Master craftsmen pass down their artistry through apprenticeships
Del Martin has been honing his blacksmith skills for somethress decades. For the past 15 months, he has been working with apprentice Lorena Tur.
Photos by Jake Borden
Entering Del Martin’s forge is like taking a step back in time. A panoply of hand-forged tools litters the myriad work surfaces, and a cool ton—roughly 40, 50-pound bags—of Pennsylvania coal stand at the ready, waiting to feed the 1,800-degree fire whose fluctuations in temperature are audible. While the practice of master craftsmen employing apprentices—young people looking to learn trades through hands-on experience—is somewhat dated, loose iterations of the tradition remain. In the Berkshires, where the arts are prevalent, the passing of trade skills from one generation to another happens but one way, via hands-on learning.
“There’s a sweet spot in what it takes,” says Martin of Knox Trail Forge in Monterey. “And there’s only one way to learn it. You’ve got to do it.” Martin executes a series of quick, swift movements, all hinging on accuracy, as he assuages a tapered rod between the forge and his anvil; close by, in a pair of grungy jeans and a white t-shirt, Lorena Tur listens intently, her thirst for the trade nearly insatiable. Hailing from Marseille, France, Tur found her way to to the Berkshires by way of her American husband who grew up in Hillsdale, New York.
Last Christmas, keen on wanting to make him a knife, she came across Martin’s flyer and gave him a call. In the ensuing 15 months, Tur has provided a spare pair of hands in exchange for Martin’s knowledge, in a spirit of collaboration that dates back to the Middle Ages.
Martin’s hand-forged tools adorn the fireplace at the historic Captain John Brewer Home, a former tavern on the Knox Trail; nevertheless, he does not claim to be a master blacksmith. Martin has spent 30 years honing what he calls “a really sporadic hobby,” measured, in part, by his graduating from the 35-pound anvil on which he learned to the 302-pound surface on which he currently hammers out iron rods. “I did not have the benefit of being an apprentice,” explains Martin, self-taught in the trade, “although if I could go back and do it again I would.”
Instead, he learned by making the same thing over and over again.
Under Martin’s watchful eye, Tur exhibits equal parts grit and grace under pressure. Having graduated from drawing a bar—the most basic skill for all blacksmiths—Tur tackles the final step of welding. As she works, and he advises, a conversation ensues: “I’m getting really frustrated,” says Tur, whose face reflects the hot, glowing embers of the forge.
Martin, over the din of the fire, poses simple questions and dishes out tips in quick succession:“What are your first moves going to be?” “You’re using the wrong tool.” Then, finally, “Your weld was good,” before stopping to point out that the presence of two different colors of iron denote an incomplete weld. “Her being here makes me a better blacksmith,” is Martin’s final word on the pair’s collaborative process. (Photo: Tur cradles a seahorse bottle opener of her own design.)
Due west along the Knox Trail, tucked behind the railroad tracks at the top of Rosseter Street in Great Barrington, Daniel Bellow’s pottery studio is the antithesis of Martin’s forge: black, sooty smudges compared to a fine, pervasive white dust. Yet the common link is another master-apprentice duo. Side by side, on a pair of standing electric wheels, Bellow and Olivia Wade simultaneously work to center hunks of Elaine’s Crystal Cone 10 porcelain from Sheffield Pottery on their respective wheels, intermittently pausing to moisten their fingertips with warm slip.
“This is what I always wanted to do,” says Bellow, a former city hall reporter for The Berkshire Eagle, of a hobby that took a hold of him. Iterations of a new bowl, more than 50 in a dizzying array of sizes, cover a table running the width of the studio. The new line, developed for a burgeoning local business, points to how incorporating a whole new technique can stave off things getting stale. So, too, can adding another pair of hands.
“I enjoy having an apprentice, a second set of eyes,” says Bellow of Wade who has learned from, but is not simply emulating, Bellow.Wade, a former writer, painter, and photographer who graduated from Monument Mountain Regional High School, woke up one morning and decided she wanted to be a ceramicist. She landed in Florence, Italy—at the Leonardo da Vinci Art Academy—where she spent a three-month intensive learning to throw hard, red clay. Now back in the Berkshires, the learning curve is steep thanks to a shift in raw materials.
“Porcelain is so, so soft; so malleable,” she says, demonstrating a technique she calls “pillowing,” which is her way of making a unique alteration to the perfect cylindrical form. She is working on her own series—a new style of mug sans handle—inspired by her time under Bellow’s tutelage, of which Wade’s strong bevel, at the bottom of her mug, is evidence.
Historically, an aspiring master would have to pass from apprentice to journeyman before being elected to a guild, a process requiring ten years or more in the field. Taj Monjardo fits this category. The Great Barrington resident grew up surrounded by the best French Art Deco money could buy. His father’s best clients—including DeLorenzo Gallery and Michael Chow of Mr. Chow restaurant chain—were some of the most passionate collectors in the world.
Nicholas Mongiardo (whose surname reflects the Americanized version Mongiardo’s grandfather adopted upon immigrating from Italy, while Monjardo reverted to the original) gained a reputation for his extremely fine period restoration; over a span of 20 years, he restored hundreds of original pieces by French Deco masters including Ruhlmann, Chareau, Gray, Dunand, Rateau and Lafon that either fell out of style or were simply discarded in the post-WWII era. Monjardo points to the experience of watching his father work as “a unique privilege bestowed on him”—one that, as the eldest son, allowed him to follow in his father’s footsteps, thanks to an informal apprenticeship that lasted for more than two decades.
“I like to get my hands dirty and stay in contact with the process,” says Monjardo from his seat behind a massive semi-circular desk of his own design. The carved cast acrylic sheet, finished with dichroic automotive paint, is a far cry from where he began in 1995. Originally tasked with preparing unfinished pieces for the application of spray finishes, Monjardo’s own creativity was cultivated through collaboration with his father. In the ensuing two decades, the focus of Mongiardo Studio has evolved from period restoration to reproduction to its newest iteration, ultra high-end custom furniture under the direction of Monjardo.
The elder Mongiardo painted on cast acrylic, they began the carving process together, and Monjardo has taken both the business—and the art form—to the next level since his father’s retirement in 2015. As for the apprenticeship and the pair’s humble beginning, says Monjardo, “If he had not begun it, I would not be where I am today. But what I have learned is now my own work.”