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Style · November 29, 2012

“Artist-blacksmith” returns with show in The Plains

Photo/Greg Huddleston
Nol Putnam moved his forge to Rappahannock County 11 years ago after two decades in The Plains, where he made big pieces, including iron doors for The National Cathedral in Washington.
His new work in includes this sentinel.
Photo/Greg Huddleston
Mr. Putnam served in the Army and taught school before becoming a blacksmith.
I knew I wanted to work with my hands but wasn’t sure of the direction until I began reading a book on blacksmithing.
— Nol Putnam
“Nol Visits His Old Haunts”
• What: Recent works by artist-blacksmith Nol Putnam

• Where: Youngblood Art Studio, 6480 Main Street, The Plains

• When: Opening reception 5 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1; show also open Saturday, Dec. 8

• Website:

• Phone: 540-270-0402 or 540-219-9504
Artists speak through their art using many different languages.

Nol Putnam, a self-described artist-blacksmith, speaks the language of iron and steel. His art, bowing only to gravity, is three-dimensional and born from the elements. At White Oak Forge near Flint Hill, Mr. Putnam harnesses the elements and uses his artistic vision to create sculptural designs that are elegant, timeless and sometimes whimsical.

Among his recent pieces, one finds:

• A pair of iron candlesticks each held aloft by a chicken.

• A quietly elegant sculpture of embracing leaves inspired by a single Japanese maple leaf.

• A curvilinear piece of iron passing through itself in an abstraction of wind-driven energy.

• “The Sentinels,” tall sculptures for the landscape (more about these later) and other pieces designed by the artist on his journey of creative exploration.

Mr. Putnam will show his latest creations this Saturday at Youngblood Art Studio in The Plains, where an opening reception will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. in the space previously occupied by the artist. He worked metal at his forge in The Plains from 1982 to 2001. With that in mind, his show is entitled, “Nol Visits His Old Haunts.”

Talent such as this deserves a large stage, and it has often been given one. Mr. Putnam was commissioned by The National Cathedral a number of years ago to design and create two sets of iron doors. With intricate patterns based on historical designs, the doors represent the masterpiece work of a master craftsman.

Such commissions begin for Mr. Putnam with research in the library –– the library to some degree, to be found in his head. As another artist recently told me, “If you intend to become the best artist you can be, you must first know about the very best art the world has already produced.”

So it is with Mr. Putnam. After 40 years in blacksmithing, he knows his art and its place in the history of the world.

So historical research is the starting point. Perhaps just as interestingly, the design process sometimes evolves through Mr. Putnam’s dreams.

“I often dream in the early morning hours; perhaps a decorative element will appear in my dreams so I will quickly jot it down in my journal.”

Later, the artist will sketch the idea on a large sheet of paper.

“The trick, then, is to translate the two-dimensional design into the three-dimensional format to see if it holds together,” he says.

Mr. Putnam spent his first 20 years at the forge working on what he terms “the big stuff,” pieces that marry function with design, such as the cathedral doors mentioned above. He has had many commissions for large iron gates for estates, elaborate railings for stairs, railings for balconies and other works whose designs were dependent on the architecture to which the pieces were to be affixed. He also focused in those years on what he calls “house jewelry,” pieces like wall sconces and other decorative elements.

Another sort of challenge has come from commissions for large pieces to be integrated into the natural landscape. One example is a set of handrails, organic and free-flowing from the earth, commissioned for a Piedmont Environmental Council memorial garden on Paris Mountain. These railings illustrate as much as any other pieces, the very close relationship Mr. Putnam sees between man, his spirit, and the natural world. Mr. Putnam says he finds the greatest challenges in curved pieces that require precise mathematical calculations to “know” the grace and elegance the curve should have.

In the last 10 years, Mr. Putnam has turned from creating large works to focusing on smaller, more sculptural pieces, many of which will be featured in his upcoming show. One such series is “The Sentinels,” pieces Mr. Putnam designed for the landscape.

In Mr. Putnam’s own words:

“Created in the spring of 2012, The Sentinels comprise a series of five figures between nine and 12 feet tall. They are forged and fabricated from iron and steel and paint . . .each weighs about 150 pounds . . .”

“Influenced by . . . abstract themes from Georgia O’Keefe, Alexander Calder, and Albert Giacometti, the first sentinel, The Spear Thrower, was finished on April 21. In between forgings, I worked on the details . . . the weapons, the hair, the limbs lost . . . battle weary, they stand guard over the eons, proud creatures, battle streamers flying in the wind, offering protection and vigilance . . . guarding against the great forces of the universe . . . good versus evil, morality over immorality, easing the burden on the people. . . . . offering protection against the ‘dark now rising’ in our land.”

Before working as a blacksmith, Mr. Putnam earned degrees in history and taught at a private boys school in western Massachusetts. One of his most life-altering experiences occurred there when he was assigned to teach a group of Native American students from the western states. This experience he says, “opened my eyes, led me to question my own culture and limited Anglo-view . . . I came to new understanding and found answers to questions like: What is the center of the universe? What is the relationship between people and nature? How are we limited by our culture and the boundaries it imposes?”

Of all of his work Mr. Putnam says he is proudest of his involvement as a teacher and mentor in the lives of those Native American students.

“I sent them home knowing how to survive in our Anglo culture, but at the same time, being no less tribal. To this day, I’m still in touch with them,” he says.

Although he loved teaching, Mr. Putnam found himself in the early 1970s at the end of that part of his journey and searching for something new.

“I knew I wanted to work with my hands,” he says, “but wasn’t sure of the direction until I began reading a book on blacksmithing.”

With that and the mentoring of several supportive people in the field, he was on his way learning the skills needed to master both the craft as well as its art.

“You have to develop your motor skills in any field,” he says, “but you also have to develop your eye.”

The show at Youngblood Gallery offers up wonderfully striking proof that Nol Putnam’s highly honed skills and his well-developed eye join together to create sculptural works in steel and iron that are sure to intrigue and delight while speaking the language of art.
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