October 2014
Homeplace & Community

Ironman Artist

  Sand Mountain resident Walter Howell watches the blaze and the metal art he’s placed in it, waiting for the right moment to remove it and move on to the next step. The artistic process, he said, involves several “heats” in the forge. In the background is his shop complete with an anvil and an assortment of metalsmithing tools.

Sand Mountain blacksmith draws national attention.

Dubbed "a country engineer" by his wife Rhonda, Walter Howell knows precisely when to remove the handcrafted piece of architectural hardware from the 1,800 degree flame.

As a visitor observes, the Henagar resident pounds the steel briefly with a cross-peen hammer on an anvil, then he places it back into the fire burning in the 19th-century forge. The cycle is repeated several times with a certain timing and precision as the 10-inch-long ornamental hook with a realistic-looking leaf and stem slowly takes shape.

In another step, a wooden mallet made to the artist’s specifications is used to continue hammering out the design. The huge wood base was once a 175-year-old tree that stood on the grounds of the Baptist church where he and his wife attend.

Botanical sculptures - putting images from God’s outdoor world into his own creations - are Howell’s favorite theme. He forged his first such sculpture when he was asked to craft a pitcher plant sculpture for the president of Jacksonville State University.

Over the last 10 years, Howell has gone from designing basic tools to elaborate works in metal, bringing him regional, national and international attention. He does remember his roots, though, as he repairs farm equipment for his neighbors on Sand Mountain.

Walter Howell is creating an ornamental hook with an intricate leaf design. Working atop an anvil, he uses a variety of cross-peen hammers to craft the hot metal. Howell has received many awards for his work, and he especially likes to design plant and tree sculptures.  

Howell recently shipped a few pieces of his art to England and Ireland. He’s exhibited and won an award at The Hermitage, President Andrew Jackson’s home in Nashville, and has been featured in a book recognizing 50 of the top blacksmith artists in the country. He’s drawn plenty of recognition including receiving an Award of Excellence earlier this year from the Alabama Wildlife Federation, his work being accepted for display at two galleries in Tennessee, and the Tidewater Blacksmiths Guild featuring a story on him in a 2008 edition of their newsletter.

Yet the accolades, while deeply appreciated, are only part of a much bigger story. The artisan gives credit to his God for bringing him later in his life to the artistic profession he was born to pursue. After a string of "coincidences," Howell has no other way to explain it.

Howell and Rhonda moved to Sand Mountain after their farming venturein Georgia was failing. The couple joined a church and saw the home they hoped to live in. Soon their minister bought the home and rented it to them in addition to asking for help with his chickens. Howell was urged multiple times to seek out a mentor for his blacksmithing; he finally relented and decided to study with Master Blacksmith Susan Madasi in Tennessee. Not long before he left for the mentoring, the 100-plus-year-old forge was given to him.

Madasi was impressed very early with Howell’s talent, Rhonda said.

"You just came here to learn what you already know," Madasi told him.

Two or three days into his training, she already had him teaching other students.

  One of Howell’s pieces of art.

Teaching and demonstrating his craft are now important to Howell. His mother was a teacher and principal. He emphasizes the old, traditional methods such as soaking the finished metalwork in a finish of beeswax, turpentine, linseed oil and other materials.

"It’s what they had before paints," he said.

In fact, only finishes and stains are used in his shop, not paint. He applied the brass color to the leaf on the ornamental hook with a brass-bristle brush rather than painting it brass.

In the summer, Howell usually travels to DeSoto State Park once a month to demonstrate his skills and experience. Groups of teachers often come to his place to see him work as do individuals and even some fathers and daughters.

"You don’t see people doing this today," Rhonda said. "It’s (creating) a memory … they’re going to talk about it for a long time."

In keeping with his desire to educate, he works with the Narrow Gate Foundation in rural Tennessee that helps troubled young men transform their lives through Christian formation and, in part, camping out for an extended period using basic wilderness survival skills. Later, they learn metalworking and woodturning.

It’s about learning life skills such as patience and persistence – much like Howell incorporates in his work.

He teaches students to keep trying things, Rhonda said, to discover their passions in life.

He’s "got to blacksmith," the Sand Mountain artisan said. "I can’t not do it."

Howell’s work is consigned at two North Alabama shops – The Graceful Giraffe in Mentone and The English Table in Huntsville. He may be contacted directly through his website www.waltersforge.com. Also carrying examples of his art is Etsy.com.

Maureen Drost is a freelance writer from Huntsville.