A handmade tale: Can craft and commerce coexist on the Monticello Artisan Trail?

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Blacksmith Gerald Boggs hammers out a perfect circle. Photo: Will Kerner Blacksmith Gerald Boggs hammers out a perfect circle. Photo: Will Kerner

I am sick to death of reading about food. Over the past decade, the preciosity of the new approach to cuisine has contaminated almost everything. Don’t get me wrong. We certainly could use a rethink of the way we produce and consume what we eat. But does it have to come with so much Church Lady attitude?

The self-congratulation of working with “reclaimed” cuts of meat. The sanctimony of putting the word “heirloom” in front of the word “zucchini.” “Slow” whatever. The preening one-upmanship of celebrity foodies as they slum their way to culinary authenticity followed by throngs of gastronomic status seekers.

I am completely over it. But of course, I’m caught up in it as well. And so, as I pull into the Spudnuts parking lot at 8:45 on a miraculously clear Friday morning at the end of a sodden week, I find myself wondering how they source their potato flour. Then I think that someone should just shoot me already.

I’ll excuse myself the momentary mental lapse by confessing that I’ve been watching too much Portlandia and preparing to go on a full-fledged, day-long authenticity hunt on the Monticello Artisan Trail. At least one of my companions actually remembers the Foxfire movement in Appalachia, rubbed elbows with real live back-to-the-landers, and may have actually engaged in a little of it himself. I’m thinking about the selling of authenticity, and the typewriter in my head is stamping out the word “blowback” on the mostly blank page of my morning mind.

The first time I fired a handgun (a .357 magnum revolver), it literally hit me full in the face. The bullet exploded out of the gun, and the scalding propellant gases and particulates blew backwards to deliver a hot toxic slap right to the kisser. Semi-automatics divert some of that return energy to re-cock the gun. But with an open-backed six shooter there’s nothing standing between you and the repercussions. It’s not a pleasant sensation.

Blowback. That’s what we’re experiencing now. For a couple of hundred years we’ve been sacrificing tradition and quality at the altar of the cheap, the shiny, and the convenient. It’s left us with a serious reality deficit. Slavish foodies, suburban craft-brew tourists, hipster lifestyle faddists are all, understandably, looking for the same thing—a little shot of the veritable, the deep, the true in a world that’s lousy with malls and minivans and megachurches and disposable everything.

Capitalism, though,  is fully automatic. It captures blowback, not just to re-cock the gun, but to effortlessly fire the next round. Like “green” before it, “craft” and its cousins “artisanal” and “slow” and “heirloom” have now been co-opted to provide new opportunities to ramp up sales, to get us all to spend our conscientious dollars to feed the corporation. When Dominos is printing the word artisan on a billion pizza boxes, maybe it’s time to take a closer look at whether craft and authenticity can still mean anything in our marketing-driven world.

Maybe, in short, it’s time for a bag of spudnuts and a road trip.

Gerald Boggs of Wayfarer Forge gets to work early in his Afton shop to avoid the heat of the day. About half of Boggs' sales come from fairs and markets; the other half are custom orders for things like fireplace screens and railings. Photo: Will Kerner
Gerald Boggs of Wayfarer Forge gets to work early in his Afton shop to avoid the heat of the day. About half of Boggs’ sales come from fairs and markets; the other half are custom orders for things like fireplace screens and railings. Photo: Will Kerner

 

‘A’ is for artisan

Wham. The hammer comes down with a dull clang and a small shower of orange sparks flares and dies off the hot metal. It’s 10am and blacksmith Gerald Boggs has been busy for the past couple of hours forging iron bottle openers. You heard me. Forging. Iron. Bottle openers.

I’m standing in his shop with John Conover, a lawyer at the Legal Aid and Justice Center, longtime Democratic Party stalwart, and former owner of Papercraft Printing, which used to reside just off the Downtown Mall. He is asking Boggs where he gets his coal. (West Virginia, it turns out, “not that dirty stuff from Wyoming.”) Will Kerner, photographer, co-founder and current board chair of Live Arts, co-founder of the LOOK3 Festival, is snapping photos as Boggs talks and works.

Boggs’ home and workshop are tucked into a pleasant little bend of the road in Afton, and the forge in the corner is boosting the mid-summer swelter with a couple thousand degrees of coke-fired heat. The five other bottle openers he’s produced already are shaped like squat railroad spikes. The piece he pulls out of the embers now is a more slender, tapered ingot that he is in the process of turning into a han d-chiseled wizard complete with a beard and a pointed hat.

“Nobody likes a straight line,” Boggs says, holding the glowing orange metal over the anvil with a pair of tongs. “The human eye doesn’t respond to it.”

With a few deft blows of the hammer, what had been a straight spike of iron takes on the shape of an arching curve in one direction capped by a delicate spiral scrolling back in the opposite direction. Wizard hat. Damn.

The words deft and delicate don’t often apply to a strapping guy wielding a 10-pound hunk of metal on the end of a stick, but Boggs earns them. He looks as if he might be made of iron himself. Twenty-five years of swinging a hammer and hauling coal and metal and setting up a portable forge at craft fairs and farmers markets will do that to you. But it will also give you skills.

“I made all the tongs you see,” he says, gesturing to a rack of about 15 of them. “I made the forge. I made about half the hammers, all the chisels and punches and stuff. I mean, what’s a blacksmith if he doesn’t make his own tools?”

Using those tools, Boggs puts the twist in the hat, chisels a few stars into it, creates a face with eyes and a moustache and a beard, opens a slot in the metal with a punch, and with something called a drift coaxes the slot into the classic church key shape. He then scrubs the hot metal with a brass wire brush, which imparts a slightly golden cast, and coats the whole thing with a paste wax which smokes and sets as the iron continues to cool.

When he’s done, he holds up his work to the light. It is beautiful. Rough-hewn, but also surprisingly detailed, considering that he whacked out its facets with a bunch of dull metal implements. About half of Boggs’ income comes from the bottle openers, hooks, drawer pulls, and door handles he makes to sell at markets and shows. The other half comes from custom orders for wrought iron tables and fireplace screens and railings.

Who buys his stuff? “They’re people who want something made by hand. And not the ambiguous, fluffy use of hand-made. Truly made by hand.”

Boggs’ craftsmanship is impressive. But I’ll admit to being skeptical. The idea of an artisan trail has a kind of tourist board, marketing confection feel to it. And it seems like you can’t turn around in Central Virginia these days without finding somebody slapping up a few signs and a website, drawing a map, and waiting for the tourists to start spending. The Brew Ridge Trail. The Monticello Wine Trail. Next week, I’m launching my own tourism trail, the Trail of Trails, which will no doubt in future years be remembered by its back seat, car seat-restricted victims as a kind of metaphoric Trail of Tears commemorating a prolonged, enforced roadside encounter with the real.

A couple of weeks before the road trip, I interviewed Sherri Smith, director of the Artisans Center of Virginia, at the organization’s offices overlooking the new Native American Village at the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton. The Artisans Center runs the trail and is tasked with supporting the state’s small artisan businesses. Smith is a market development pro, an artist herself, and an enthusiast. That enthusiasm is infectious.

“The businesses that we represent are so amazingly creative,” she told me. The center’s mission is “to embrace that innovation and creativity and try to figure out how we can start to stabilize it and help the small businesses that are the people who make our communities interesting and rich and wonderful.”

The Artisans Center was formed in 1997 with the original goal of creating a series of retail gallery hubs around the state to showcase the work of local craftspersons. But the craft center model suffered in the financial crisis of 2008, and the idea arose of developing a series of trails with a more localized, grass-roots feel. According to Smith, “the idea for the trail system actually originated in northwestern North Carolina with ‘Hand Made in America’.”

Living here in Virginia, you can begin to develop a bit of a complex about our neighbor to the south. Sure we were here first, and we’ve got all these presidents and all. But it seems like North Carolina is otherwise constantly beating us to the punch. More tobacco, better barbecue, the pork industry, the whole research triangle thing, the furniture industry, basketball. Now the trails idea. Hell, I’ve driven through North Carolina, and damnit if the grass isn’t actually greener.

Be that as it may, the first Virginia artisan trails were developed in the southwest part of the state, where the landscape and local heritage are rich and the economy is poor. There is now a total of 15 trails wending through southside Virginia, operating under the collective name of ’Round the Mountain.

The Monticello Artisan Trail was the first effort to bring that model to another part of the state. It covers Albemarle and Nelson counties, and its roster encompasses not just traditional craft businesses like pottery and textile and glass blowing, but also agri-businesses like orchards and wineries, restaurants and brewpubs, and B&Bs and tourist information centers. The goal is to build a self-reinforcing community of small businesses.

“When we go in to build a trail it isn’t just about identifying people and marketing them,” Smith explained. “It’s about getting them connected to one another. To strengthen one another. The way we look at it, when we build a trail it’s development. Community development. Once we launch it, it’s tourism. It’s marketing. It’s getting people out there.”

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