Exploring the 2023 Cambria Iron Conference with Patrick Quinn
by Yamila Audisio
The third edition of the Cambria Iron Conference will take place on September 16th, 2023 at the Center for Metal Arts campus located in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. This year’s featured demonstrator is Pete Matilla, a blacksmith and sculptor based in Tasmania, Australia. Furthermore, the from CORE to SURFACE exhibition will highlight the forged metalwork of fifteen artists. The jurors are Pete Matilla, Rebekah Frank, and Greg Geghner.
Patrick Quinn, the executive director of the Center for Metal Arts, provides valuable information about the conference’s inception, purpose, and significance for the blacksmith community. Additionally, he highlights the positive impact it has had on the Johnstown Area.
What inspired you and the school to host this conference?
The idea of having this conference emerged after we restored the Chambersburg 3000 hammer, on our own, and once we fixed it and used it, it felt that it was time to get the community over here to see it running. Also, to give some folks who have always wanted to work on a large scale the opportunity to use it. So the conference spanned from the restoration of the hammer, which we didn’t have a timeline for, we just did it, and then we just thought, let’s invite everyone. Part of our mission has always been to open the Blacksmith Shop up for community involvement. We want qualified professionals to use the equipment to make sculptures and contemporary forge work. Moreover, our goal is for the greater forging community to be able to see and appreciate it and be part of its ultimate restoration and reuse.
How does this conference align with the school’s mission?
The school’s goal is the complete restoration and reuse of the blacksmith shop as a functioning forge shop for modern blacksmiths to work creatively. This is the first step towards that grand plan and bigger vision of community involvement and restoration. We are opening our doors to the forging community, so qualified artists, (from all over the world) that want to work on a large scale, can do so. Moreover, it’s been an exciting event for the Johnstown community because this facility has been behind closed doors for the majority of the life of the steel mills, so it is compelling to see both communities coming together to appreciate it.
What’s the process involved in selecting the conference’s featured demonstrator?
The main criteria for selecting the demonstrator are professionalism, maturity, and someone who can handle such a new and unique sort of forging experience, which is sculptural forging and large-scale forging equipment. Safety is also a concern, so it helps if one is familiar with large scale to some degree, not many are at this scale, but if you are comfortable in front of large hammers, or if you have worked with tools under the hammer, you are more than competent. Since the restoration process of the shop is getting started and is not yet a fully functioning workshop, I am conscious about who I am inviting to demonstrate, in the sense that I had to convey to them about thinking about a one-day demonstration at the shop without power, so they have to design appropriately to execute the demonstration. Thus, the blacksmiths are creating a one-piece forging sculpture where they don’t have to assemble parts or do not involve complicated joinery techniques, because we don’t have all the conveniences that most modern shops have, yet.
How are you engaging with industry professionals and experts, to ensure the conference offers valuable insights and networking opportunities?
The conference is an opportunity to appreciate the craft and to support CMA’s mission. It is a community gathering of like-minded amateurs and professionals who want to participate at any level in the mission of our institution. The conference is about celebrating the history of the shop and Johnstown’s steel mills, it is about celebrating our mission and the work accomplished so far in that facility. These accomplishments wouldn’t be possible without the greater forging community, so it is a chance for all of us to get together and celebrate that.
How does hosting this conference contribute to the economic development and growth of the Johnstown area?
It contributes greatly to the Johnstown community just from the fact that people that come here stimulate the local economy over and over again. Johnstown has a lot of great things going on, new restaurants opening up, shops for locally made things, events about the city and heritage, lodging, and so much more. This is an event that brings over 100 people who will be eating at all the different restaurants, shopping at all the local places, visiting the Flood Museum or the Heritage Discovery Center, getting books about Johnstown, t-shirts, and more.
Overall, the Center for Metal Arts and this conference bring a positive public image to the city of Johnstown. People who visit here are not bogged down by the loss of the steel industry and the loss of jobs. When they come here they see a beautiful city, with a rich heritage, that is experiencing a great rebirth specifically in the arts and crafts community, and they leave Johnstown and go to all four corners of the world singing its praises, and that is a really important part of the city’s rebirth, and rebranding.
How does the conference help raise awareness about the rich cultural heritage and history of metalworking in the Johnstown area?
That’s what makes the Center for Metal Arts such an appropriate fit for this location, the work we do is closely aligned with the heritage of the city and the facilities we occupy. When you come here you can be excited about artists working in industrial equipment but also appreciate Johnstown’s incredible impact on the iron and steel industry, the industrial revolution, and in the expansion of this country. The conference is a great combination of appreciating the past and celebrating the bright future.
More broadly, a lot of what we do here is definitely about creating a very strong forging educational program while reusing and restoring the blacksmith shop. The blacksmith shop has done a valuable lifetime’s work of forging parts for the industry and helping America expand, from the invention of rolling mills that rolled the beams that allowed us to build up and instead out to the steel rails that allowed us to expand to the West. Things like that are super important, as these hammers have served a lifetime of work, then they had a good rest from 1992 until 2018. What is exciting about this is the rebirth of these tools for creativity, education, and historic preservation. If you think about the art community and sculpture and public art in America, there are only a few blacksmiths doing large-scale work because not many have access to hammers of this size, so there is a bright future as a shop available to other artists.