April/May 2011 Cover Girl

Cover girl Lorelei Sims has forged a 21st-century career as a blacksmith artisan.

Country Woman Cover Girl

Country Woman Cover Girl

Photography by Jim Wieland.

Country Woman Cover Girl

Country Woman Cover Girl

Forged Flower was among the earliest pieces Lorelei made as a budding blacksmith. Photography by Jim Wieland.

Country Woman Cover Girl

Country Woman Cover Girl

Photography by Jim Wieland.

Country Woman Cover Girl

Country Woman Cover Girl

Photography by Jim Wieland.

Country Woman Cover Girl

Country Woman Cover Girl

Photography by Jim Wieland.

Country Woman Cover Girl

Country Woman Cover Girl

Lorelei finds inspiration for her art outdoors. Photography by Jim Wieland.

 

Give Lorelei Sims a hot fire, a hammer and an anvil, and bang! Creative sparks fly from her hometown of Charleston, Illinois, clear across the country.

She’s a master of a centuries-old craft many thought had gone the way of the horse and buggy. Inside an orange cinder block building, she’s forging a 21st-century career as a blacksmith. Only she doesn’t do horseshoes: She does art.

“I love the challenge of creating something beautiful and functional that can be used in everyday life,” Lorelei explains. That includes indoor and outdoor home decor—everything from wrought-iron tables, chairs and pot racks to candleholders and fireplace screens.

“Much of my work has a botanical motif that suits my garden and architectural pieces,” she notes as she pounds red-hot metal into curlicued vines for ornate gates and railings. With each hammer stroke, she forms another strong link to her heritage.

A Smithing Tradition

“My great-grandfather Soren was a seventh-generation coppersmith from Denmark, and my grandfather Hans founded a metalwork factory,” Lorelei says. “As a child, I’d see their lamps, andirons, kettles and sconces on display at my grandmother’s home, all of it so exquisitely handmade.

“I never met either of them, but I have a feeling that when I decided to study art, sculpture and metalsmithing in college, they were very happy.

After graduating, Lorelei opened Five Points Blacksmith Shop, just off Charleston’s historic town square. To build her skill, she attended area “hammer-ins,” or blacksmith gatherings, and apprenticed with expert Elmer Roush of North Carolina. There she learned that hammer control is more important in blacksmithing than brute strength.

“The experience also helped me expand my service to repairing, restoring and replicating metal objects,” she adds. “It might be spot-welding a broken staircase, refurbishing a wagon wheel or reproducing an antique doorknob.

“Welding can be done here at the shop or on-site, everything from brackets to railroad cars. I like to say art feeds my soul and repair work feeds my belly.”

To win her customers’ confidence, Lorelei needed to reshape not just metal but also a few male viewpoints. “Early on, two farmers came in to have plowshares sharpened,” she recalls, a task she’d never tackled before. “I excused myself to the office while the pieces were heating and checked my reference book. When I came back, I knew just what to do—and the originally skeptical gentlemen happily sat back and watched the woman smith work.”

Forging Ahead

These days, Lorelei, 48, has found, the Internet is one of the handiest tools in her blacksmith’s arsenal. Clients discover her work on her website, blacksmithchic.com, and commission special projects. She’s handcrafted chandeliers for Omaha’s Lauritzen Gardens and for New York’s Fordham University. For a private residence, she designed seven hanging light fixtures shaped like trees, complete with 2,400 steely leaves.

Lorelei devotes her spare time to seeing that this ancient art never grows old. Besides authoring The Backyard Blacksmith, an ironwork primer, she hosts visits to her smithy for school groups, scout troops and even senior citizen bus tours. “People are mesmerized by the fire and the way the metal twists, bends and hisses when it goes into the quench tub,” she says.

At day’s end, Lorelei hangs up her blacksmithing apron and heads to her scenic 130 acres on the outskirts of town, whimsically named Pasture Prime Farm. “When I’m working in the garden, I’m inspired to emulate nature’s form in iron,” she notes. “One of my goals is to set up a smithy on the farm where I can hold blacksmithing workshops for beginners—men, women, people of all ages who are moved to take up a hammer.”

Interest in preserving traditional folkways is growing. Lorelei says she’s happy to strike while the iron is hot, adding, “It’s rewarding to see this craft firing everyone’s imagination.”

To learn more about blacksmithing, see abana.org.

Photography by Jim Wieland and styled by Melissa Haberman.

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