Gifting the experience of using well-crafted handmade items is what sparks Fine Line teacher and artist Dan Caldwell to create his decorative and functional works of art.
One of Caldwell’s most recent creations graces the new driveway entrance at Fine Line Creative Arts Center in St. Charles.
A blacksmith and metalsmith, teacher and artist, Caldwell of St. Charles designed, crafted and installed not just a new sign but a work of art at the front of Fine Line’s new entrance on Bolcum Road, just west of Crane Road.
Internally lit at night, this graceful work of art highlights the center’s name and also mirrors the natural surroundings of the Fine Line campus.
The design just evolved from some sketches, Caldwell said. “I have built similar sculptures before but on a much smaller scale. I wanted to represent the natural elements surrounding Fine Line — the prairie grasses and cattails along with the trees at the edges represent sanctuary and serenity.”
Metal smiting can be a solitary venture, but Caldwell did have assistance with this project from some of his Fine Line students.
“Jim Mularski was a tremendous help. Tom Wysocki also helped for a day. Neal Anderson donated his time powder coating the sign panels and the sign box,” said Caldwell. “A foreign exchange student from Germany, Roberto Rossi, helped me weld the base together. The installation team was Scott Hursthouse and Ryan Caldwell (Dan’s son). I couldn’t have put it up without them.”
Additional decorative pieces of the sculptural sign were recently welded onto the base, with assistance from Caldwell’s son.
The sign structure (base, grass and cattails) is made from steel plate and rebar. Most of the materials were recycled from the Fine Line property: landscape edging, rebar from the old parking lot, and the steel cover from the old pump well vault was used for the base.
“I love the process: starting from scrap materials, found materials, and working them into useful or historical pieces. I make some inside pieces for people. I have to forge and weld items, and do the patination — create the patina — so they look the part,” he said. “I’m satisfied with finished items when they look like they’re made by a blacksmith and not machine-made.”
Caldwell has been teaching blacksmithing and metal work classes at Fine Line for 11 years.
Outside of the classroom, this artist and craftsman has been creating custom knives, swords, axes, jewelry and decorative pieces for over two decades.
Unique, meticulously crafted works set him apart in the metal smiting world. As a custom contractor, Caldwell has created exterior iron art for high-end landscape contractors, custom gates, fireplace covers, grates and accessories.
An artisan and a craftsman, Caldwell considers himself a combination blacksmith, metalsmith and bladesmith, “There’s a lot of crossover between blacksmiths and bladesmiths,” he said. “The bladesmith part centers around knives and swords. Blacksmiths — they historically work on farm machinery, blades, but not necessarily knives.”
Caldwell’s interest in metal work was sparked in late middle school, when studying medieval history. When a teacher brought in handmade samples of chain mail, and “I fell in love with the stuff.”
Following that first exposure, Caldwell appropriated “charcoal from my dad’s grill, dug a hole in the sandbox, and built a forge with a squirrel cage holder. The first steel I played with were the metal rods — the tent poles from our tent that was falling apart. I used those to forge harpoons. I used the cement porch instead of an anvil. Then one day I was walking home and went past a construction site. I found a big piece of metal and that became my anvil.”
Although Caldwell made a few knives in high school, reworked blades of old knives and made new handles, his skills really started to develop while taking art and industrial design courses at Northern Illinois University.
Then, in the early 90s, Lynn, Caldwell’s wife, who is a textile artist and director of Fine Line Creative Arts Center, bought a shop at the Bristol Renaissance Faire. “Our neighbor had a blacksmith shop and he took me under his wing. I demoted for him and also started building my own equipment,” Caldwell said.
Eventually, Caldwell established his own space, The Cutting Edge Forge, inside his wife’s shop, and business took off. He began making and selling swords, knives — many with bone handles — and decorative pieces such as necklaces and cloak pins, breaking out from bladesmith to blacksmith.
“I also enjoy making the tools, jigs and machine parts that help to make the end pieces. You have to come up with clever ways to do the work. Unlike in the past, you don’t have apprentices — the guys who would tend the forge,” he said. “You’re doing it all on your own.”
You will get a chance to see Caldwell in action, as he will do an aluminum pour during the Preview Night of Fine Line Arts Festival on Friday, June 6. Event information available on the website. While there, check out Caldwell’s classes and a wealth of other offerings at fineline.org.
Come visit Fine Line and see the new sign, at 37W570 Bolcum Road, just west of Randall Road in St. Charles. Fine Line, which includes the Kavanagh Gallery, is open Mondays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
This article was originally posted in the Daily Herald, on March 28, 2014.