‘Blacksmith Boondoggle’ pays tribute to Russell Jaqua, blacksmithing community

Panel recounts origins of modern ‘Iron Age’

Posted 11/6/19

Port Townsend filmmaker Jane Champion’s documentary, “The Blacksmith Boondoggle: Making ‘For Willene’” showcases how one local artist’s vision brought together so many of his peers in the blacksmithing community to make his intended tribute to his wife a reality.

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‘Blacksmith Boondoggle’ pays tribute to Russell Jaqua, blacksmithing community

Panel recounts origins of modern ‘Iron Age’

Posted

Port Townsend filmmaker Jane Champion’s documentary, “The Blacksmith Boondoggle: Making ‘For Willene’” showcases how one local artist’s vision brought together so many of his peers in the blacksmithing community to make his intended tribute to his wife a reality.

So,it seems fitting that the Rose Theatre’s Nov. 3 screening of the short film included a panel discussion by four of the blacksmiths who helped build the sculpture which now stands at Visitor Center Plaza.

Russell Jaqua’s sculpture “For Willene,” dedicated to Willene Jaqua McRae, was his final birthday present to his wife on what they knew would be their last shared birthday together — they were both born on Feb. 17 — because he was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or “Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Unfortunately, Jaqua’s ALS had robbed him of the ability to complete the sculpture himself, so he invited 30 of his closest friends in the blacksmithing community to build it on the weekend of Feb. 17-20, 2006, an undertaking so unlikely that McRae branded it “The Blacksmith Boondoggle.”

Champion gets great mileage out of juxtaposing the footage of the sculpture’s construction with quotes from the sculptors themselves, who extoll the transcendent beauty of the work while we see power hammers pound glowing steel into starkly angular shapes. But what’s perhaps most heartening is how much she’s able to include the perspective of Jaqua himself.

Although he could no longer speak by the time of the working party he helped to coordinate, Champion communicates his intentions through his electronic communication aid, through letters he’s written that McRae reads aloud — with Jaqua nodding along, indicating she’s conveyed his intent correctly — and through archival footage of him earlier in his career, before he was affected by ALS.

Both the documentary and the subsequent panel discussion made clear how much Jaqua had earned the respect of his peers in the field, which included the four-man Rose Theatre panel of Port Townsend’s Jim Garrett, Bay Area-based Michael Bondi of Bondi Metal Designs, Phillip Baldwin of Shining Wave Metals in Snohomish, and Fred Borcherdt of Tucson, Arizona.

All four men recalled how blacksmithing had fallen so far out of fashion by the late 1960s that it was practically extinct, with Garrett crediting L. Brent Kington with delivering a talk at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that inspired the creation of blacksmithing programs at universities across the country, thus helping “start a new Iron Age.”

Bondi, who became friends with Jaqua and involved in blacksmithing through his brother four decades ago, described it as “the curse and the blessing” of American blacksmithing that so much of it is “steeped in tradition,” whereas European blacksmithing is not, in his opinion, because blacksmithing never stopped in Europe, so its history there is continuous.

“Ever since, there’s been this schism in American blacksmithing,” Bondi said. “On the West Coast, guys like my brother and Russell would use power hammers, which used to be called the slam-bam school of blacksmithing, but now, anyone who’s serious about blacksmithing has to use a power hammer.”

Garrett, who purchased Nimba Anvils after Jaqua died, noted the number of blacksmiths who acquired such relatively advanced forging equipment from Navy yards and the collapse of the sawmills, while Borcherdt emphasized that such equipment still requires considerable skill to operate.

“Transitioning to a power hammer is like going from riding a bike to driving a semi down the highway,” Borcherdt said. “It’s scary the amount of power it has, and the amount of damage it can do, so you have to use it carefully. Russell conquered the power hammer. He used it with great finesse. He was forceful, but in such a sensitive way. Again, it was like backing a semi trailer into a space with one inch of clearance, and he did it at 40 miles an hour.”

Garrett noted that Jaqua’s shop served as the site for many other blacksmiths’ lessons, enabling the education of several generations in the field, and Baldwin drew a parallel between Jaqua’s generosity and the collaborative assembly of his sculpture.

“Community support is absolutely essential in any field,” Baldwin said. “No one individual can do this by themselves.”

Borcherdt grew visibly emotional as he recounted the process of teaming up with his peers to complete “For Willene.”

“We were helping him send a message of love to his wife,” Borcherdt said. “We left our egos at home, and did our best to contribute to a grander idea. It was good, clean and simple, and one of the highlights of my life.”

Garrett waxed perhaps the most philosophic of the bunch, as he mused that most metalwork is forging “star stuff,” and pointing out that it’s the iron in our planet that protects us from harmful solar and cosmic radiation, and the iron in our blood that delivers oxygen to our brains.

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