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BARRY: I’m Barry Wheeler. B-a-r-r-y W-h-e-e-l-e-r.
BARRY: I guess, usually I’m called blacksmith but, uh, the term metalsmith is more, uh, encompassing, let’s say.
BARRY: Okay, no, I started making things as a kid out of Balsa wood and straight pins, cellophane, glue and whatever and, uh, I really didn’t start into the, uh, well, I’ve always made things but I got hooked on, uh, I think blacksmithing in the, uh, when I got out of the Navy and, uh, 1970. Opened up a small shop in Vermillion in the evenings, a guy gave me a good deal on a space about the size of a one care garage for twenty-five bucks a month on the main drag. He sort of a patron I guess you might say. And, then, uh, I worked that for a few years and, uh, and then went on and got a job at Hail Farm and Village for four years entertaining the masses. Great bunch of people that I ever... best bunch of people that I ever worked with. As a lady once said, uh, at the time I only had a bachelor’s degree, that’s the only thing I got now but I was meeting with the director, excuse me, education, talking with her, she had a PhD in English and we’re kinda talking and she says, you know, we’re just a bunch of educated derelicts here. And, I think, kinda summed it up.
BARRY: I think, uh, it’s been a long time ago but I think it was a trip to Williamsburg, uh, uh, the, the village there and the blacksmith shop. I thought it kind of fascinating and stuff and, uh, how these guys could work it. Barrel making wasn’t my shtick or cabinet making so I, I just kinda pondered that for a while. The strange thing is that I, I borrowed and anvil and I borrowed a forge, and old... it’s called a rivet forge, about the size of a cheap barbecue on three legs. And, uh, it took me two and half hours to light my first fire. Now, its ten minutes but wow I thought maybe this is not such a good idea. But, once it got going it was... it worked out and here I am.
BARRY: I started out doing kinda more of the traditional stuff, smaller things, railings, uh, mailbox stands, uh, plant stand, hardware and that kind of stuff. And, it, it did okay but, uh, learned something on it but, uh, I realized that, uh, a lot of people do that and do it a lot better than I can or want to do. So, I, I kinda finally, uh, had an epiphany about in 1976 at a, uh, one of the first big blacksmith conferences in the U.S. through ABANA, Artists Blacksmiths Association of North America, Carbondale 1976, uh, University of Illinois at Carbondale. And, was really inspired by, uh, one particular gentleman, Tom Breadlow from Tucson, Arizona. And, uh, that, that kinda really started me into what I really wanted to do and got comfortable at it. Somebody asked me once, you know, a lady said, you know, I’d like to know what goes on in your head and then in the same breath she says, maybe I don’t. So, that’s about it.
BARRY: Uh, as I said, this thing in Carbondale, oh, I know what it was, I like things that have a mechanism to it, moving parts period. Uh, I made a, uh, about just been a few years ago, I made a lamp. It was a nightlight with a couple of gremlins in it and I thought, that’s kinda neat and a friend of mine and a good customers looked down inside of it and he says, it dudn’t do anything. Well, okay, maybe not everything does... does light up, I’ll give him that and, uh, but, uh, a lot of these things get kinda complicated I guess you’d... to me they’re complicated but that’s the whole thing. Once it’s done the fun’s over with. Uh, getting the idea is tough but it can come from... I was once inspired by, uh, uh, a Mennonite ladies, Nike shoes at the supermarket, it had something to do with shoes and these kinda looked like clod hoppers and I thought, well, there’s an idea and, uh, uh, you know, so Rose Metal in Cleveland it’s an old time blacksmith shop, it, uh, uh, Hungarian 19... I think it started in 1905, classic iron work. And, uh, the son of the owner, we just lost him a couple of years ago, Melvin Rose. He was classically trained in blacksmithing and went to the, I think the Cleveland School of Art and he could talk about this business real straight and he... two things really inspired me on what he said and it was, attention to detail raises the level of craftsmanship and the second one was, and this is, this is I think, uh, I didn’t know it but it was there all along, look and see differently. That’s, that’s pretty straight. No artsy type talk with him. He could really call it like it was. A great gentleman too.
BARRY: The... I started doing... first off what I do, uh, is tabletop stuff. It’s, it’s, no bigger than this, that’s what I like to do, that’s what I’m equipped to do, okay. And, uh, I think the first animated piece I did was for the, uh, big blacksmiths conference in Ripley, West Virginia and it was... it’s an animated squawking parrot. And, uh, don’t know where I got the idea but it just kind of all came together. I had a little shop at the time in a one car garage in Akron, Ohio and a little shop in the basement and my, uh, I had the idea but I didn’t know how to make the squawk, so I finally kinda looked around and I found an old oil can, like a, it has a spout and, uh, I don’t know if you know what a klaxon horn is but basically it’s a metal diaphragm and it is a gear that hits a whisk on it that makes the noise on the old cars, it didn’t take electricity. And, uh, so that led to that, it all kind of just came together, I got a nice award for that from a fellow from England. And, I guess that was the first real animated piece I did. And, that’s where it goes from now on. Not everything is like that and I will say that some stuff I make I classify it as a reproduction, that’s not art, that’s just a reproduction, uh, for instance the tank, but it’s, it’s not a dead nuts reproduction, it’s got a little bit of me in it, period. And, I made that for my own enjoyment. It... prob... U.S.... somebody asked me once and I hate this question, how long does it take? You don’t ask Picasso, hey, how long did it take you to whip out Blue Boy or whatever it is?
Uh, but the... my friends and I calculated about a thousand hours. The whole key to that was the tracks. I couldn’t figure out how to make the tracks practically speaking. And, I, I was inspired by that, I saw it on a... at the, uh, West Point Museum in, uh, West Point New York. It’s a military academy and had a tank, like I took a bunch of pictures and pondered it for probably ten years, not, not, constantly. I said, this would make a neat model. It was a small tank to begin with and, uh, kinda of all platey and looking... I like military stuff for metal working, it’s, it’s very straight forward. But, anyway probably after ten years I had this epiphany on how to make the tracks. After that, it was just downhill, but it was a real, truly a breakthrough in that.
BARRY: Once, uh, the beginning is never easy, the rest of it is just work. And, I sometimes, uh, the project I’m working on now I had a couple of snags but all I do is look back, I say, if I got through this on that I can get through this. And, uh, some days you come out here and you can do no wrong, some days you come out here and you shoulda just stayed in bed. That’s all there is to it. Uh, I just went through that experience here a couple of days ago. I took a hiatus on this project and came out here and well, that wasn’t so bad.
Traditions: Ohio Heritage Fellows
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Barry Wheeler interview, part 1 of 4
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Raw interview with Barry Wheeler, blacksmith. Part 1 of 4.
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