’ve got to see it.’ And they say, ‘I thought you were scaling down, going into retirement mode.’ And I say, ‘I am. Look at this.’ There’s going to be a time when all this will be set up. Then I can just sit back and go boom-boom-boom-boom, and it will be done. I mean, I have everything here, and it’s all getting better, just blowing and humming. I just need to look out at the trees to get re-energized. I think it will get so good I won’t be able to stand it. And the peacocks wandering by. I’ve heard people say they can’t stand them, but I think they’re wonderful. You live around them, and you start to relate to their communicating. All of the birds and everything. It’s so nice to be aware that they’re not just making noise, they’re talking, they’re saying things, they’re singing.”

Schraeder was born in San Francisco and brought up in Los Angeles. In college, he studied mechanical engineering, then spent four years in the Air Force. Afterward he had various jobs, including making orthopedic appliances. It wasn’t until he was in his late 30s that he became interested in ironwork.

“I wish I could have known the field earlier,” he said. “Then you wonder, if that’s the case, what other things have I missed that I haven’t known about? I mean, I didn’t know anything about ornamental ironwork. It was the farthest thing from my mind. Then I meet this guy in a local town. I was trying to find something to do. I said let’s do equipment rental. That would be good, because I would own all this equipment, and I love equipment. But somebody said people are going to borrow it and bring it back all wrecked. So I thought, I’m not going into the equipment-rental business because somebody will get killed. Then I met this guy who did ornamental iron, and what in the hell was ornamental iron? So I started researching it and I talked to everybody that had an ornamental-iron shop, and heard all of their problems, and the good things and bad things. I said, gosh, that’s something I can do, no problem. So I did that for about six months. Then I went to the Renaissance Faire and ran into a guy that did hot metalwork, did forging. I said, this is where I want to be. So it’s really kind of interesting how I’ve been kind of directed through my life with not much skill at guiding myself. I think I’ve just been kicked around like a Ping-Pong ball, and it’s always worked out just right. Because they’ve all had reason or direction, and one has always fed the other.”

Schraeder set up shop in his backyard after buying a lot of equipment from a blacksmith who was going out of business. “The first year I was doing just fabricating. So the only skill you really need to know at that point is how to weld, making a fence or a gate, how to measure a job. So that was just trial and error. And I’d had an engineering background. I’d worked in a tool-and-die shop and had a lot of experience mechanically. But when I first started this, I immediately met people in the California Blacksmith Association. Then it was a matter of going to meetings and meeting some people, and when I had a problem I’d just give them a call and say, ‘What do I do, Mike?’ or, ‘What do I do, John?’ And they’d say, ‘Well, this is what you have to try.’ So it was self-taught up to a certain point. Then I started going to weekly classes and whatnot with different people, specialty study groups. But it was hard getting started. I bellied up twice in 22 years. I had to go back and find other work once for a six-month period and once for about four months. I needed to go do something fast to make money. Which is always nice too. Whenever I just raise my hand and say, ‘World, I need some money,’ the doors are open and I’ve got things to choose from. The downside of that is, because of that ability, I’ve never disciplined myself to put a little money aside. One of these days it might not work. But it’s worked so far, so what the hell? Just recently I was busy working on this place and I thought, gee, it’s time for some money again. I need to get something going. I’d had a set of gates that we were negotiating, and finally we couldn’t come together on the price. Then I had to pay my income tax, and, whoop, there’s a little economic crunch here. So I said, ‘help,’ and boom, I got some work. I made 60 lights. That’s not very production-line-like, but it was for me. It was like a month’s worth of work. It was fun because it gave me back some of the skills that doing the same hammering process over and over again can give you. So I was off and running again.”

When I visited Schraeder, his workshop was mostly set up, but there seemed no order, a mass of machinery, chunks of metal, iron bars, benches, propane tanks and hoses, a great fan, tables and partially completed projects, and a giant window in back, partially covered with torn pieces of plastic, looking out onto the oak trees. There was even a surfboard and a set of bullhorns — the organic variety.

“I’ve got a fair amount of stuff,” Schraeder admitted. “There’s an accumulation. But it’s all pretty good stuff. That hammer over there, the one I’m using, the Bradley, that’s an old hammer. It’s probably 1930s, something like that. Then I’ve got an ironworker. I can sheer metal off over there, and I have a saw here to cut metal. I have an abrasive saw as well. A gas forge, electric forge, coal forge — the coal burns the hottest. The electric gives you the most precise temperatures. You need these different things for different applications. I mean, you can accomplish the job without all of this stuff. I have a friend that is a very successful smith in Redondo Beach. He’s got a one-car garage with an anvil and a forge. He could put all of his tools in the trunk of my car, everything that he has. And he makes hardware, just door pulls and things like that, or little lights and little sconces. He’s very good at it, does beautiful work. He doesn’t need a truck. I had to buy a truck because I was hauling around thousands of pounds of railing and everything else for a lot of jobs. So you’ve got to just, you know, get stuff.”

As Schraeder led the way toward his desk to show me his portfolio, he talked about blacksmiths. “There are quite a few categories of smiths. The bladesmiths, that’s a whole world. Weapons are a whole world of its own. Industrial smiths. That’s another whole area. Horseshoeing is another area. There are people that overlap, but usually they stay in one area, or they’ll get out of one and go into another. There are a lot of different kinds of smithing than just the pure art smithing, the people that forge, just making art pieces that don’t do what I call functional art. So they’ve all got their pros and cons. Weapons are not a thing that I’ve been interested in. In fact, I’ve really balked at doing weapons. But I’d also like to do some for myself. I’d like to do my own cutlery set. I think it would be fun to do a whole set of flatware, because it was one of those traditional things that somebody had to do, and that’s something I feel capable of doing. A lot of things for the home would be fun to do, the kitchen area, which I haven’t done much of. I started out with a lot of ladles for friends, doing gifts like that. Then as work got bigger and more cumbersome, and as I had employees and everything else, I got away from doing it. That’s one of the things I look forward to — getting set up and flowing into that.

“Our field is really young and very vital. I mean, blacksmithing has been around for a long time, but it’s really coming on strong again. There are an awful lot of people doing this now. We have over 6000 members in the Artist-Blacksmith’s Association of North America [www.abana.org] and over 600 in the California Blacksmith Association. I’m on the board of the California association. But out of those 6000 national members, they aren’t all professional smiths. An awful lot of people want to know about smithing, so they join the association. Maybe they’ll do it on the weekends and whatnot, they’re hobbyists. But I would guess that 20 percent of the membership is professional. They might do gates, railings, chandeliers, candelabras, sculpture, hardware, anything metal, sconces, fireplace tools. Just hundreds and hundreds of people do fireplace sets and at all different levels. You can find a fireplace set for probably a couple hundred dollars, or up to $30,000 — for some tools, three or four tools, made of any kind of material: bronzes and coppers, or mixed metals, or you can put silver and gold in them. There’s no limit. An awful lot of people have got money, and they’d like their own thing. I’ve made a faucet for a powder room that was $4800, which isn’t very big money. But we have guys that have sold fire screens for $30,000. It depends on what the item is. And there are so many different kinds of metals that you can work with, so you could make a really exotic fire screen and do enameling on it, which could take a lot of time, i.e., a lot of money.”

At his desk, Schraeder began showing me design magazines in which he had been featured and a portfolio of photographs of his work: staircases, gates, doors, faucets, a table with a marble top embedded with snail shells and bits of coal, forged red brass pipe for the legs, and a bronze skirt. The visual paradox of the work is that what looks soft — leaf patterns, traceries of metal — is in fact hard, what seems flowing is rigid, what appears weightless is in fact heavy, as if one of the blacksmith’s jobs is to make his materials appear to be something that they aren’t, something supple and organic.

He showed me a five-foot-tall pedestrian gate with a dozen flamelike century leaves made from copper growing up from the bottom, then three brass heads of a plant resembling shell ginger, like oversized heads of wheat, rising from the leaves, and all of it on a background of nickel silver. Because of the leaves and golden heads of ginger, the gate seemed to be rising upward, almost floating. Another picture showed a pedestrian gate made of three horizontal panels of nickel silver, with the top panel having a semiabstract design that reminded me of a swimmer looking up from the waves.

“I feel like I’m more of a salesman than an artist, really,” said Schraeder. “I don’t have trouble getting projects. And I think I’m more of a craftsman than an artist. But I don’t have a particular design style. Because I like to work with different materials, I haven’t stayed with one medium long enough to develop a certain style. I’m just looking for more quality all of the time, taking on new challenges. Probably my favorite material is silica bronze, but steel is also wonderful. Silica bronze is very expensive. It costs over $5 a pound, and steel isn’t even 50 cents a pound. And it’s fun to resolve a problem. You have an image of how you can plug up this hole with a gate, and it’s fun to see how it can all come together. Then it’s nice to have somebody pleased with it. I’ve had a couple of calls in 20 years. We’re sitting here, having a glass of wine, and someone will call and say how much they like this gate and, hell, I’m ready to run down and work for him for the next six months for nothing, you know? Not really, but that means a lot. But the thing is, the work could always be better. You can definitely keep fussing with it forever. The problem I have is stopping soon enough. I need to stop sooner. One of the reasons I don’t is that I don’t have to worry about where my next meal is coming from. I get good money for my work, but I spend way too much time on what I do, a lot of times. I can’t seem to get it out the door. I keep massaging it and making it a little better and a little better. At some point, you’ve got to say, ‘Creditors. I think I’d better ship it now.’

“I’ve spent many, many hours on jobs. One house I worked on, I spent two and a half years working on it. I had six employees, and I subcontracted everybody I knew that had free time that was a smith. There was railing and more railing, light fixtures, and just all kinds of stuff. Just little details for interior decorating, little plates and grills. This was a house over here in Rancho Santa Fe. I made all of these doorknobs. I basically did the hardware on this house — stainless steel hardware and the connecting hardware. This house was really clean and had wonderful light fixtures. Really beautiful stuff, nothing flashy going on. A lot of artwork in it.”

Schraeder showed me a picture of a doorknob inlaid with copper and brass.

“In order to do that I actually layer it up. I put a layer of copper, a layer of brass, a layer of copper. And they’re bars 2 inches square and then 16 inches long. Then they’re machined, and then I start forging it out and twisting it. That’s how I get the material to flow. In the oven, it becomes crystalline, so it won’t stick together. It’s not homogenous, so we need to get the grain in it again. We’ve got to go through this process of pulling it out like taffy and getting grain into it. And after I get it so far out, then I can start twisting it, and rolling it, and get the grain to move around.”

Schraeder showed me pictures of a house that had been built around several ten-foot boulders, including one that dominated the entry hall. He had been sent in by the architect when the house was 80 percent complete to continue the granite motif with designs on the front doors, then granite doorknobs set against bronze leaves. To the left of the hall was a curved granite staircase going up to the master bedroom. Schraeder made the staircase and a balcony section on top, a $30,000 job. The balustrades of the staircase had a delicate art nouveau design, scrolling, musical shapes supporting a ribbon of bronze. At the foot of the handrailing was an apple-shaped finial made from a ball of granite and partly enclosed by silica bronze. Again, the impression of all this weight was one of weightlessness.

“Unfortunately for us common folks,” said Schraeder, “it requires money to do a lot of this stuff. It’s often hard to do things economically by my value system. That’s probably a battle in itself, trying to figure it out. How much will this cost? I’ve got enough experience to know it’s going to take so much, and I can see there’s going to be a problem here and a problem there. It’s the hours that we put into it. That’s the formula right there. I break it down into four different categories: design time, fabrication time, finishing time, and then installation. Often you can spend more time doing the finishing than the actual fabricating. How are you going to paint it or polish it, or how are you going to treat it after you’re done fabricating it. Like this staircase with the granite finial — all of this bottom section is steel that has been sprayed with bronze. There is a gun that does what’s called ‘metalizing,’ that has bronze or whatever kind of wires, zinc wires, or whatever, that come into it, and it electrically melts the wires with a big welding-type transformer. Then there is a force of air that blows it onto the steel. So that metalizing process is really critical here. The steel was all cleaned up. They sent it out and sandblasted it and then sprayed the whole thing with bronze. Then I brought it back in and sanded it, because it’s pretty rough after it gets sprayed. So I sanded it down, then painted the whole thing black, and then rubbed it all out, and sanded it out some more, and then highlighted it. So a tremendous amount of time was spent on finishing.”

Schraeder most often works with the builder, then the architect, then the owner. His customers, as one might suspect, are well heeled. People of whom he says, “When they want something, they’re going to get it. I don’t believe it’s a big problem.” But now after doing 20 or so staircases and dozens of gates, Schraeder wants to scale down.

“The big gates, big railings, I’m not really excited about those anymore. They’re so difficult to flip around and pick up and move. I don’t want to do the physical kind of thing like that anymore. It’s lost its thrill. And it also requires having help, and I don’t want any help anymore either. I just want to be a one-man show. But I don’t like to get too small. Light fixtures, I really like. I want to do more of that caliber of thing. I want to do more items for inside the home. Or, actually, I’d like to do some lawn sculptures, do some fountains. I want to use more of the copper and brass. I’d like to play with some silver. I’d like to get more into the exotic, or, what’s a good word, more jewelry-ish, but not jewelry. I’m going to see where I can just work two weeks a month. Work-work, money-generating work. And then the other time, spend a week or so working with the property, and then a week just doing creative stuff, just artwork. That’s kind of the scope I have. And I can see it happening probably within the year. There are so many things to dabble in, so many things to do. After all, I’m here in this paradise with the peacocks.”

And the black flies, I reminded him.

“Well, the peacocks have something to eat. I don’t feed them. I don’t think they eat the black flies. I’ve got to find out what the predator is for black flies.”

I had told Schraeder about Noair Khatchatrian and the Viper Rum statue. I’d also mentioned that Noro appeared to have black lung disease and had said that all Russian blacksmiths died young. That had amazed Schraeder. He said he knew of no American blacksmith who had ever had black lung disease.

The day after talking to Schraeder, I called Kent Scott to see if he had heard from Noro. Yes, Noro had called, and he had given him my telephone number. Had Noro made any decision about coming back to work for Scott? “He’s still not sure,” said Scott. What about other artisan blacksmiths, I asked. Was there anyone else I could talk to?

“Try Robert Rochin. He’s got some fantastic stuff. Rochin did fencing in the same order as me, in the fact that he did a lot of big work. He did tracts, and had a bunch of crews, a bunch of employees. Then he got out of it just to do ornamental work.”

Robert Rochin’s shop is in San Marcos, in a rural area that will soon be eaten up by subdivisions. I drove out into the country till I came to a long dirt driveway bordered on either side by tall palms. At the end of the driveway was an old single-story house. I went around it, and I reached Rochin’s shop in the middle of a sort of barnyard, except that it had great chunks of metal and old machinery instead of animals. There was a lot of rust and a lot of flowers, tall grass, and a few oaks. At first glance, the shop seemed hardly more than a shack with corrugated metal walls and a peaked metal roof. It was a sixth the size of Schraeder’s shop and had about a quarter of the tools, though Rochin does more work than Schraeder. But it was just as cluttered with partially completed projects — lamps and chandeliers — tools, propane tanks, shelves to the ceiling full of long metal rods, presses, a giant stepladder, and a variety of mysterious objects undoubtedly indispensable to the blacksmith’s trade. Rochin’s two Hispanic assistants, Alvaro and Leo, who have been with him many years, were banging away at long bars of metal, then Alvaro paused to get Rochin, who was in his small office at one end of the building.

Rochin is 50, a portly man with a trimmed gray beard and mustache, bald on top with gray on the sides, brown eyes. He was wearing a brown leather apron that hung past his knees, jeans, and a white shirt. His face is thin and young-looking, the face of a person who likes his job, that sort of contentment. He started doing metalwork in the late ’60s and became a fencing contractor in the early ’70s, although, as he told me, even to do ornamental gates, one needs a contractor’s license.

I was struck that the blacksmiths I talked to all lived and worked in what seemed to me — coming from downtown San Diego — as out-of-the-way places: Carlsbad, Vista, San Marcos, Temecula, and there was a Polish blacksmith who I was never able to find who lived in Alpine.

“Well, in medieval times,” said Rochin as we sat in his office, “blacksmiths were kept way out in the country. They didn’t let them in town because of the possibility of fire. There were sparks, pounding, noise. They were seen as being close to the devil. In fact, blacksmiths were seen as working with demons. So they didn’t want those people close to town. And it’s funny. We’re not working with demons now, but there’s still a mystique that people have. Maybe that’s why we’re all out here.”

Born in La Jolla, Rochin was brought up in Carlsbad, then moved to San Diego. His father had a restaurant in Oceanside: the Acapulco Gardens on Hill Street. As for Rochin’s original training, he got it in high school metal shop. And as for the equipment in his shop, it’s pretty basic. Kent Scott would never call him a tool freak.

“We don’t have too much,” Rochin told me. “We don’t need any special tools because it’s almost all hand done. We use mostly soldering, welding. We’ve got an old metal abrasive cutting saw and a band saw that we use occasionally. I just bought a power hammer. We’ll have it here probably in a month, because until now we pounded the steel by hand. And I have a homemade gas forge. We used to have a coal forge. They’re real smoky, real messy, but they are hot. You can do things with that you can’t do with gas. You can be more specific on the heat because the heat is localized. Whereas a gas forge, everything that’s in the forge gets hot. And when we’re doing small pieces, sometimes that’s not what you need. You kind of need both.”

Rochin turns out more work than Schraeder mostly because he has two full-time assistants, but also perhaps because of his experience as a contractor. He is used to that schedule and is booked solid for over a year in advance, with a mixture of straightforward bread-and-butter jobs, as he calls them, and more artistic and ornamental jobs. Along with gates, staircases, and hardware for private homes, he has done the valet area for the Orleans Casino in Las Vegas — steel oak leaves on vines in four-foot clusters hanging down eight feet and going all around 180 feet of the area, as well as ornamental work for some San Diego–area restaurants, including Mister A’s, George’s at the Cove, and Prime 10.

I asked Rochin if he had any favorite style. He leaned back in his chair and thought about it.

“I really prefer the contemporary work. The hand-forged stuff is fine too. And when we get into some theme stuff, that’s a lot of fun. I’m not too picky. Anything that challenges me. Anybody that wants to do something different, I really like to do different stuff. And truly I’m not motivated by money. I mean, look at my truck, my shop. I need to do better in that direction. What I have now are clients that keep me busy. And that’s fine, because those kind of clients let me do the kind of work that I like. Though people who want something just kind of nifty, or small — people who don’t have a lot of money — they’ll call and describe something interesting, and I’ll say, yeah, we’ll do it.”

I mentioned the problem that Schraeder had described, of being such a perfectionist that it was hard to let the work out of the shop, hard to let it go.

“Absolutely. Yes, I run into that. Maybe it’s my ego again, the voice that says, ‘I can do this.’ You get a concept in your mind. You have a design. You bid a job. But you really have to bid it in your mind before you bid it on paper. I have to know what fasteners and materials I’m going to use. I have to know all of this stuff because it’s going to cost me. Because as you start working, things change. And you start thinking, If I did it this other way, then it would be better. And you get into this thing where this work has to be the very best. You keep thinking how you can make it even better.

“There was a time, when I bid the job, I would make the price — and give them what they paid for. But I never got to do anything I wanted to do. So I made a decision — this was several years ago — I just decided I didn’t give a shit. This is my work and nobody is going to pay me to do good work if I don’t start doing good work. So I started giving people a lot of deals, even if it wasn’t really by choice. For instance, there was a lady who wanted a staircase, and her only direction was that she wanted tassels. She loved tassels. But this took a lot of time. I spent three days just making tassels — forged-steel tassels with little forged-steel threads. I mean, making tassels and throwing them away, making them and throwing them away, until I came up with a real simple design how we could do it, a design that I was satisfied would follow through in the pattern. And all the tassels were different because they were forged. That’s the kind of detail that you spend a lot of time on and never recoup the money. You know, you never get paid.

“But the one thing about what I do that I don’t like, which is maybe because of my experience doing tract work and working with people, is that I understand schedules. And having that knowledge is almost a curse, because I really try and keep to schedules the best I can. So when I take longer on a job to make it as good as I can, it can be a real punishment. There was a stairway that took almost exactly one month longer than what I had anticipated, and I hated it. The pressure was too much. And the money I spent for that extra month — I ate it. I bid the job. It’s locked in. The owner has his bank note set and all of that. He’s not going to materialize any money for me. It was my choice to make it something better than it was, than what I bid. But that happens. That happens.

“Actually what happened was, I told the guy I wanted to do something special, would he mind if I made a little change? So he said, how about if we go from three-quarter-inch railings to one-inch? I said, yes, we can do that, sure. Well, I’ve been in the steel business for years, but it didn’t occur to me that a one-inch-square bar is almost double the mass of a three-quarter-inch-square bar. So every one of those pieces that we bent required double the effort. I mean, I had to fill the acetylene tanks probably three or four times. One time would have been enough for the three-quarter-inch, by far, with extra. A lot more gas, hours and hours, to bend those heavy bars. An extra month of work and the schedule ruined. The pattern itself was nothing — cut, clean welding.

“And the architect said the railing overpowered his house. He was very happy with it, but he told me the railing was more than what he wanted. It dominates your eye when you walk in. It’s such a grand focal point, it’s so massive. It was beautiful, but it was too much. And I can see that. I’m proud of my work and it’s a beautiful stairway, but compared to the entire house and all of the other little details that the architect designed, it’s just, you know, you walk into the house and, ‘Wow, what a stairway.’ That’s what everybody does. The lady said, I never knew that in my lifetime I could have something like that, that I could have something… That’s how she felt about it.”

Rochin had taken out a portfolio of photographs and was leafing through it: staircases, elaborate doors, sconces and torches, gates and fire screens. He paused at one.

“This is a pretty simple design — a 3H- by 6-foot gate I did for a lady in Del Mar. Her only direction to me was she wanted dolphins in her gate. I wanted it to look like this dolphin was poking its head through the kelp. It’s the same thing on both sides. It’s exactly the same image duplicated on the other side.”

The two jumping dolphins were made from copper; the rising leaves of kelp were steel with a bluish green copper patina. For a door handle, Rochin had forged a little green octopus. As with Schraeder’s work, there was the sense of weightlessness, that if the gate had not been attached by its hinges to a stonewall, it would simply float away.

He moved on to another gate, something far more complicated, for a driveway, a $50,000 job (“I should have gotten $60,000,” he said). The gate was made up of three elaborate trees, their branches rising to a mass of leaves that ran across the top, and all of it constructed out of copper and steel and measuring 8 by 17 feet. Vines wound around the branches, and sitting on the gate were five parrots, as if someone had been scattering bread crumbs on the driveway. At the very top of the gate a parrot was spreading its wings, ready to take off. In the picture, they looked like actual parrots.

“That was a real job for me. I mean, it was a labor of love while we were doing it. These people had money, and they were doing this incredible remodeling, the whole landscape and the house. From the beginning, their only direction was, ‘I want parrots on my gate.’ They looked like accountants, really straitlaced, and a conservative-looking home. I thought they’d want something really plain. I did the designs for them of parrots in cages, this kind of theme style, Rancho Santa Fe style with parrots — large parrots and small parrots, four different plans. But the last one, the one that I really liked, was the trees. I didn’t even want to show it to them. It seemed too far out. It was underneath. But I had it with me. You never know. ‘That’s it,’ they said. ‘We want that one.’ I said, ‘Great. Wow. Really? ’ ”

So what had seemed like local birds hanging out on a neighborhood gate were forged metal birds: stretching and preening their feathers and glancing around. A number of Rochin’s gates and stairways had these complicated designs, a sort of baroque elaboration, while other work — staircases and railings, in particular — were simple geometric designs. Mistakenly, I assumed the geometric stuff was the bread-and-butter stuff. We were looking at a staircase with a long handrail extending over a number of stainless steel panels — all very uncomplicated, I thought.

“No, no, no,” said Rochin. “This is very difficult. It looks straightforward, but it’s not. It’s all of this stainless steel wire with a handrail. The handrail is continuous, but the panels are separate. So to get it to line up — it’s a lot of layout and a lot of figuring. Whereas with filigree, there’s a lot of room for error. There’s a lot of room to fudge and bend stuff around; a lot of room to play. I’ll show you a prime example.”

He drew out two photographs — one of a staircase with curls and swoops, metal that bent around with embellishments and what appeared to be heart-shaped grape leaves of different sizes. The other was a relatively short chrome staircase with a geometric design of just three or four rails, and glass panels under the handrail.

“I have as much or more time in this contemporary job as I do in this other. So that very simple geometric piece is in fact extremely complicated. The staircase with the leaves — there’s a lot of room for fudging. And in the geometric piece, the pipe frame is nothing. Easy, fast. Just literally minutes’ work. The time was, we had to then cut it apart. It had to be chromed. When we cut it apart, everything moved out of position. So now we have to get all of this stuff back — straight, perfect, and lined up. Then we have to have all of these inner sleeves with hidden connections, then polishing this copper — these are copper strips that hold the glass in. We have the steel inside here and a lot of stuff you don’t see. You know, hours and hours pre-installing the steel in beds beneath the marble and making sure that everything lines up, so when you go in there, it just drops in place, so you don’t see any fasteners. Little things like this little button back here to hold it to the wall. It’s drilled and tapped and threaded, with no fasteners showing. Those little details — they look so simple, but, seriously, we have as much time, or more, in this job than we do in the other one. A lot of guys don’t like to do this kind of work, because they get into it, and then people start saying, ‘Well, that’s not what I was looking for,’ because you didn’t bid enough for it. They didn’t price it right because it’s so much work.”

Rochin has a stack of pen-and-ink drawings of his designs, not just the gates and staircases but also furniture, like tables. So there is the artwork as it exists in the drawing, the work in its final realization — the gate with the parrots — and then there is the space between, the process of moving from sheet of paper to the finished gate, the intricacy and puzzle of putting it together.

“That’s really my challenge,” said Rochin. “That’s what turns me on: the puzzle of putting it together. A lot of what I do comes from designers or architects. They’ll give me a strong direction, and I kind of have to hold to that. But a lot of time my clients let me design for them. You know, one of the things that I used to do was I had a tendency to over-detail things, to make it too busy. Now I tend to be going in the contemporary, geometric style. Not all of it is geometric, but the contemporary, very simple, even though it can be very frustrating because it looks so damn simple and it’s not.”

But Rochin kept returning to the subject of the schedule — doing his work within a set period of time that carried with it the danger of compromising the quality of his work, because as he raised the level of his challenge, he increasingly endangered the schedule.

“I have a window. I can’t start before this happens, but I have to be done before that happens, or the next guy can’t do his job. And I have several jobs running at the same time with these windows that keep coming at me. I have to be ready to start here, and sometimes they overlap and it doesn’t work. Or I’ll get into a thing where the job is not right yet, or it’s going to take longer, so we just have to work harder. Or sometimes we wind up just putting the job out. We don’t sacrifice anything, but we don’t have time to make mistakes, you know? There’s a lot of pressure there.

“And I’m just a peon. Really, I’m a small peon. Look at the guys who do stonework, all of these floors and counters and all. They do an incredible job. Big bucks, big bucks compared to what I do. There are so many other trades that are part of a house, or a construction — I’m just a little guy. Although I know I’m important, I know where I’m at. But I really like it when my work plays well with all of the other stuff. To me, that’s something I’ve learned over the years. I really like my work to be part of everything else.

“The ones with the biggest egos are the architects. A lot of them see themselves as Frank Lloyd Wright. They can be the worst, without a doubt. I remember a cartoon, it was a picture of this short guy that looked like a pimp, a cigar in his mouth, and two women who looked like hookers hanging on the side of him. Flashy, a big tie, the whole bit. And this guy is walking down the sidewalk. There is a big guy in front of him, shouting, ‘Make way, make way, the architect is coming.’ [Rochin laughed.] I thought, That’s it, that’s it. A lot of flash. But when they want something, it has to be done. You have to do it for them, you have to.

“And there was one guy who was one of the very worst, who really put me in my place. He was very well known. His houses have insignias, and you can recognize his design. He kind of fancies himself a Frank Lloyd Wright type. I’d made a railing that was very simple, a curved stairway. And I asked him if we could do something to dress it up a little bit. Because he’d told me if I had a suggestion, to design it and send it to him. He’d given me that. But then he said some of my suggestions were a little bit too much. He said, ‘No, I don’t want people walking in this house and looking at your railing.’ He wanted people to look at his house, the way the light entered the rooms, the detail of the stone finish. Everything had to be all of a piece. He didn’t want everybody to walk in and look at my work and have it be the focus. I said, well, okay, sure, okay. I felt like, screw you. But later on it occurred to me, he’s right. The best houses I’ve done were like that. The best, most important things are where I was a part of a big picture. It’s easy to put a bunch of castings, or a bunch of stuff together and throw it on there and have it come out looking good unto itself, but not a part of the big picture. And I’ve learned now to focus more on the big picture and keep my eye on that.”

But like Schraeder, Rochin’s ambition is to get away from the big construction work, the functional ornamental work.

“Through the years, we’ve had goals and we’ve achieved goals. There was a time we were doing ten houses a day, production work, tract work. Now we do probably less than that in a year. That was a goal I wanted to get to, where we were doing really nice work. But the next thing is to get to where we’re doing almost pure art pieces, you know? Actually I’m pushing more in that direction all of the time. And the detail and all of the things we work hard at to make it look simple. To make it look like it was just meant to be that way. To make it look effortless, yes. Again, back to the architect. To make the individual piece look like it’s part of the whole thing, part of the whole design. And you know what? It’s a long learning process, and I’m still trying to learn it. In fact, I’d like to do some sculpting. We went up to Sedona not long ago, and I was really impressed with some of the big garden arches they had there. I saw things I hadn’t seen before. So that’s a direction I want to go in. You know, mobiles, things like that. Things that move outside, large pieces. Like Calder. Very simple.”

I kept asking Rochin if he saw himself as an artist, but he shied away from the term. His assistants, Alvaro and Leo, were artists because of the quality of their work, and Rochin’s wife saw him as an artist, but he couldn’t call himself an artist.

“For me personally, maybe I’m a craftsman. Some of what I do is art, some of it is. Decorative art. But when I see people call themselves artists, or a lot of them, their minds are different. They’re flashier, or they think they’re something special. I don’t hang around people like that, so I don’t know. But that’s my definition of it, and I just don’t see myself fitting into that. Maybe it’s hard to call oneself an artist and be humble at the same time. I have things that work out well, and every now and then I start feeling like I’m pretty good. I feel pretty cocky, like, boy, I really know what I’m doing now. And then something will happen to straighten me right out. You’re not going to cut corners. You’ve got to go back to basics, and you’ve got to keep your eye focused. It’s hard to do. The work is physically hard and it’s challenging. It’s amazing how many people underestimate the difficulty of what our work is. I get humble, I do.”

To Rochin also I had mentioned Noair Khatchatrian and had asked if he had ever heard of American blacksmiths contracting black lung disease. But, no, he hadn’t.

In the meantime, Noro hadn’t called. I went back to Kent Scott’s office to see if he would give me Noro’s phone number. This time he agreed. In addition, beneath a pile of papers, he had found Noro’s address. It turned out that Noro also lived in Carlsbad, about five blocks away, and not in Vista as Scott had thought. Still, it took half a dozen phone calls before I could reach him and then a lot of talking before he agreed to see me.

It was a shabby apartment house on a dead-end street next to the railway tracks. Noro’s apartment was on the first floor — very plain with simple furniture. His wife and son were out. After I introduced myself, his first words to me were, “I think this is useless, you know.”

I asked why. Noro has a thick Russian accent, and his English is weak with pronoun and tense problems and misused words. It made him self-conscious and was another reason he felt unwilling to talk. In addition, his voice sounded tired and joyless.

“Because I cannot stay here. I have a problem. I will stop blacksmith job. I’ve been 20 years doing the same job. My lungs are no good. I’m doing myself injuries. That’s why I stopped working for Mr. Scott. I have black lung. I have been fighting these injuries. It is from the iron. I cannot continue this job. The same job I did for three years — it was working with iron. And I coughed, coughed, coughed, morning and noon. That’s all. I spoke with Mr. Scott yesterday, and I told him that I cannot continue.”

The Coaster was approaching, blowing its horn all the way. We had to raise our voices over the sound. I wondered how many times a day Noro and his family had to put up with this. As the train rushed by and the dishes rattled on the shelves, Noro tried to describe how working with iron and a hot furnace had ruined his lungs.

Although Noro is 42, he looked closer to 50. He is bald and clean-shaven with a round pale face, dark eyes, and a dour smile. He wore a blue shirt with a pattern of blue leaves and long blue jean shorts. He coughed constantly and covered his mouth. Often he laughed, but it wasn’t the laugh of someone who found anything funny. His laugh was just a deeper level of seriousness. We sat at a small dining room table, and again he made it clear that he didn’t want to talk to me, that he had nothing to say. “My career was over a long time ago,” he said.

However, when I asked him what sort of work he did in Russia and in Europe, his mood improved a little. “Same job,” he told me. “I show you.”

Noro brought out a scrapbook of photographs of his work, some no more than snapshots. He was proud of it and he grew more animated. Although as he kept talking, he also kept coughing, kept stumbling over his words, searching for the right one, which always seemed out of reach.

“All solid material. These are fence. This is a window grill with a rose, all with iron, and I designed them. All with flowers, iron.”

The work was very intricate, baroque fencing with careful swirls, small delicate flowers ringed by leaves with a fragile tracery of veins. I asked if he worked with coal, but he misunderstood me, thinking I had said “cold.”

“No, no, first of all you must put the iron to the forge, then when you have the rod red-hot, then you can hammer it, then with the template you make the flower — you use a flat bar, an inch by a half-inch, an inch by three-eighths. All of it is handwork with a hammer and anvil. You can make leaves with the power hammer, but not the flowers.”

Noro showed a gate that he had done in Long Beach before he had worked with Scott. As with Schraeder and Rochin, there was the impression of weightlessness. I asked Noro if he considered himself an artist. He found it a foolish question.

“Yes,” he said emphatically, “I see myself as an artist.”

He moved on to show me staircases: elaborate, forged work, often with leaves and flowers and intertwining vines moving up marble stairways.

“This isn’t Russia. Russian people have no interest in this work. This is Europe — the Czech Republic and in Germany. Here is a door, the design is like a coffee tree, the leaves. [The door is covered with leaves.] This is with a power hammer. First of all, you can put the flat bar in the forge, and then with the round hammer you hammer it and make many leaves. Without the power hammer you cannot make similar leaves. It’s too hard a job. Even ten blacksmiths together if they hammer it cannot. Big hammer, five tons.

“This is a church, a door for a church — a wreath of leaves with pomegranates. It’s my design. The priest was very happy. And this is a bed that a customer wanted with leaves. Here is another gate with leaves. And flowers, any flowers, no problem, copper or iron. Or dolphins, one customer wanted dolphins.”

The skill of the work, to my eye, often seemed equal to the skill of Schraeder and Rochin, though many times Noro had been working in poor conditions with inferior equipment.

I told him that Scott had said he could copy anything that Scott gave him. Again Noro didn’t completely understand.

“It easy to copy. The Viper Rum was my first statue, because my former boss only liked production work.” Noro laughed his mordant laugh, then coughed and covered his mouth. “They like just production. I like art, but I don’t have more time for art. I am a poor person. I work just for rent, for food. I make little money. Blacksmith job is a hard job, nobody respects it, nobody pays you good pay. Each blacksmith has a lung problem. In the working career, there’s always dust, bad working conditions, noise.”

Now Noro said he was going temporarily to Los Angeles, but not to work. He knew people there, knew a doctor. He hoped to recuperate. “I have this problem. I cannot work for a long time, maybe for three or four months. Maybe never. Every day I cough, more and more. One week ago I had bleeding with cough. Even I have fever sometimes. At night. All over craft, all over craft.”

At first I didn’t understand him, then I realized that he meant that his life as a blacksmith was over — that what he saw as his art was over.

“You can love the craft, but when you have no work, you cannot love not doing the craft. I love doing what I do.” He stopped and looked away, frustrated that he couldn’t find the right words. “I have many mistakes. I don’t like talking. One more question. Mr. Scott told me about your article. I think this is not what I need. Please go. Later maybe, three or four months, I can talk. Maybe later I will have less problems. Now I cannot work. I had a long history. I learned from college. All my life — 20 years — I have worked in bad conditions. Blacksmith job is a dying craft. Ironwork is being replaced by plastic. This is a plastic century. It is no good for iron. The 21st Century will be a plastic century. From the end of the 19th Century the blacksmith job began to go down. There are many reasons. First of all, people like the different gates or screens or statues or something, but they don’t have the money to pay for it. And second, it’s a hard job. Nobody pays you. I have $10 per hour. And it ruins my health. I could cut grass. That’s right, I could tend to the grass right here. The Mexican who cuts the grass here — he has $10. I have $10. I have a hard job, which damages my body, and inside the shop it is hot. Very hot. And the Mexican cuts the grass gets $10 and has fresh air. That’s why all blacksmiths quit or die young. Nobody is left. Why do they pay no one? Europe too. Slowly, all the blacksmiths, they close their shops. They clean the inside of the shops and open fast-food restaurants. [Again the mordant laugh and the fit of coughing.] In Czech Republic, I have a friend, a blacksmith. He closed his blacksmith shop and opened fast food and sells hot dogs. Nobody pays you a good pay. In the factory, the man who cleaned the floor got $10 and the blacksmith got $10. Cut grass, $10; blacksmith, $10. That’s right. This is a travesty.”

But, I said, there must be something you love about it.

Noro gave me a look that suggested I wasn’t very bright. “Okay, first of all, if you like art, then somebody must support your family. You don’t get money for art, and so you need money to support your family. And you don’t have time for art, because art takes time. Because it’s detailed, it’s not fast. One post here, one post there, put chain — that’s it. That’s fast, but it’s not art. [He laughed.] But a statue is more detailed. Detail is important. Anyway, blacksmith’s craft began dying 100 years ago. In Russia it is no more. In Europe it will go soon. In United States the same. In California — I checked the Internet — there are only three blacksmiths’ shops — one in Monterey and two others. That’s it for my interview. My interview is over. Trust my interview.”

We looked at each other. I realized that Noro knew nothing of the blacksmiths’ association in California with its 600 members, that he was ignorant of many things. He had never heard of Schraeder or Rochin and that they had more work than they could handle, didn’t know that the national organization was growing, not shrinking. He didn’t realize there was an increasing market for ornamental iron; that, actually, a blacksmith with his skills ought to be in great demand. But when I tried to tell Noro some of this, he only shook his head. For instance, he couldn’t believe that American blacksmiths didn’t suffer from black lung. And when I told him that Schraeder liked working with and teaching young blacksmiths, he could hardly credit it. His skepticism seemed to rise out of his illness and deep depression. He simply appeared to have no hope.

“I cannot see any college or art college teaching it here or in Europe. They have no blacksmith teachers. They have just glass, wood. They don’t have iron. That is why this craft is finished. Nobody likes it. Young people don’t like it. When young people learn about the problems — the lung problems and money problems — they run away and look for other jobs. They learn, but they don’t use it. Actually, this is an economic problem. If somebody paid well for the job, then the craft would go up, because it is a hard job, and with more money and more responsibility the quality would get better. But $10 is nothing. This came from Mr. Scott. This is what he paid me.”

Later, when I asked Scott about this, he was rather defensive, saying that $10 was Noro’s take-home pay after the taxes and benefits had been taken out, while Noro’s previous employer hadn’t taken out for anything. He added that if he happened to sell one of Noro’s candelabras or wine racks or statues, he would give Noro a percentage of the profit, perhaps half.

I thought of the statues that Scott wanted Noro to do — Stevie Ray Vaughan and Vincent van Gogh — life-size, forged-iron statues. Grueling work, Scott had called it, probably five months on each.

So you won’t do those statues for Scott? I asked.

Noro shook his head. “Maybe later, not right now. Later. Maybe in the future I can work for Mr. Scott, but now I cannot. I have a fever and I cough. Anyway, if I make a gate, then my gate is for Mr. Scott. But if I make my own gate and it is from my idea, then how do I sell it? That’s why the customer cannot pay me, because I’m working for Mr. Scott and I get $10 an hour. It’s Mr. Scott’s gate. So it’s a hard job. That’s my last opinion — it’s a hard job with little money, that’s why those blacksmiths run.”

Noro got to his feet. That was all the time he was going to give me. We shook hands at the door and it clicked shut behind me. When I got to my car across the street, I glanced back over my shoulder and saw Noro looking from the window, his round, pale, expressionless face. Then he let the curtain swing back across the glass.

I thought of what Schraeder had said about how lucky he had been always to land on his feet, how the money always seemed to come when he needed it. Then there was Rochin’s ability to do whatever he wanted and his ambition to create pure art pieces. Both men saw themselves as growing in their craft, as improving at what they did, even though they were already at the top of their profession. And here was Noair Khatchatrian, a man of tremendous skill, coughing and spitting blood and envying the man who mowed the lawn.

“All over craft,” he had said, “all over craft.” Which had two meanings — his life and work was all about the craft, and for him, at least, the craft was finished.

Three months later, I called Kent Scott from the East Coast to see if he had heard from Noro. “I haven’t heard a peep,” said Scott, “and he hasn’t returned my calls. But Mike saw him.”

Mike works for Scott, and he got on the line. He was optimistic. “I ran into him last week. Noro looks a lot better and says he feels better. He’s got his color back. He seemed happy. He’s got a temp job at a car wash, and he’s training to be a truck driver. As for blacksmithing, he just doesn’t want to do it anymore. Here’s what he says, ‘I’ve done blacksmithing for 20 years. I make things for the boss, the boss makes lots of money and I make very little.’ That’s an exact quote.” n

— Stephen Dobyns

Stephen Dobyns has been a reporter for the Detroit News and is the author of 10 volumes of poetry and 20 novels. His most recent work of fiction is a book of short stories, Eating Naked (Picador).

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311 and Iration, Dial M For Murder

Events October 16-October 20, 2021

The black-caped, cast-iron devil figure was playing the violin and wearing a top hat and heavy horn-rimmed glasses. It rested on a cast-iron drum with a drumhead made out of a $450 piece of cobalt blue Brazilian marble. Stuck in its mouth was an S-shaped pipe with the bowl carved to resemble the face of Abraham Lincoln.

Blue lapis was used for the clasp. Cut into the creature’s rum-bottle belly were the words “Viper Rum” ringed by a necklace of cast-iron roses, and if you put a candle inside through the small door in back, the creature would glow as if alive. Written on the inside of the rear door were the words “Dear Mary: Happy Birthday, 2001, Love Doonie.”

Mary is the poet Mary Karr, whose third book of poems, Viper Rum, was published by New Directions in 1998, although she is perhaps better known for her memoir The Liars’ Club, published in 1995, the paperback edition of which was on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year. In 2000, Karr published the sequel, Cherry. Both memoirs dealt with growing up in Port Arthur, Texas, and in the second she mentioned Doonie, her buddy down the street. In the summer of 1972, she and Doonie ended up in the San Diego area to go surfing. Both were 17. Doonie had long brown hair past his shoulders; Mary was so skinny that she could hide behind a ski pole. Doonie had a ’63 Lincoln that had been abandoned by a dope dealer, and he and Mary slept in it for a while. Then, at the end of the summer, Doonie returned to Port Arthur to high school and Mary went on to Macalester College. A few years later, Doonie joined his family’s fence business. He became Kent Scott. Then in 1988, with the surfing passion still fierce within him, he returned to the San Diego area, started a fence business of his own, and settled in Carlsbad. Mary Karr went on to publish three books of poems, two books of nonfiction, and to become a professor at Syracuse University. And the two maintained the friendship that had begun when Mary had tutored Doonie in his p’s and q’s way back when both were in grade school.

But this is a story about blacksmiths — not the ones who shoe horses but the ones who can make a rose from cast iron so delicate that you’re sure you can sniff its sweet smell, the ones who will make you a $30,000 fire screen for your fireplace or a $100,000 gate for your driveway; the ones who handle molten metal the way a potter handles clay.

Mary Karr had been a student of mine in a graduate creative-writing program in the late ’70s, and we had remained friends over the years. I had heard stories about Doonie and Port Arthur, and when I happened to talk to Mary last April she had told me that Doonie — now semi-respectable — had gotten this “crazy genius Russian blacksmith” to make this amazing Viper Rum statue and I should take a look at it, which I did. Except the blacksmith wasn’t crazy but sad. Nor was he actually Russian. Though born in the Soviet Union, he seemed to be from Georgia. Basically, he is Armenian: Noair Khatchatrian, whom Kent Scott and the others at Scott Fence call Noro. Now Noro has been in the States for two years, having previously worked in the Czech Republic. As for the genius part, Scott had no doubt about it.

“He’s world-class, for sure,” Scott told me. “His stuff, his attention to detail and the talent to do that kind of detail work, really puts him almost into the classification of a jeweler. I went to downtown San Diego and bought him all those little intricate grinders and diamond-cutting chips and stuff like that to do Abraham Lincoln’s face on the pipe. Of course, being from Russia, he wasn’t familiar with Abraham Lincoln, so he did that face off of a five-dollar bill. I gave him a five-dollar bill and he carved it. He’s as good as I’ve ever seen. Like his work would attract attention anywhere in the world. That violin he did from going to the library and checking out a book on violins. He’s cool.”

At 46, Kent Scott hasn’t entirely put his hippie days behind him. “That crazy Texan,” several people described him to me affectionately. His combination office and home is a warren of dark rooms in a row of two-story apartments. They brought to mind the word “pad,” which I hadn’t thought of for many years, and at first glance it seemed that Doonie’s pad hadn’t been tidied up since the end of the Vietnam War. Nine surfboards hung on the walls. Within a huge fish tank, oversized piranhas nosed hopefully for bloody scraps. Balancing on its perch by a gray window and looking out onto an even grayer porch, a large and morose parrot defecated mini-volcanic mounds onto small sheets of paper towel, often missing. A giant projection TV faced the elderly low-slung couch. The sound was turned off, but the screen flashed with scenes from NASCAR races to kids doing bike stunts to motorcycle races to skateboard stunts. Clothes were heaped on the chairs; blueprints were piled on the tables. There were no bare surfaces. On the walls were snapshots from the old days — surfboards and cutoffs and endless summers.

Scott is a wonderfully affable man, a constant chewer of Nicorets, handsome, athletic, clean-shaven, with receding brown hair. “Cool,” he says with great frequency, but dropping the l — not making the pigeon’s “coo,” but General Pinochet’s “Coup!” He wore a blue gingham shirt and jeans; his feet were bare. He looked fondly around at his pad — “Have to get this place picked up soon,” he said. Various employees came and went. He has six crews and 20,000 feet of fence under contract: power plants in L.A., housing tracts, Coors Amphitheatre down near the Mexican border.

Scott continued to describe the Viper Rum statue.

“We wanted to do something to honor Mary’s work and her poetry, because that’s really what she is: a poet, even though she’s written these other books that have done real well. So we just took the concept of the viper rum, and the first thing we naturally came up with was a rum bottle or a rum glass, and a viper. And then we came up with doing a man out of the two. I drew a sketch for Noro, and he kind of misinterpreted it. What happened was he had the snake coming out of the top of the bottle, but it was curving the wrong way. So I told him to cut it off, and I stuck it back on there. Then we realized we could make that mouth actually coming out of the snake body. So that was just kind of happenstance, the way it came out. Then I did the violin. And the reason we had the snare drum and the violin is kind of a tribute to the music from my hometown area: Cajun music. Once he did the fiddle, we came up with the pipe, which is also a candleholder. And the top of the top hat also has a spot for a candle. And then, of course, you put a candle inside the bottle and it lights up the letters ‘Viper Rum.’ Now, I wanted to do it in a Civil War time period, and I wanted to do a gun, because Noro is also a gunsmith. He can make revolvers. So I wanted him to put a revolver up underneath the cape, but he insisted that Mary wouldn’t like it. So I called her, and sure enough, she didn’t like it. She didn’t want the gun. And so we ended up dropping the gun altogether.”

Scott described the cape, the drum, the flowers, the Brazilian marble. He would draw something and discuss it with Noro. Then they would modify it, until the whole piece came together.

“Noro is a super-talented artist that has never, in my opinion, really had anybody that was willing to pay to do artwork because it’s just a losing proposition. There’s no profit in it. He’s been working in production shops his whole career, pretty much. But he’s too talented to do production work, because the degree of difficulty to have it come out looking as clean as it does is just staggering. Fortunately, I’m in a position financially where I can afford to do the artwork and not have to worry about selling it. That’s the whole key, if you want to do true artist’s blacksmith work. For instance, that Viper Rum took two months. I mean, I’ve probably got $7500 in it, counting everything. And that’s not figuring anything for my time, that’s just hard cost. So compared to everything else I do, there is no profit in it. I mean, it’s a love. It has nothing to do with business, but in the time I did that Viper Rum piece I built $250,000 worth of fence.”

Noro came to the States in 1999 and showed up at Scott Fence in the spring of 2000. Before that, he had been doing blacksmith work for someone who Scott said hadn’t been deducting anything from Noro’s paycheck: an under-the-counter sort of job. In place of a résumé, Noro brought a cast-iron snake.

“The first day Noro was here,” said Scott, “I was just, like, in awe. And all of the men too. I mean, normally a new guy shows up at a company and everybody is kind of like, you know, who is the new guy? and all of that stuff. He has that snakehead that he made. George asked if he could make a cobra. He said, oh yeah, he could make a cobra. That was his first job — to make George a cobra. He made a cobra standing up with a full hood. It’s got all of the detail.”

Then he made full-sized grape leaves trailing around the frame rising up from the bed of Scott’s pickup truck. Delicately veined leaves on seemingly fragile stems clinging to the vines, and wispy tendrils winding around the metal bars — all made from forged metal. He did small jobs, like wine racks and candelabras — not cheap but with rose petals as delicate as rose petals. Then he worked on a $3000 pedestrian gate with designs of Torrey pines. Scott brought Noro a Torrey pine cone and Noro duplicated all its tiny, feathered edges. Then he took silica bronze and melted it over the galvanized-steel corner-post cap to make a moon. Then he hand-made the hinges.

“Hand-making the hinges took three days,” said Scott, “whereas I could buy the best set of manufactured hinges for only 75 bucks, you see? But it looks it when you’re done. I mean, the difference is staggering between the handmade products and mass-produced, just like anything else.”

Noro went on to do other gates for Scott, then staircase work, then specialty handrails with dolphins and pomegranates.

“The customers were really happy with it,” said Scott. “It created a lot of interest. So the guy who bought the dolphins turned around and also wanted dolphins for the backyard because he’s got an ocean view. He’s a surgeon down in Solana Beach.”

During this time, Noro made a cane for the novelist Stephen King, whose leg and hip had been smashed up when he had been hit and thrown by a van not far from his summer home in Maine. This was also a snake’s head, with a snake’s tail at the bottom and an expensive length of wood in between.

“The reason I did that for Stephen King: that was a gift,” said Scott. “We’re going to give that to him for being nice enough to mention Mary’s book in his book on writing. That was really cool. That’s a badass piece of work, man. I mean, look on the bottom of it, the hole that Noro drilled through it. He’s an incredible talent, no doubt about it.”

When Scott speaks of Noro’s work or the work of other artisan blacksmiths, he speaks of it lovingly, with a dash of yearning and a bit of envy, because Scott, too, uses a forge and does blacksmith work, has been doing it about seven years in fact, though he is quick to say that he is only a beginner and his work is only a hobby.

“This blacksmith work,” said Scott, “if you really appreciate it, it gets under your skin. If I could make the same money being a blacksmith as I do owning my own business, I’d be a blacksmith. If I won the Lotto, sure. In other words, it’s my chosen art form. But I’m a businessman first and foremost. That’s why, like I say, I consider blacksmithing a hobby. But after you’ve built 100,000 feet of fence, the next 1000 feet just isn’t that interesting. [Scott laughed and opened a fresh piece of Nicoret gum.] But blacksmith work is always interesting, just because the iron was forged. It takes on a different look. It’s like jewelry. It’s a fantastic craft. I mean, there’s good reason why it still survives today. Because, like I tell people, it will never lose its value. Even though it’s expensive, there will never be anybody coming along that can do it for any less. It’s just not going to happen. It’s always going to increase in value. Part of the reason why the rich get richer and the poor get poorer is because a wealthy person can afford a $20,000 set of gates. But in ten years, that set of gates is going to be worth $30,000. Whereas someone who buys a $2000 set of gates, in ten years the thing’s going to be worth only $1000. It depreciates, where true hand-forged work is never worth less money. So it’s almost an investment in artwork. It’s functioning artwork is all it is.”

Scott has a workshop in Vista for his mass-production work, but most of the blacksmith work is done in a reconditioned garage attached to his apartment: a cramped, dark space full of tools and unfinished projects. As for Noro, it turns out he hasn’t been to work for several weeks and doesn’t plan to come back for another month. Scott and I talked about this as we stood in the shop. It seemed that Noro was sick, or at least he thought he was sick. Several times he had promised to be back in a month; several times he had said he was giving up being a blacksmith forever. Besides being a blacksmith and a gunsmith, Noro also was a genius at growing giant mushrooms.

I asked Scott how Noro was sick.

“He says he has black lung disease. It was from working industry in Russia. That’s what he said. But he doesn’t know if it’s diagnosed as black lung or not. He’s got lung problems; like, he coughs all the time, but he’s not sure if it’s black lung. See, they work with coal forges over there, while here we work with propane. Anyway, he says that in Russia all blacksmiths die young.”

So Noro was taking time off to see if he would get better, and maybe he would come back and maybe not. He lived somewhere with his son and his wife, who had recently come over to the States, but Scott wasn’t sure where he lived — maybe in Vista — or where he had put Noro’s phone number. But Noro was supposed to call, and if he called, then Scott would tell Noro that I would like to talk to him.

The worst thing, said Scott, was that he and Noro had had some serious projects ahead: a full-sized statue of the singer Stevie Ray Vaughan and a full-sized statue of Vincent van Gogh. Scott had already bought a Stratocaster guitar just like Vaughan’s for Noro to copy. But it was the van Gogh that was the most important to Scott.

“I want to do van Gogh’s first self-portrait, the one with the felt hat. What I was planning on doing was him standing in a field of sunflowers, but the sunflowers are going to have amethyst for the seeds — purple Colombian amethyst — and then have silica bronze leaves. We’ll probably have something like five months in it. If you work on the same thing every day, it gets old, I don’t care what it is. And the bigger your project, the more wear psychologically on the people that are doing it. Because it just becomes grueling working on the same thing every day. Like Hell, Rodin never did finish the Gates of Hell. He died and somebody else had to finish it. But, basically, for me, if I can produce those types of works, then that’s what I want to do, because it’s much more interesting to try to do something that may come out really great. I would rather spend my time trying to do something really great than setting my sights low and just doing something that I’ve already done before that doesn’t hold any interest.

“But I’m a big fan of van Gogh because I had an uncle who was an artist and a paranoid schizophrenic, like van Gogh. The weird thing is that my uncle’s artwork was so much like van Gogh’s. My mother has some copies of van Gogh’s paintings and she has some of my uncle’s, and to me, you can hardly tell the difference. But, unfortunately, being insane, he destroyed most of his work. He developed schizophrenia when he was in college. So just the way the whole deal went, how he never achieved success during his life — it’s kind of a sad story. That’s partly why I want to do van Gogh and I’ll get my friend Kenny to be the model [Scott laughed] because he’s short and redheaded.

“Anyway, that’s my dream, to do some really fantastic artwork. I want to get into the full-blown statues. Most statues are cast out of bronze. That’s a fine craft in and of itself, but it’s not what interests me because the forging is a lot more difficult. That’s why you don’t see any statues being forged. Like I say, Noro can do it, I guarantee you. And craftsmen like him, they just don’t come along every day. For every guy like Noro, there are 100 who’ll never achieve that kind of work. It just boils down to sheer talent.”

But in the meantime, Noro appeared to have quit the blacksmith business — perhaps only temporarily — and there seemed no way to contact him. So I wondered about other artisan blacksmiths in the area. Did Scott know any?

Scott was quick to answer. “Richard Schraeder is the real guru of the artisan blacksmiths. He’s been around a long time. He’s known nationwide. What I’m saying, he’s the real thing. He’s, like, as far as an artist blacksmith goes. That’s why I call him the guru. And most good blacksmiths like Schraeder are also tool freaks. It’s what he does for a living, so he’s got every tool known to man. You’ve got to. There are a lot of tools involved. I mean, the hammers are imported from Europe, from Germany, and the anvils, and stuff like that. You can’t buy that stuff at Home Depot. There’re a lot of specialty tools, old tools, antique tools particularly, old anvils, all of it. Schraeder was very helpful when I first got started with blacksmith work six or seven years ago. As a matter of fact, he let me come over to his shop and showed me stuff. Blacksmiths are like that. Well, the average craftsman of any type of craft isn’t willing to show you anything, as a general rule. But blacksmiths are totally different. They’re artists, but they’re very cool people too. They’re dedicated to the preservation of the craft. Where in the other, like in the fence business, I have some competitors that I’m really good friends with, but some of them are just real resentful of you building a lot of work and aren’t friendly at all.”

Richard Schraeder lives on five and a half wooded acres surrounded by avocado groves on a mountainside to the east of Temecula. The property belongs to his partner, Laurel Croft, who raises exotic birds (mostly hornbills), which she sells to zoos all over the country. She also raises Irish wolfhounds — stately, prize-winning dogs that reek of nobility. Ms. Croft is also stately. She moves like a dancer and is very attractive and straight-backed. The property runs down to a stream, then up again with sycamores, oaks, and bamboo. Three or four peacocks step delicately among the trees. The 150 birds are mostly in a 30-foot roofed enclosure, with other smaller pens adjoining it — white-crested hornbills, yellow bills, Argus pheasants, and others. When I was a kid in the ’50s, there were several TV adventure shows that took place in darkest Africa. Now it seemed I was hearing all those jungle birds once again, as a wide variety of squawks came from the roomy pens. Laurel Croft takes care of the birds on her own, feeding them mice and frozen chicks, beef hearts, Romaine lettuce, and mangos. Schraeder and I talked quietly as we looked at the birds, trying not to disturb them, while slapping at the black flies that swarmed around us.

Schraeder is a handsome 61 but looks younger. He’s about five feet ten, with a gray beard, longish brown hair, and glasses. He wore jeans and a blue T-shirt.

“The beauty of the place is the trees,” he said, “but the creek is sure nice. I want to keep it as pristine as possible.” In fact, the only somewhat unsightly object on the property was Schraeder’s workplace tucked off at the edge: a 60- by 40-foot corrugated steel barn with a 20-foot ceiling, still not quite finished or organized, since he only moved to Temecula in the spring of 2000. Previously, his shop had been in Vista.

“I have the perfect dream of a place to work. This is far more than anything I thought to have for a facility. And that’s really funny because I say to my friends, ‘I’ve got my shop built, you’ve got to see it.’ And they say, ‘I thought you were scaling down, going into retirement mode.’ And I say, ‘I am. Look at this.’ There’s going to be a time when all this will be set up. Then I can just sit back and go boom-boom-boom-boom, and it will be done. I mean, I have everything here, and it’s all getting better, just blowing and humming. I just need to look out at the trees to get re-energized. I think it will get so good I won’t be able to stand it. And the peacocks wandering by. I’ve heard people say they can’t stand them, but I think they’re wonderful. You live around them, and you start to relate to their communicating. All of the birds and everything. It’s so nice to be aware that they’re not just making noise, they’re talking, they’re saying things, they’re singing.”

Schraeder was born in San Francisco and brought up in Los Angeles. In college, he studied mechanical engineering, then spent four years in the Air Force. Afterward he had various jobs, including making orthopedic appliances. It wasn’t until he was in his late 30s that he became interested in ironwork.

“I wish I could have known the field earlier,” he said. “Then you wonder, if that’s the case, what other things have I missed that I haven’t known about? I mean, I didn’t know anything about ornamental ironwork. It was the farthest thing from my mind. Then I meet this guy in a local town. I was trying to find something to do. I said let’s do equipment rental. That would be good, because I would own all this equipment, and I love equipment. But somebody said people are going to borrow it and bring it back all wrecked. So I thought, I’m not going into the equipment-rental business because somebody will get killed. Then I met this guy who did ornamental iron, and what in the hell was ornamental iron? So I started researching it and I talked to everybody that had an ornamental-iron shop, and heard all of their problems, and the good things and bad things. I said, gosh, that’s something I can do, no problem. So I did that for about six months. Then I went to the Renaissance Faire and ran into a guy that did hot metalwork, did forging. I said, this is where I want to be. So it’s really kind of interesting how I’ve been kind of directed through my life with not much skill at guiding myself. I think I’ve just been kicked around like a Ping-Pong ball, and it’s always worked out just right. Because they’ve all had reason or direction, and one has always fed the other.”

Schraeder set up shop in his backyard after buying a lot of equipment from a blacksmith who was going out of business. “The first year I was doing just fabricating. So the only skill you really need to know at that point is how to weld, making a fence or a gate, how to measure a job. So that was just trial and error. And I’d had an engineering background. I’d worked in a tool-and-die shop and had a lot of experience mechanically. But when I first started this, I immediately met people in the California Blacksmith Association. Then it was a matter of going to meetings and meeting some people, and when I had a problem I’d just give them a call and say, ‘What do I do, Mike?’ or, ‘What do I do, John?’ And they’d say, ‘Well, this is what you have to try.’ So it was self-taught up to a certain point. Then I started going to weekly classes and whatnot with different people, specialty study groups. But it was hard getting started. I bellied up twice in 22 years. I had to go back and find other work once for a six-month period and once for about four months. I needed to go do something fast to make money. Which is always nice too. Whenever I just raise my hand and say, ‘World, I need some money,’ the doors are open and I’ve got things to choose from. The downside of that is, because of that ability, I’ve never disciplined myself to put a little money aside. One of these days it might not work. But it’s worked so far, so what the hell? Just recently I was busy working on this place and I thought, gee, it’s time for some money again. I need to get something going. I’d had a set of gates that we were negotiating, and finally we couldn’t come together on the price. Then I had to pay my income tax, and, whoop, there’s a little economic crunch here. So I said, ‘help,’ and boom, I got some work. I made 60 lights. That’s not very production-line-like, but it was for me. It was like a month’s worth of work. It was fun because it gave me back some of the skills that doing the same hammering process over and over again can give you. So I was off and running again.”

When I visited Schraeder, his workshop was mostly set up, but there seemed no order, a mass of machinery, chunks of metal, iron bars, benches, propane tanks and hoses, a great fan, tables and partially completed projects, and a giant window in back, partially covered with torn pieces of plastic, looking out onto the oak trees. There was even a surfboard and a set of bullhorns — the organic variety.

“I’ve got a fair amount of stuff,” Schraeder admitted. “There’s an accumulation. But it’s all pretty good stuff. That hammer over there, the one I’m using, the Bradley, that’s an old hammer. It’s probably 1930s, something like that. Then I’ve got an ironworker. I can sheer metal off over there, and I have a saw here to cut metal. I have an abrasive saw as well. A gas forge, electric forge, coal forge — the coal burns the hottest. The electric gives you the most precise temperatures. You need these different things for different applications. I mean, you can accomplish the job without all of this stuff. I have a friend that is a very successful smith in Redondo Beach. He’s got a one-car garage with an anvil and a forge. He could put all of his tools in the trunk of my car, everything that he has. And he makes hardware, just door pulls and things like that, or little lights and little sconces. He’s very good at it, does beautiful work. He doesn’t need a truck. I had to buy a truck because I was hauling around thousands of pounds of railing and everything else for a lot of jobs. So you’ve got to just, you know, get stuff.”

As Schraeder led the way toward his desk to show me his portfolio, he talked about blacksmiths. “There are quite a few categories of smiths. The bladesmiths, that’s a whole world. Weapons are a whole world of its own. Industrial smiths. That’s another whole area. Horseshoeing is another area. There are people that overlap, but usually they stay in one area, or they’ll get out of one and go into another. There are a lot of different kinds of smithing than just the pure art smithing, the people that forge, just making art pieces that don’t do what I call functional art. So they’ve all got their pros and cons. Weapons are not a thing that I’ve been interested in. In fact, I’ve really balked at doing weapons. But I’d also like to do some for myself. I’d like to do my own cutlery set. I think it would be fun to do a whole set of flatware, because it was one of those traditional things that somebody had to do, and that’s something I feel capable of doing. A lot of things for the home would be fun to do, the kitchen area, which I haven’t done much of. I started out with a lot of ladles for friends, doing gifts like that. Then as work got bigger and more cumbersome, and as I had employees and everything else, I got away from doing it. That’s one of the things I look forward to — getting set up and flowing into that.

“Our field is really young and very vital. I mean, blacksmithing has been around for a long time, but it’s really coming on strong again. There are an awful lot of people doing this now. We have over 6000 members in the Artist-Blacksmith’s Association of North America [www.abana.org] and over 600 in the California Blacksmith Association. I’m on the board of the California association. But out of those 6000 national members, they aren’t all professional smiths. An awful lot of people want to know about smithing, so they join the association. Maybe they’ll do it on the weekends and whatnot, they’re hobbyists. But I would guess that 20 percent of the membership is professional. They might do gates, railings, chandeliers, candelabras, sculpture, hardware, anything metal, sconces, fireplace tools. Just hundreds and hundreds of people do fireplace sets and at all different levels. You can find a fireplace set for probably a couple hundred dollars, or up to $30,000 — for some tools, three or four tools, made of any kind of material: bronzes and coppers, or mixed metals, or you can put silver and gold in them. There’s no limit. An awful lot of people have got money, and they’d like their own thing. I’ve made a faucet for a powder room that was $4800, which isn’t very big money. But we have guys that have sold fire screens for $30,000. It depends on what the item is. And there are so many different kinds of metals that you can work with, so you could make a really exotic fire screen and do enameling on it, which could take a lot of time, i.e., a lot of money.”

At his desk, Schraeder began showing me design magazines in which he had been featured and a portfolio of photographs of his work: staircases, gates, doors, faucets, a table with a marble top embedded with snail shells and bits of coal, forged red brass pipe for the legs, and a bronze skirt. The visual paradox of the work is that what looks soft — leaf patterns, traceries of metal — is in fact hard, what seems flowing is rigid, what appears weightless is in fact heavy, as if one of the blacksmith’s jobs is to make his materials appear to be something that they aren’t, something supple and organic.

He showed me a five-foot-tall pedestrian gate with a dozen flamelike century leaves made from copper growing up from the bottom, then three brass heads of a plant resembling shell ginger, like oversized heads of wheat, rising from the leaves, and all of it on a background of nickel silver. Because of the leaves and golden heads of ginger, the gate seemed to be rising upward, almost floating. Another picture showed a pedestrian gate made of three horizontal panels of nickel silver, with the top panel having a semiabstract design that reminded me of a swimmer looking up from the waves.

“I feel like I’m more of a salesman than an artist, really,” said Schraeder. “I don’t have trouble getting projects. And I think I’m more of a craftsman than an artist. But I don’t have a particular design style. Because I like to work with different materials, I haven’t stayed with one medium long enough to develop a certain style. I’m just looking for more quality all of the time, taking on new challenges. Probably my favorite material is silica bronze, but steel is also wonderful. Silica bronze is very expensive. It costs over $5 a pound, and steel isn’t even 50 cents a pound. And it’s fun to resolve a problem. You have an image of how you can plug up this hole with a gate, and it’s fun to see how it can all come together. Then it’s nice to have somebody pleased with it. I’ve had a couple of calls in 20 years. We’re sitting here, having a glass of wine, and someone will call and say how much they like this gate and, hell, I’m ready to run down and work for him for the next six months for nothing, you know? Not really, but that means a lot. But the thing is, the work could always be better. You can definitely keep fussing with it forever. The problem I have is stopping soon enough. I need to stop sooner. One of the reasons I don’t is that I don’t have to worry about where my next meal is coming from. I get good money for my work, but I spend way too much time on what I do, a lot of times. I can’t seem to get it out the door. I keep massaging it and making it a little better and a little better. At some point, you’ve got to say, ‘Creditors. I think I’d better ship it now.’

“I’ve spent many, many hours on jobs. One house I worked on, I spent two and a half years working on it. I had six employees, and I subcontracted everybody I knew that had free time that was a smith. There was railing and more railing, light fixtures, and just all kinds of stuff. Just little details for interior decorating, little plates and grills. This was a house over here in Rancho Santa Fe. I made all of these doorknobs. I basically did the hardware on this house — stainless steel hardware and the connecting hardware. This house was really clean and had wonderful light fixtures. Really beautiful stuff, nothing flashy going on. A lot of artwork in it.”

Schraeder showed me a picture of a doorknob inlaid with copper and brass.

“In order to do that I actually layer it up. I put a layer of copper, a layer of brass, a layer of copper. And they’re bars 2 inches square and then 16 inches long. Then they’re machined, and then I start forging it out and twisting it. That’s how I get the material to flow. In the oven, it becomes crystalline, so it won’t stick together. It’s not homogenous, so we need to get the grain in it again. We’ve got to go through this process of pulling it out like taffy and getting grain into it. And after I get it so far out, then I can start twisting it, and rolling it, and get the grain to move around.”

Schraeder showed me pictures of a house that had been built around several ten-foot boulders, including one that dominated the entry hall. He had been sent in by the architect when the house was 80 percent complete to continue the granite motif with designs on the front doors, then granite doorknobs set against bronze leaves. To the left of the hall was a curved granite staircase going up to the master bedroom. Schraeder made the staircase and a balcony section on top, a $30,000 job. The balustrades of the staircase had a delicate art nouveau design, scrolling, musical shapes supporting a ribbon of bronze. At the foot of the handrailing was an apple-shaped finial made from a ball of granite and partly enclosed by silica bronze. Again, the impression of all this weight was one of weightlessness.

“Unfortunately for us common folks,” said Schraeder, “it requires money to do a lot of this stuff. It’s often hard to do things economically by my value system. That’s probably a battle in itself, trying to figure it out. How much will this cost? I’ve got enough experience to know it’s going to take so much, and I can see there’s going to be a problem here and a problem there. It’s the hours that we put into it. That’s the formula right there. I break it down into four different categories: design time, fabrication time, finishing time, and then installation. Often you can spend more time doing the finishing than the actual fabricating. How are you going to paint it or polish it, or how are you going to treat it after you’re done fabricating it. Like this staircase with the granite finial — all of this bottom section is steel that has been sprayed with bronze. There is a gun that does what’s called ‘metalizing,’ that has bronze or whatever kind of wires, zinc wires, or whatever, that come into it, and it electrically melts the wires with a big welding-type transformer. Then there is a force of air that blows it onto the steel. So that metalizing process is really critical here. The steel was all cleaned up. They sent it out and sandblasted it and then sprayed the whole thing with bronze. Then I brought it back in and sanded it, because it’s pretty rough after it gets sprayed. So I sanded it down, then painted the whole thing black, and then rubbed it all out, and sanded it out some more, and then highlighted it. So a tremendous amount of time was spent on finishing.”

Schraeder most often works with the builder, then the architect, then the owner. His customers, as one might suspect, are well heeled. People of whom he says, “When they want something, they’re going to get it. I don’t believe it’s a big problem.” But now after doing 20 or so staircases and dozens of gates, Schraeder wants to scale down.

“The big gates, big railings, I’m not really excited about those anymore. They’re so difficult to flip around and pick up and move. I don’t want to do the physical kind of thing like that anymore. It’s lost its thrill. And it also requires having help, and I don’t want any help anymore either. I just want to be a one-man show. But I don’t like to get too small. Light fixtures, I really like. I want to do more of that caliber of thing. I want to do more items for inside the home. Or, actually, I’d like to do some lawn sculptures, do some fountains. I want to use more of the copper and brass. I’d like to play with some silver. I’d like to get more into the exotic, or, what’s a good word, more jewelry-ish, but not jewelry. I’m going to see where I can just work two weeks a month. Work-work, money-generating work. And then the other time, spend a week or so working with the property, and then a week just doing creative stuff, just artwork. That’s kind of the scope I have. And I can see it happening probably within the year. There are so many things to dabble in, so many things to do. After all, I’m here in this paradise with the peacocks.”

And the black flies, I reminded him.

“Well, the peacocks have something to eat. I don’t feed them. I don’t think they eat the black flies. I’ve got to find out what the predator is for black flies.”

I had told Schraeder about Noair Khatchatrian and the Viper Rum statue. I’d also mentioned that Noro appeared to have black lung disease and had said that all Russian blacksmiths died young. That had amazed Schraeder. He said he knew of no American blacksmith who had ever had black lung disease.

The day after talking to Schraeder, I called Kent Scott to see if he had heard from Noro. Yes, Noro had called, and he had given him my telephone number. Had Noro made any decision about coming back to work for Scott? “He’s still not sure,” said Scott. What about other artisan blacksmiths, I asked. Was there anyone else I could talk to?

“Try Robert Rochin. He’s got some fantastic stuff. Rochin did fencing in the same order as me, in the fact that he did a lot of big work. He did tracts, and had a bunch of crews, a bunch of employees. Then he got out of it just to do ornamental work.”

Robert Rochin’s shop is in San Marcos, in a rural area that will soon be eaten up by subdivisions. I drove out into the country till I came to a long dirt driveway bordered on either side by tall palms. At the end of the driveway was an old single-story house. I went around it, and I reached Rochin’s shop in the middle of a sort of barnyard, except that it had great chunks of metal and old machinery instead of animals. There was a lot of rust and a lot of flowers, tall grass, and a few oaks. At first glance, the shop seemed hardly more than a shack with corrugated metal walls and a peaked metal roof. It was a sixth the size of Schraeder’s shop and had about a quarter of the tools, though Rochin does more work than Schraeder. But it was just as cluttered with partially completed projects — lamps and chandeliers — tools, propane tanks, shelves to the ceiling full of long metal rods, presses, a giant stepladder, and a variety of mysterious objects undoubtedly indispensable to the blacksmith’s trade. Rochin’s two Hispanic assistants, Alvaro and Leo, who have been with him many years, were banging away at long bars of metal, then Alvaro paused to get Rochin, who was in his small office at one end of the building.

Rochin is 50, a portly man with a trimmed gray beard and mustache, bald on top with gray on the sides, brown eyes. He was wearing a brown leather apron that hung past his knees, jeans, and a white shirt. His face is thin and young-looking, the face of a person who likes his job, that sort of contentment. He started doing metalwork in the late ’60s and became a fencing contractor in the early ’70s, although, as he told me, even to do ornamental gates, one needs a contractor’s license.

I was struck that the blacksmiths I talked to all lived and worked in what seemed to me — coming from downtown San Diego — as out-of-the-way places: Carlsbad, Vista, San Marcos, Temecula, and there was a Polish blacksmith who I was never able to find who lived in Alpine.

“Well, in medieval times,” said Rochin as we sat in his office, “blacksmiths were kept way out in the country. They didn’t let them in town because of the possibility of fire. There were sparks, pounding, noise. They were seen as being close to the devil. In fact, blacksmiths were seen as working with demons. So they didn’t want those people close to town. And it’s funny. We’re not working with demons now, but there’s still a mystique that people have. Maybe that’s why we’re all out here.”

Born in La Jolla, Rochin was brought up in Carlsbad, then moved to San Diego. His father had a restaurant in Oceanside: the Acapulco Gardens on Hill Street. As for Rochin’s original training, he got it in high school metal shop. And as for the equipment in his shop, it’s pretty basic. Kent Scott would never call him a tool freak.

“We don’t have too much,” Rochin told me. “We don’t need any special tools because it’s almost all hand done. We use mostly soldering, welding. We’ve got an old metal abrasive cutting saw and a band saw that we use occasionally. I just bought a power hammer. We’ll have it here probably in a month, because until now we pounded the steel by hand. And I have a homemade gas forge. We used to have a coal forge. They’re real smoky, real messy, but they are hot. You can do things with that you can’t do with gas. You can be more specific on the heat because the heat is localized. Whereas a gas forge, everything that’s in the forge gets hot. And when we’re doing small pieces, sometimes that’s not what you need. You kind of need both.”

Rochin turns out more work than Schraeder mostly because he has two full-time assistants, but also perhaps because of his experience as a contractor. He is used to that schedule and is booked solid for over a year in advance, with a mixture of straightforward bread-and-butter jobs, as he calls them, and more artistic and ornamental jobs. Along with gates, staircases, and hardware for private homes, he has done the valet area for the Orleans Casino in Las Vegas — steel oak leaves on vines in four-foot clusters hanging down eight feet and going all around 180 feet of the area, as well as ornamental work for some San Diego–area restaurants, including Mister A’s, George’s at the Cove, and Prime 10.

I asked Rochin if he had any favorite style. He leaned back in his chair and thought about it.

“I really prefer the contemporary work. The hand-forged stuff is fine too. And when we get into some theme stuff, that’s a lot of fun. I’m not too picky. Anything that challenges me. Anybody that wants to do something different, I really like to do different stuff. And truly I’m not motivated by money. I mean, look at my truck, my shop. I need to do better in that direction. What I have now are clients that keep me busy. And that’s fine, because those kind of clients let me do the kind of work that I like. Though people who want something just kind of nifty, or small — people who don’t have a lot of money — they’ll call and describe something interesting, and I’ll say, yeah, we’ll do it.”

I mentioned the problem that Schraeder had described, of being such a perfectionist that it was hard to let the work out of the shop, hard to let it go.

“Absolutely. Yes, I run into that. Maybe it’s my ego again, the voice that says, ‘I can do this.’ You get a concept in your mind. You have a design. You bid a job. But you really have to bid it in your mind before you bid it on paper. I have to know what fasteners and materials I’m going to use. I have to know all of this stuff because it’s going to cost me. Because as you start working, things change. And you start thinking, If I did it this other way, then it would be better. And you get into this thing where this work has to be the very best. You keep thinking how you can make it even better.

“There was a time, when I bid the job, I would make the price — and give them what they paid for. But I never got to do anything I wanted to do. So I made a decision — this was several years ago — I just decided I didn’t give a shit. This is my work and nobody is going to pay me to do good work if I don’t start doing good work. So I started giving people a lot of deals, even if it wasn’t really by choice. For instance, there was a lady who wanted a staircase, and her only direction was that she wanted tassels. She loved tassels. But this took a lot of time. I spent three days just making tassels — forged-steel tassels with little forged-steel threads. I mean, making tassels and throwing them away, making them and throwing them away, until I came up with a real simple design how we could do it, a design that I was satisfied would follow through in the pattern. And all the tassels were different because they were forged. That’s the kind of detail that you spend a lot of time on and never recoup the money. You know, you never get paid.

“But the one thing about what I do that I don’t like, which is maybe because of my experience doing tract work and working with people, is that I understand schedules. And having that knowledge is almost a curse, because I really try and keep to schedules the best I can. So when I take longer on a job to make it as good as I can, it can be a real punishment. There was a stairway that took almost exactly one month longer than what I had anticipated, and I hated it. The pressure was too much. And the money I spent for that extra month — I ate it. I bid the job. It’s locked in. The owner has his bank note set and all of that. He’s not going to materialize any money for me. It was my choice to make it something better than it was, than what I bid. But that happens. That happens.

“Actually what happened was, I told the guy I wanted to do something special, would he mind if I made a little change? So he said, how about if we go from three-quarter-inch railings to one-inch? I said, yes, we can do that, sure. Well, I’ve been in the steel business for years, but it didn’t occur to me that a one-inch-square bar is almost double the mass of a three-quarter-inch-square bar. So every one of those pieces that we bent required double the effort. I mean, I had to fill the acetylene tanks probably three or four times. One time would have been enough for the three-quarter-inch, by far, with extra. A lot more gas, hours and hours, to bend those heavy bars. An extra month of work and the schedule ruined. The pattern itself was nothing — cut, clean welding.

“And the architect said the railing overpowered his house. He was very happy with it, but he told me the railing was more than what he wanted. It dominates your eye when you walk in. It’s such a grand focal point, it’s so massive. It was beautiful, but it was too much. And I can see that. I’m proud of my work and it’s a beautiful stairway, but compared to the entire house and all of the other little details that the architect designed, it’s just, you know, you walk into the house and, ‘Wow, what a stairway.’ That’s what everybody does. The lady said, I never knew that in my lifetime I could have something like that, that I could have something… That’s how she felt about it.”

Rochin had taken out a portfolio of photographs and was leafing through it: staircases, elaborate doors, sconces and torches, gates and fire screens. He paused at one.

“This is a pretty simple design — a 3H- by 6-foot gate I did for a lady in Del Mar. Her only direction to me was she wanted dolphins in her gate. I wanted it to look like this dolphin was poking its head through the kelp. It’s the same thing on both sides. It’s exactly the same image duplicated on the other side.”

The two jumping dolphins were made from copper; the rising leaves of kelp were steel with a bluish green copper patina. For a door handle, Rochin had forged a little green octopus. As with Schraeder’s work, there was the sense of weightlessness, that if the gate had not been attached by its hinges to a stonewall, it would simply float away.

He moved on to another gate, something far more complicated, for a driveway, a $50,000 job (“I should have gotten $60,000,” he said). The gate was made up of three elaborate trees, their branches rising to a mass of leaves that ran across the top, and all of it constructed out of copper and steel and measuring 8 by 17 feet. Vines wound around the branches, and sitting on the gate were five parrots, as if someone had been scattering bread crumbs on the driveway. At the very top of the gate a parrot was spreading its wings, ready to take off. In the picture, they looked like actual parrots.

“That was a real job for me. I mean, it was a labor of love while we were doing it. These people had money, and they were doing this incredible remodeling, the whole landscape and the house. From the beginning, their only direction was, ‘I want parrots on my gate.’ They looked like accountants, really straitlaced, and a conservative-looking home. I thought they’d want something really plain. I did the designs for them of parrots in cages, this kind of theme style, Rancho Santa Fe style with parrots — large parrots and small parrots, four different plans. But the last one, the one that I really liked, was the trees. I didn’t even want to show it to them. It seemed too far out. It was underneath. But I had it with me. You never know. ‘That’s it,’ they said. ‘We want that one.’ I said, ‘Great. Wow. Really? ’ ”

So what had seemed like local birds hanging out on a neighborhood gate were forged metal birds: stretching and preening their feathers and glancing around. A number of Rochin’s gates and stairways had these complicated designs, a sort of baroque elaboration, while other work — staircases and railings, in particular — were simple geometric designs. Mistakenly, I assumed the geometric stuff was the bread-and-butter stuff. We were looking at a staircase with a long handrail extending over a number of stainless steel panels — all very uncomplicated, I thought.

“No, no, no,” said Rochin. “This is very difficult. It looks straightforward, but it’s not. It’s all of this stainless steel wire with a handrail. The handrail is continuous, but the panels are separate. So to get it to line up — it’s a lot of layout and a lot of figuring. Whereas with filigree, there’s a lot of room for error. There’s a lot of room to fudge and bend stuff around; a lot of room to play. I’ll show you a prime example.”

He drew out two photographs — one of a staircase with curls and swoops, metal that bent around with embellishments and what appeared to be heart-shaped grape leaves of different sizes. The other was a relatively short chrome staircase with a geometric design of just three or four rails, and glass panels under the handrail.

“I have as much or more time in this contemporary job as I do in this other. So that very simple geometric piece is in fact extremely complicated. The staircase with the leaves — there’s a lot of room for fudging. And in the geometric piece, the pipe frame is nothing. Easy, fast. Just literally minutes’ work. The time was, we had to then cut it apart. It had to be chromed. When we cut it apart, everything moved out of position. So now we have to get all of this stuff back — straight, perfect, and lined up. Then we have to have all of these inner sleeves with hidden connections, then polishing this copper — these are copper strips that hold the glass in. We have the steel inside here and a lot of stuff you don’t see. You know, hours and hours pre-installing the steel in beds beneath the marble and making sure that everything lines up, so when you go in there, it just drops in place, so you don’t see any fasteners. Little things like this little button back here to hold it to the wall. It’s drilled and tapped and threaded, with no fasteners showing. Those little details — they look so simple, but, seriously, we have as much time, or more, in this job than we do in the other one. A lot of guys don’t like to do this kind of work, because they get into it, and then people start saying, ‘Well, that’s not what I was looking for,’ because you didn’t bid enough for it. They didn’t price it right because it’s so much work.”

Rochin has a stack of pen-and-ink drawings of his designs, not just the gates and staircases but also furniture, like tables. So there is the artwork as it exists in the drawing, the work in its final realization — the gate with the parrots — and then there is the space between, the process of moving from sheet of paper to the finished gate, the intricacy and puzzle of putting it together.

“That’s really my challenge,” said Rochin. “That’s what turns me on: the puzzle of putting it together. A lot of what I do comes from designers or architects. They’ll give me a strong direction, and I kind of have to hold to that. But a lot of time my clients let me design for them. You know, one of the things that I used to do was I had a tendency to over-detail things, to make it too busy. Now I tend to be going in the contemporary, geometric style. Not all of it is geometric, but the contemporary, very simple, even though it can be very frustrating because it looks so damn simple and it’s not.”

But Rochin kept returning to the subject of the schedule — doing his work within a set period of time that carried with it the danger of compromising the quality of his work, because as he raised the level of his challenge, he increasingly endangered the schedule.

“I have a window. I can’t start before this happens, but I have to be done before that happens, or the next guy can’t do his job. And I have several jobs running at the same time with these windows that keep coming at me. I have to be ready to start here, and sometimes they overlap and it doesn’t work. Or I’ll get into a thing where the job is not right yet, or it’s going to take longer, so we just have to work harder. Or sometimes we wind up just putting the job out. We don’t sacrifice anything, but we don’t have time to make mistakes, you know? There’s a lot of pressure there.

“And I’m just a peon. Really, I’m a small peon. Look at the guys who do stonework, all of these floors and counters and all. They do an incredible job. Big bucks, big bucks compared to what I do. There are so many other trades that are part of a house, or a construction — I’m just a little guy. Although I know I’m important, I know where I’m at. But I really like it when my work plays well with all of the other stuff. To me, that’s something I’ve learned over the years. I really like my work to be part of everything else.

“The ones with the biggest egos are the architects. A lot of them see themselves as Frank Lloyd Wright. They can be the worst, without a doubt. I remember a cartoon, it was a picture of this short guy that looked like a pimp, a cigar in his mouth, and two women who looked like hookers hanging on the side of him. Flashy, a big tie, the whole bit. And this guy is walking down the sidewalk. There is a big guy in front of him, shouting, ‘Make way, make way, the architect is coming.’ [Rochin laughed.] I thought, That’s it, that’s it. A lot of flash. But when they want something, it has to be done. You have to do it for them, you have to.

“And there was one guy who was one of the very worst, who really put me in my place. He was very well known. His houses have insignias, and you can recognize his design. He kind of fancies himself a Frank Lloyd Wright type. I’d made a railing that was very simple, a curved stairway. And I asked him if we could do something to dress it up a little bit. Because he’d told me if I had a suggestion, to design it and send it to him. He’d given me that. But then he said some of my suggestions were a little bit too much. He said, ‘No, I don’t want people walking in this house and looking at your railing.’ He wanted people to look at his house, the way the light entered the rooms, the detail of the stone finish. Everything had to be all of a piece. He didn’t want everybody to walk in and look at my work and have it be the focus. I said, well, okay, sure, okay. I felt like, screw you. But later on it occurred to me, he’s right. The best houses I’ve done were like that. The best, most important things are where I was a part of a big picture. It’s easy to put a bunch of castings, or a bunch of stuff together and throw it on there and have it come out looking good unto itself, but not a part of the big picture. And I’ve learned now to focus more on the big picture and keep my eye on that.”

But like Schraeder, Rochin’s ambition is to get away from the big construction work, the functional ornamental work.

“Through the years, we’ve had goals and we’ve achieved goals. There was a time we were doing ten houses a day, production work, tract work. Now we do probably less than that in a year. That was a goal I wanted to get to, where we were doing really nice work. But the next thing is to get to where we’re doing almost pure art pieces, you know? Actually I’m pushing more in that direction all of the time. And the detail and all of the things we work hard at to make it look simple. To make it look like it was just meant to be that way. To make it look effortless, yes. Again, back to the architect. To make the individual piece look like it’s part of the whole thing, part of the whole design. And you know what? It’s a long learning process, and I’m still trying to learn it. In fact, I’d like to do some sculpting. We went up to Sedona not long ago, and I was really impressed with some of the big garden arches they had there. I saw things I hadn’t seen before. So that’s a direction I want to go in. You know, mobiles, things like that. Things that move outside, large pieces. Like Calder. Very simple.”

I kept asking Rochin if he saw himself as an artist, but he shied away from the term. His assistants, Alvaro and Leo, were artists because of the quality of their work, and Rochin’s wife saw him as an artist, but he couldn’t call himself an artist.

“For me personally, maybe I’m a craftsman. Some of what I do is art, some of it is. Decorative art. But when I see people call themselves artists, or a lot of them, their minds are different. They’re flashier, or they think they’re something special. I don’t hang around people like that, so I don’t know. But that’s my definition of it, and I just don’t see myself fitting into that. Maybe it’s hard to call oneself an artist and be humble at the same time. I have things that work out well, and every now and then I start feeling like I’m pretty good. I feel pretty cocky, like, boy, I really know what I’m doing now. And then something will happen to straighten me right out. You’re not going to cut corners. You’ve got to go back to basics, and you’ve got to keep your eye focused. It’s hard to do. The work is physically hard and it’s challenging. It’s amazing how many people underestimate the difficulty of what our work is. I get humble, I do.”

To Rochin also I had mentioned Noair Khatchatrian and had asked if he had ever heard of American blacksmiths contracting black lung disease. But, no, he hadn’t.

In the meantime, Noro hadn’t called. I went back to Kent Scott’s office to see if he would give me Noro’s phone number. This time he agreed. In addition, beneath a pile of papers, he had found Noro’s address. It turned out that Noro also lived in Carlsbad, about five blocks away, and not in Vista as Scott had thought. Still, it took half a dozen phone calls before I could reach him and then a lot of talking before he agreed to see me.

It was a shabby apartment house on a dead-end street next to the railway tracks. Noro’s apartment was on the first floor — very plain with simple furniture. His wife and son were out. After I introduced myself, his first words to me were, “I think this is useless, you know.”

I asked why. Noro has a thick Russian accent, and his English is weak with pronoun and tense problems and misused words. It made him self-conscious and was another reason he felt unwilling to talk. In addition, his voice sounded tired and joyless.

“Because I cannot stay here. I have a problem. I will stop blacksmith job. I’ve been 20 years doing the same job. My lungs are no good. I’m doing myself injuries. That’s why I stopped working for Mr. Scott. I have black lung. I have been fighting these injuries. It is from the iron. I cannot continue this job. The same job I did for three years — it was working with iron. And I coughed, coughed, coughed, morning and noon. That’s all. I spoke with Mr. Scott yesterday, and I told him that I cannot continue.”

The Coaster was approaching, blowing its horn all the way. We had to raise our voices over the sound. I wondered how many times a day Noro and his family had to put up with this. As the train rushed by and the dishes rattled on the shelves, Noro tried to describe how working with iron and a hot furnace had ruined his lungs.

Although Noro is 42, he looked closer to 50. He is bald and clean-shaven with a round pale face, dark eyes, and a dour smile. He wore a blue shirt with a pattern of blue leaves and long blue jean shorts. He coughed constantly and covered his mouth. Often he laughed, but it wasn’t the laugh of someone who found anything funny. His laugh was just a deeper level of seriousness. We sat at a small dining room table, and again he made it clear that he didn’t want to talk to me, that he had nothing to say. “My career was over a long time ago,” he said.

However, when I asked him what sort of work he did in Russia and in Europe, his mood improved a little. “Same job,” he told me. “I show you.”

Noro brought out a scrapbook of photographs of his work, some no more than snapshots. He was proud of it and he grew more animated. Although as he kept talking, he also kept coughing, kept stumbling over his words, searching for the right one, which always seemed out of reach.

“All solid material. These are fence. This is a window grill with a rose, all with iron, and I designed them. All with flowers, iron.”

The work was very intricate, baroque fencing with careful swirls, small delicate flowers ringed by leaves with a fragile tracery of veins. I asked if he worked with coal, but he misunderstood me, thinking I had said “cold.”

“No, no, first of all you must put the iron to the forge, then when you have the rod red-hot, then you can hammer it, then with the template you make the flower — you use a flat bar, an inch by a half-inch, an inch by three-eighths. All of it is handwork with a hammer and anvil. You can make leaves with the power hammer, but not the flowers.”

Noro showed a gate that he had done in Long Beach before he had worked with Scott. As with Schraeder and Rochin, there was the impression of weightlessness. I asked Noro if he considered himself an artist. He found it a foolish question.

“Yes,” he said emphatically, “I see myself as an artist.”

He moved on to show me staircases: elaborate, forged work, often with leaves and flowers and intertwining vines moving up marble stairways.

“This isn’t Russia. Russian people have no interest in this work. This is Europe — the Czech Republic and in Germany. Here is a door, the design is like a coffee tree, the leaves. [The door is covered with leaves.] This is with a power hammer. First of all, you can put the flat bar in the forge, and then with the round hammer you hammer it and make many leaves. Without the power hammer you cannot make similar leaves. It’s too hard a job. Even ten blacksmiths together if they hammer it cannot. Big hammer, five tons.

“This is a church, a door for a church — a wreath of leaves with pomegranates. It’s my design. The priest was very happy. And this is a bed that a customer wanted with leaves. Here is another gate with leaves. And flowers, any flowers, no problem, copper or iron. Or dolphins, one customer wanted dolphins.”

The skill of the work, to my eye, often seemed equal to the skill of Schraeder and Rochin, though many times Noro had been working in poor conditions with inferior equipment.

I told him that Scott had said he could copy anything that Scott gave him. Again Noro didn’t completely understand.

“It easy to copy. The Viper Rum was my first statue, because my former boss only liked production work.” Noro laughed his mordant laugh, then coughed and covered his mouth. “They like just production. I like art, but I don’t have more time for art. I am a poor person. I work just for rent, for food. I make little money. Blacksmith job is a hard job, nobody respects it, nobody pays you good pay. Each blacksmith has a lung problem. In the working career, there’s always dust, bad working conditions, noise.”

Now Noro said he was going temporarily to Los Angeles, but not to work. He knew people there, knew a doctor. He hoped to recuperate. “I have this problem. I cannot work for a long time, maybe for three or four months. Maybe never. Every day I cough, more and more. One week ago I had bleeding with cough. Even I have fever sometimes. At night. All over craft, all over craft.”

At first I didn’t understand him, then I realized that he meant that his life as a blacksmith was over — that what he saw as his art was over.

“You can love the craft, but when you have no work, you cannot love not doing the craft. I love doing what I do.” He stopped and looked away, frustrated that he couldn’t find the right words. “I have many mistakes. I don’t like talking. One more question. Mr. Scott told me about your article. I think this is not what I need. Please go. Later maybe, three or four months, I can talk. Maybe later I will have less problems. Now I cannot work. I had a long history. I learned from college. All my life — 20 years — I have worked in bad conditions. Blacksmith job is a dying craft. Ironwork is being replaced by plastic. This is a plastic century. It is no good for iron. The 21st Century will be a plastic century. From the end of the 19th Century the blacksmith job began to go down. There are many reasons. First of all, people like the different gates or screens or statues or something, but they don’t have the money to pay for it. And second, it’s a hard job. Nobody pays you. I have $10 per hour. And it ruins my health. I could cut grass. That’s right, I could tend to the grass right here. The Mexican who cuts the grass here — he has $10. I have $10. I have a hard job, which damages my body, and inside the shop it is hot. Very hot. And the Mexican cuts the grass gets $10 and has fresh air. That’s why all blacksmiths quit or die young. Nobody is left. Why do they pay no one? Europe too. Slowly, all the blacksmiths, they close their shops. They clean the inside of the shops and open fast-food restaurants. [Again the mordant laugh and the fit of coughing.] In Czech Republic, I have a friend, a blacksmith. He closed his blacksmith shop and opened fast food and sells hot dogs. Nobody pays you a good pay. In the factory, the man who cleaned the floor got $10 and the blacksmith got $10. Cut grass, $10; blacksmith, $10. That’s right. This is a travesty.”

But, I said, there must be something you love about it.

Noro gave me a look that suggested I wasn’t very bright. “Okay, first of all, if you like art, then somebody must support your family. You don’t get money for art, and so you need money to support your family. And you don’t have time for art, because art takes time. Because it’s detailed, it’s not fast. One post here, one post there, put chain — that’s it. That’s fast, but it’s not art. [He laughed.] But a statue is more detailed. Detail is important. Anyway, blacksmith’s craft began dying 100 years ago. In Russia it is no more. In Europe it will go soon. In United States the same. In California — I checked the Internet — there are only three blacksmiths’ shops — one in Monterey and two others. That’s it for my interview. My interview is over. Trust my interview.”

We looked at each other. I realized that Noro knew nothing of the blacksmiths’ association in California with its 600 members, that he was ignorant of many things. He had never heard of Schraeder or Rochin and that they had more work than they could handle, didn’t know that the national organization was growing, not shrinking. He didn’t realize there was an increasing market for ornamental iron; that, actually, a blacksmith with his skills ought to be in great demand. But when I tried to tell Noro some of this, he only shook his head. For instance, he couldn’t believe that American blacksmiths didn’t suffer from black lung. And when I told him that Schraeder liked working with and teaching young blacksmiths, he could hardly credit it. His skepticism seemed to rise out of his illness and deep depression. He simply appeared to have no hope.

“I cannot see any college or art college teaching it here or in Europe. They have no blacksmith teachers. They have just glass, wood. They don’t have iron. That is why this craft is finished. Nobody likes it. Young people don’t like it. When young people learn about the problems — the lung problems and money problems — they run away and look for other jobs. They learn, but they don’t use it. Actually, this is an economic problem. If somebody paid well for the job, then the craft would go up, because it is a hard job, and with more money and more responsibility the quality would get better. But $10 is nothing. This came from Mr. Scott. This is what he paid me.”

Later, when I asked Scott about this, he was rather defensive, saying that $10 was Noro’s take-home pay after the taxes and benefits had been taken out, while Noro’s previous employer hadn’t taken out for anything. He added that if he happened to sell one of Noro’s candelabras or wine racks or statues, he would give Noro a percentage of the profit, perhaps half.

I thought of the statues that Scott wanted Noro to do — Stevie Ray Vaughan and Vincent van Gogh — life-size, forged-iron statues. Grueling work, Scott had called it, probably five months on each.

So you won’t do those statues for Scott? I asked.

Noro shook his head. “Maybe later, not right now. Later. Maybe in the future I can work for Mr. Scott, but now I cannot. I have a fever and I cough. Anyway, if I make a gate, then my gate is for Mr. Scott. But if I make my own gate and it is from my idea, then how do I sell it? That’s why the customer cannot pay me, because I’m working for Mr. Scott and I get $10 an hour. It’s Mr. Scott’s gate. So it’s a hard job. That’s my last opinion — it’s a hard job with little money, that’s why those blacksmiths run.”

Noro got to his feet. That was all the time he was going to give me. We shook hands at the door and it clicked shut behind me. When I got to my car across the street, I glanced back over my shoulder and saw Noro looking from the window, his round, pale, expressionless face. Then he let the curtain swing back across the glass.

I thought of what Schraeder had said about how lucky he had been always to land on his feet, how the money always seemed to come when he needed it. Then there was Rochin’s ability to do whatever he wanted and his ambition to create pure art pieces. Both men saw themselves as growing in their craft, as improving at what they did, even though they were already at the top of their profession. And here was Noair Khatchatrian, a man of tremendous skill, coughing and spitting blood and envying the man who mowed the lawn.

“All over craft,” he had said, “all over craft.” Which had two meanings — his life and work was all about the craft, and for him, at least, the craft was finished.

Three months later, I called Kent Scott from the East Coast to see if he had heard from Noro. “I haven’t heard a peep,” said Scott, “and he hasn’t returned my calls. But Mike saw him.”

Mike works for Scott, and he got on the line. He was optimistic. “I ran into him last week. Noro looks a lot better and says he feels better. He’s got his color back. He seemed happy. He’s got a temp job at a car wash, and he’s training to be a truck driver. As for blacksmithing, he just doesn’t want to do it anymore. Here’s what he says, ‘I’ve done blacksmithing for 20 years. I make things for the boss, the boss makes lots of money and I make very little.’ That’s an exact quote.” n

— Stephen Dobyns

Stephen Dobyns has been a reporter for the Detroit News and is the author of 10 volumes of poetry and 20 novels. His most recent work of fiction is a book of short stories, Eating Naked (Picador).

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