Forged in Fire: The Explorations of Artist-Blacksmith Russell Jaqua

After receiving serious shrapnel wounds in Vietnam and spending six months in the hospital at Fort Dix, New Jersey, twenty-three-year-old Russell Jaqua went searching for himself by traveling to Africa. The following is an excerpt from an early entry of his journal, written as he journeyed by boat from the Canary Islands to Spanish Sahara.

December 26, 1970

I hold onto the hope that if I keep trucking and am not turned around or put down, I will find my place in the sun, my niche. I know that it is up to me to find it and that there is no guarantee and that it is not easy to find. I have known for some time just how incredibly low man can go. No one can experience a war and not know. What I have learned in Viet Nam is that there is nothing between me and the bottom, but my own will. The Big Question is what am I going to do with myself in regards to a vocation. At one time in my life, not so very long ago, it seemed to me that this question would more or less work itself out. But so far, I have decided on nothing particular. I cannot say I want to be an X when I grow up.

But I have come up with a few requirements:

  1.  it does not leave me in a corner.
  2. that it involves an element of beauty.
  3. that I work for myself.
  4. that it supplements travel.
  5. it doesn’t necessarily have to make me rich.
  6. involves a certain amount of physical labor.
  7. that it enables me to be close to nature.

Artist-blacksmith Russell Jaqua, a leading artist in what came to be known as The New Iron Age of the American Craft Movement, was often asked to discuss his primary influences.

Jaqua’s response always included the extraordinary residency that Centrum provided him early in his career—a residency which hallowed him to develop the unique vocabulary and style of smithing that impacted an entire generation of artist-smiths and helped create a new genre of forged metal sculpture.

Jaqua came to his craft relatively late in life.

In Europe, blacksmith apprentices begin training early in their teen years. Jaqua’s route was far more circuitous. Before reporting to Army boot camp in 1968, he’d hitched from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Alaska to Mexico, knowing he might never get the chance to see North America again.

During this journey he discovered Port Townsend and promised himself that, should he survive Vietnam, he would one day return to the Olympic Peninsula.

He used to joke that his first intimate encounter with metal, later to be his chosen artistic medium, was with the shrapnel that almost took his life.

He managed to salvage one of the pieces that landed next to him on that day in June 1969, and he kept it on his design table always as a reminder of the strange beauty of such unforgiving material.

Jaqua was touched by its power and his peers would say that his relationship to “mineral” was like what others were able to feel for flora or fauna. He was, in a sense, grateful that the metal had spared him and that gratitude grew into love.

Following six months in the hospital, Jaqua traveled to Africa in search of a soul-healing. He lived in Liberia for two years and there was exposed to a traditional culture that believed that red iron oxide, found in rich deposits across the African continent, was the earth’s blood.

Local legends of origin placed the blacksmith and the transformative process of working metal—in particular iron—at the center of an ancestral cosmology. There, every task associated with the working of iron is tied to fertility and describes an act of birth.

In his mid-twenties, deeply broken by the violence of war, Russell experienced a spiritual rebirth in the traditions and worldview of the Liberian tribe who adopted him.

Years later, when Centrum invited him to set up a forge in a building at Fort Worden, he named it Nimba Forge, after a sacred mountain that is composed of 90% iron ore on the border between Liberia and Guinea.

In Africa, Jaqua became a bead-trader and this naturally led him to an interest in jewelry metalsmithing.

Upon returning to the United States, he won a scholarship to Penland Craft School in North Carolina. While there, the director of the school encouraged him to experiment with an old forge that had been abandoned at the campus, providing Jaqua with a limitless supply of coal.

Jaqua often mused that this generous act was the angel that helped him into his artistic life, while the Centrum artist residency was the haven that allowed him to practice it.

Though he continued to study the precise cold work of jewelry metalsmithing, his passion for the elemental contact between fire, metal, and anvil of the forging process called him into a new direction.

He left the school and apprenticed himself to an architectural blacksmith in Maryland. When he had learned the basics of the trade, he drove his van—packed with his African beads, jewelry workbench, and a blacksmith anvil—across the country to Port Townsend. He had returned to the promises of the Olympic Peninsula.

Jaqua’s arrival in Port Townsend in the summer of 1975 could not have been better timed.

The creative partnership between Centrum and Fort Worden had begun in 1973 and Jaqua immediately sought an interview with Joe Wheeler, Centrum’s founding excutive director. Wheeler invited him to do a demo-class workshop in September, 1975, and its success led Centrum to offer him space to set up a working forge.

It would be hard to overstate the impact that Centrum’s offer of space and time had on Jaqua’s artistic development. Simply put, because of Centrum, he made sculpture instead of jewelry.

He was given the storage building across the road from McCurdy Pavilion and Nimba Forge was born. The size of the building made it possible for him to install a Nazel 3B power hammer, which he purchased off a Navy shipyard. This industrial hammer, weighing almost 11,000 pounds, put at his disposal enormous power to work very large bars and plates of mild steel. The freedom of low overhead meant he could spend literally thousands of hours experimenting with how to apply such power to sculptural purposes.

Jaqua was a pioneer in the development of a technique called open-die forging, in which he learned to work the hot metal (usually at a temperature of 2,000 degrees) free-form, allowing a very organic relationship between his control of the hammer strokes and the growth of the metal. Rather than the static cut-outs and welded parts that characterized metal sculpture at the time, he experimented with form realized from growth out of a volume of metal and developed a bold style of heavily textured surfaces that the hammer’s power made possible. Nothing illustrates this better than the first major piece that emerged from Nimba Forge, “Kelp Bed.”

It took Jaqua five years to complete the piece. First exhibited in San Francisco, it was heralded as jewelry in heroic proportions. In the first five years of his residency, Russell learned to apply the precision detail he had mastered at Penland to the large bar and plate material that the Nazel hammer allowed him to form.

The American Craft Museum invited him to participate in their inaugural exhibit, “Craft Today: the Poetry of the Physical,” and the aesthetic of open-die power-hammer processes invented a new genre: forged metal sculpture.

“Kelp Bed” is now considered a pivotal piece in the founding generation of The New Iron Age, and its inspiration came from the North Beach walks that Russell took while his forge was heating up at his shop in Fort Worden.

In addition to providing the conditions for genre-busting experimentation, Jaqua’s residency at Centrum made a historic contribution to the development of a Northwest artist-blacksmith community. Because he had a space that could accommodate multiple working stations, he was able to host regional conferences of working smiths.

In 1982, he sponsored the first such conference, which brought European-trained mastersmith Francis Whittaker to teach workshops to the newly formed Northwest Blacksmith Association. Throughout the years that Russell remained in residency, Nimba Forge was a center of blacksmith workshops and conferences.

Following Jaqua’s death in June 2006, extraordinary tributes from working smiths around the world expressed the far-reaching impact that the Fort Worden conferences had on an entire generation of smiths.

In 1991, Russell moved Nimba Forge to a large shop that he built in Glen Cove Industrial Park. There, he was able to acquire an even larger power hammer, the Chambersburg 750, which weighs 38,000 pounds.

In 1995, Russell opened the Jaqua Gallery near the Rose Theatre in downtown Port Townsend, and there exhibited his sculpture and furniture as well as remarkable pieces made by other artist-blacksmiths in the Northwest.

He met Willene Van Blair when he hired her to work the Saturday shift. For their first date, Russell took Willene on a tour of his favorite Fort Worden trees. They married in 1998.

Jaqua’s public work in Port Townsend includes the sculpture along the Larry Scott Trail titled “Leafwing,” the railing for the new City Hall Lobby, the Malcolm Bruce Fountain Courtyard at Jefferson Healthcare, the Heron Weathervane at Haines Street Park & Ride, the Fire-Doors in the upstairs reading room of the Port Townsend Library, the Courtyard of Grace at Grace Lutheran Church, and many private pieces of ornamental and decorative ironwork, which he liked to call architectural jewelry.

In August, 2004, exactly twenty-nine years after his initial interview with Joe Wheeler, Jaqua’s blacksmithing days were bested by the progression of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). However, he continued designing until the last week of his life in June, 2006.

While writing his own obituary he was especially eager that Centrum be recognized for the central role it had played in forming him as an artist.

He could no longer speak, but when asked to clarify what kind of role Centrum really had, he wrote: “they gave me a shop and they left me alone.” He felt this to be an extraordinary act of trust.

“Centrum’s gift of space and time to Russell Jaqua was the alchemy that turned a heart-wounded veteran into a creator of beauty that will outlive us all,” Willene Jaqua says.