The Taper and the Scroll
Blacksmith James Viste holds up a knife he’s made and notes that the blade, which appears razor thin to the naked eye, contains layer upon layer of welded steel. It is glorious. Sometimes a maker practices his craft so well that we immediately understand his work as “in the tradition” — part of a long and storied history yet somehow completely new. This is one of those times.
The full-time technician in CCS’ Crafts Department and an instructor in the Metalsmithing section, Viste first joined the College for Creative Studies two decades ago. And his enthusiasm is contagious: if you don’t leave his shop wanting to learn blacksmithing, check your pulse. It happened to him as an undergrad in Wisconsin. He intended to study painting — until he took a metals class. He never looked back, eventually completing his MFA at Cranbrook. You get the feeling that, for Viste, blacksmithing isn’t just a craft. It’s a calling.
“I enjoy all aspects of blacksmithing, really. I enjoy doing decorative iron. I enjoy restoration — discovering moments in time gone by, seeing things as I work on a historical piece,” he explains.
“I come back to the knife, though, for many reasons. It’s a great instructional form. I always say that knives are the jewelry of blacksmithing because they have the fine detail work; it’s not all just grunt work. But I also come back to the knife out of respect for how I started because my first teacher was a knife maker.”
That continuity from teacher to student is evident not only in Viste’s work but in the ethos of the Crafts Department where, he points out, the faculty are a spark. “And after that spark, students, among themselves, will start to build their own department. They become colleagues who may spend the rest of their lives working and talking to each other, sharing and building on each other’s ideas.”
The department rotates several blacksmithing courses, including contemporary and traditional decorative iron and toolmaking for students who want to make tools to use in their own craft. “A glass student might want to make their own glass jacks and shears,” says Viste, “or a wood student might want to make their own chisels.
“This class and all the classes are individual based. I emphasize that I’m here to help you produce what you are interested in.”
But every student makes the same start, according to Viste. “The taper and the scroll are the first things you learn in blacksmithing: how to draw a line and how to manipulate it.” Those techniques lead to everything else.
“People think it’s work,” he says, smiling, “but I could do this all day.”