PLAYING WITH FIRE

by Carmella Padilla

Other Stories by Carmella Padilla

The early morning sun is still mixing with shadows over Apodaca Hill when Tomas Arrey dons a pair of faded overalls, slides heavy black gloves over his weathered hands, and lights a pitch-and-kindling fire in his hilltop workshop. Cold hangs in the air from the winter just past, but before long, Arrey has perspiration dripping from beneath the blackened brim of his well-worn hat. "If you can't stand the heat," he says with a smirk, "get out of the fragua."

The heat in Arrey's fiery fragua--a massive coal-fueled forge--is a scorching 2,000 degrees. It's the ideal temperature, Arrey says, for bending iron into material goods. It's also the tool through which Arrey is breathing new life into the age-old art of blacksmithing. Arrey, a stocky sharp-witted man,grew up on Apodaca Hill. As a boy, he often passed time with the neighborhood blacksmith, Manuel Apodaca. Apodaca, who created ironwork in the Spanish Colonial tradition of his ancestors, was one of many Hispanic blacksmiths working in Santa Fe at the time. Watching Apodaca shape tools, horseshoes and other hardware through a precise combination of fire, water and physical strength, Arrey became fascinated with the blacksmith's craft.

"The sights, the sounds, the smells, the soot, the sweat: all of that intrigued me," he recalls. "It became my goal to someday become a traditional Hispanic blacksmith."

During the next 20 years, stints as a student, a soldier, a biker and a welder distracted Arrey from his goal. Nonetheless, he continued to read books on the history of New Mexico's Spanish Colonial herreros, or blacksmiths. Their legacy began when they arrived in the region from Spain with the Juan de Onate expedition in 1598, the same expedition that Arrey says brought his ancestors to the area. Their forges blazed as new settlements were established all along the Rio Grande, and the new colonists depended upon their trade for their very survival. By the early twentieth century, virtually every town had at least one blacksmith of its own.

By the time Arrey decided to dedicate himself to blacksmithing, however, Manuel Apodaca and the blacksmiths who came before him were dead. There were other working blacksmiths in town, but there were no Hispanics working in the Spanish Colonial style. Combining what he learned from books with memories of his early days in the Apodaca forge, Arrey gradually taught himself the techniques of the trade.

The process was long and hard, particularly because Arrey was adamant about sticking to historical methods. He collected, and sometimes made, the tools of the early ironworkers: the yunque (anvil), fuelle (double bellows), pujavante (a hoof paring tool), and catarina (used to measure the circumference of wheels). He shunned modern gas forges for the more complex coal forge. Finally, he returned to Apodaca Hill and built a small smithy just beyond the house where he grew up and where his parents still live.

"I'm working in the style of the sixteenth-, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century blacksmiths," he says. "I'm putting my own expression and interpretation into an art form that has been asleep for a long time."

In 1989, Arrey received his first commission to create Spanish Colonial-style hardware for a local home. A year later, he was accepted to the annual July Spanish Market, where he continues to exhibit and demonstrate his craft on the Plaza every year. He now works as a blacksmith full-time, creating a number of utilitarian and decorative objects--chandeliers, candlestick holders, meat forks, door handles and more--in the crudely elegant style of the old blacksmiths. The only Hispanic blacksmith in town working in the colonial style, Arrey's work is sold in local shops and galleries, or from the back porch of his childhood home.

Like the blacksmiths of yesteryear, Arrey spends up to 14 hours a day in his workshop, shoveling coal into the forge and manipulating metal upon an anvil with traditional martillos (hammers) and tenazas (tongs). Sizzle, steam, clink, clank: the workshop vibrates with the sounds of Arrey's intensely physical task as he heats pieces of wrought iron steel until they are soft enough to break, twist or curl into shape. As the forge spits red and orange flames from its belly, this modern-day Hephaestus bounces back and forth between the fire and anvil with concentration and skill.

"You know what they say about having too many irons in the fire?" he asks. "Well, I've had to learn that the hard way."

Indeed, as he pulls two newly formed candlestick holders from the forge, Arrey again comes face-to-face with the realities of his complex craft: While the first candlestick holder emerges from the fire as a near-perfect replica of a 17th-century design, the second has been left in the fire a little too long--and cracks before the craftsman's eyes.

"This art is a lot like life: one has to live with his glories and his defeats," he says. "But it takes a lot of hard work to bring back a dying art. I'm willing to keep playing with fire."

Santa Fe writer Carmella Padilla is the author of "The Chile Chronicles," published in 1998 by the University of New Mexico Press.

Other Stories by Carmella Padilla

Carmella Padilla Biography


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