Melissa Cole: a Blacksmith in an Artist’s world

PUBLISHED: 12:16 06 February 2009 | UPDATED: 15:47 20 February 2013

Melissa Cole at work Photo Angus Thomas

Melissa Cole at work Photo Angus Thomas

Melissa Cole is that rarest of all creatures - a female blacksmith, but one where the aesthetic is as important as the practicality

Traditionally the domain of men, Wiltshire sculptor Melissa Cole has been working as a full-time blacksmith for the last 16 years. She was recently awarded a bronze medal by the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths - one of only 35 awarded since its formation in 1325, and only the third such medal awarded to a woman. Her forge is located in an outbuilding at Puthall Farm, the arable farm she shares with her partner, Richard. The farmhouse, located between Marlborough and Hungerford, is one of a collection of Victorian buildings surrounded by open fields bordered by ancient beech woods.

An artistic streak runs through the Cole family. Her father, Hector, is a Fellow and silver medal-holder of the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths, a Master Arrowsmith and a world expert on the forging of quality medieval swords and daggers - expertise much called for by TV companies. Her elder sister, Rebecca, was a textile designer designing for many household names and has now turned her talent to painting in mixed media. Her twin sister, Charlotte, ran her own garden design business for ten years before becoming commercial director for a bespoke kitchen manufacturer based in Wiltshire. Her mother, Maris, who until recently worked as a teacher and arts advisor to Wilshire County Council, has just gained a first-class degree in fine art from the University of Bath in Swindon.

Melissa was keen to find her own way in blacksmithing. She left sixth form before completing her A-levels but was profoundly inspired by her ceramics teacher, Eric Bullion. "My parents sowed the seeds for my artistic development and Eric awakened in me the potential to use form and line for artistic ends. Blacksmithing techniques enabled me to do this."

After doing a two-year business course in Chippenham, Melissa went on to read art education studies at Cardiff University, graduating in 1992. Whilst there she started forging in earnest, with the minimum number of basic tools. "I was keen to keep it as simple and as traditional as possible. I started with a basic anvil and hammer. I found an old vacuum cleaner and I reversed the wiring so that I could use it to blow the coals. I was keen to focus on the traditional techniques of the craft. One of my earliest projects was to make a chair for my twin sister as a wedding present." A wedding guest was so taken by the chair that he gave Melissa her very first commission. "From that commission I was asked to make some curtain poles and so it snowballed. I started on the Business Enterprise Scheme and was able to access a variety of business courses and advisors, which were enormously helpful. Later I was awarded a grant by the Arts Council to enable me to set up my forge at Puthall Farm in 2001."

Melissa soon realised she couldn't be just a traditional blacksmith and wanted to find a niche for her skills. She set about writing a community art scheme for Chippenham on her own initiative and took her work into local schools. This gave children hands-on experience of forging metal and enabled them to create works for their school grounds. The scheme proved enormously successful and culminated in an exhibition of the community's collaborative work. Melissa has subsequently worked on a number of major commissions, notably Chippenham Town Bridge, a sculptural wall piece for the European Headquarters of Dolby Inc and, most recently, large entrance gates and railings for a retirement home in Westbury. Currently she is working on a set of organic and flowing sculptural gates for Rabley Contemporary Drawing Centre at Mildenhall near Marlborough. The project will be featured in Channel 4's Grand Designs.

When I met Melissa she was working on the 2m high gates for the Rabley project. The gates look something like a series of vertical curves which, whilst having a loose symmetry, look entirely natural - like bullrushes being blown about in the wind. "I take my ideas from nature and try to reproduce the forms and shapes I see on my walks in the wonderful woods around us. I believe the best place to show my art is in nature and therefore context is a very important element to the final piece. I am also fascinated by body language and how I can incorporate a human non-verbal message into an inanimate object."

Melissa is passionate about sculpture and since 2004 has organised and hosted the biennial Puthall Park Sculpture Show, now a regular and popular visual arts event in the Wiltshire calendar. Her passion for her art is evidenced everywhere around the farm. She has converted some of the barns to provide exhibition space for the show and intends to start running workshops in the new space. Her own pieces and those of other artists are in every nook and cranny of the gardens and fields. Melissa says: "Some pieces stay for a while after the show ends and it is hard to let them go." Currently one of the most stunning pieces is a fabricated oak circle by Marlborough artist Henry Swanzy, which is upright and set against a background of a mature beech wood.

"Being a blacksmith can be a lonesome occupation and therefore the show provides a kind of rhythm to my work and a chance to see how I have progressed. When I

think I have an idea or finish a piece I show it to Richard first before I reveal it to the rest of the world. I can be obsessive and some days I can be out in the forge for 12 hours at a time until I either forge the shapes I have in my mind or my arms give up!"

Appearing recently on Radio 4's Woman's Hour, Melissa has received a great deal of publicity. She says: "The Woman's Hour article was fantastic as it was not dominated by the gender issue. Other articles have tended to focus on the girl blacksmith thing and not on my work, which is always slightly disappointing as we are in the 21st century now and I optimistically think people have moved on! The story is about my art and the people who collect and commission it. I have always followed my own path, which is evolving with time, and blacksmithing is just part of that path."

My guess is we will be hearing more about Melissa in the future such is her enthusiasm and dedication. She exudes energy and radiates an irrepressible positive energy. Watch out for the Grand Designs episode featuring her gates (now under construction) and make a diary note for The Puthall Sculpture Show in November 2010.

Melissa can be contacted on (01672 564259)or visit http://www.melissacole.co.uk

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