Blacksmith forges the unexpected

2014-01-19T00:00:00Z 2014-01-20T00:15:33Z Blacksmith forges the unexpectedBy Johanna Willett Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Blacksmith Ira Wiesenfeld hoisted a motorboat 16 feet long into the branches of a dead eucalyptus tree near his home — a detour from his previous plan to turn the tree into a giant slingshot.

The film “Mud” inspired him to change course, so Wiesenfeld, 66, purchased a junked boat and spent six months trying to figure out how to haul it skyward.

Finally one morning, with the help of a friend and a tractor with a front-end loader, Wiesenfeld’s scheme found its perch. He anchored the vessel to a nearby stump with a hand-forged anchor to compensate for the boat’s size.

“It’s the incongruity of a boat in a tree, the surprise factor of having something that you wouldn’t expect in the middle of a desert,” said Wiesenfeld, a former veterinarian who now spends his time blacksmithing.

The boat draws eyes to the sculpture garden on Wiesenfeld’s four-acre property at 1801 W. Overton Road. He once farmed Christmas trees on that same land, which he said is situated on the edge of a floodplain. To him, the boat makes sense.

For 10 years, blacksmithing has captured Wiesenfeld’s attention, though he dabbled in the craft years before. In his barn-turned-smithy, he welds and forges metal sculptures and some furniture, often repurposing found objects to the whims of his imagination.

“It sets your imagination in motion, but the real trick is to see something else in it, something completely different from what it was originally used for,” Wiesenfeld said. “I don’t work long hours, because this is my retirement, but even when you’re not working, you’re working, because you’re thinking about the things. You’ll have a beer and ideas come to mind.”

Wiesenfeld collects his inventory from all over — junkyards, farms, auctions — storing the parts outside the shop to use when inspiration strikes.

He plants some of his creations in his sculpture garden, where pieces such as metal rocking chairs and a throne flank the Patron Saint of Found Objects. This sculpture holds Wiesenfeld’s sign for “Circle of Iron Forge” against a body of parts from a plow, horse harness, sewer cap and motorcycle muffler, to name a few.

Wiesenfeld’s creative side has not always had free rein, though he grew up with an artistic mother and sister.

For 20 of the 30 years that he worked as a veterinarian in Tucson, Wiesenfeld owned his own practice. Growing up in Long Island, N.Y., Wiesenfeld’s family trained jumper horses. He loved to ride, and his liking for sciences made studying veterinary medicine at Cornell University a natural next step. There, the horseman discovered another passion in polo.

“The things I like most are to be outside and to be active,” Wiesenfeld said. “Anything that gets me moving.”

His discovery of blacksmithing came during what he calls his midlife crisis. The physicality of the work gave him the reprieve that he once enjoyed in polo. He gave the sport up after marriage brought a step-son, son and daughter into his life. Later, in the midst of a divorce and too much change, too fast, the craft kept him centered.

“I couldn’t play polo anymore, so I was looking for something,” Wiesenfeld said. “I found that if I spent a couple of hours banging on hot metal, I wasn’t upset anymore.”

With his interest piqued, Wiesenfeld took courses at Pima Community College and with the Arizona Artist Blacksmith Association, of which he is now on the board of directors and has served as president and vice president. Occasionally, he hosts association events at his farm, barbecuing with members he has known for years.

Initially, Wiesenfeld’s interest in the craft centered on bladesmithing, but soon progressed to sculpting.

“I realized that I was not a precise person, and to make knives you have to be precise,” Wiesenfeld said. “I wanted a looser style, and then I realized I like the organic form. ... Being a veterinarian was precise and logical, and I like to joke that I burned out that side of my brain, the left side, and then I had to develop the right side in the second half of my life.”

For years, Wiesenfeld worked part-time at his veterinary practice, preparing to sell it, as he delved deeper into blacksmithing and agriculture.

At about the same time, a living Christmas tree farm sprang from the field that now supports the sculpture garden. For 15 years, Wiesenfeld grew about 3,000 trees — most of them Eldarica pines — on the property that he bought in 1975.

Wiesenfeld’s children helped with the farm, experiencing the country life. His daughter Amber Wiesenfeld, now 28, remembers making wreaths out of the tree branches. Wiesenfeld’s 30-year-old son Jesse visited his own home on an elementary school field trip to learn about the living Christmas tree farm.

“Friends would hear that I lived on a farm and think I was a hillbilly,” said Jesse Wiesenfeld, now a graduate student at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif. “As a kid I got to explore and go have my own adventures.”

He remembers his father’s grand “schemes.” Blacksmithing, unlike other ideas, stuck, fitting in with the farm’s creative environment.

“The lifestyle here is simpler and a more basic life than what a lot of people live, and I guess I’m a little bit of a bohemian at heart,” Wiesenfeld said. “I like this alternative and low-tech lifestyle.”

He calls the farm “rural, rustic and funky,” and despite the five-minute drive to the Foothills Mall, life on the property detours from conventional hubbub.

A dirt road (North Verch Way) leads to the gravel driveway, where a white 1960s Ford pickup truck is parked. The muffled rush of traffic from Overton mixes with chirping birds and the snorts of Wiesenfeld’s two horses, Stryder and Babe.

An Arizona cypress next to his front door and the weathered machine parts strewn on the ground show glimpses of the farm’s life with Wiesenfeld — repurposed over and again like the junked boat now anchored in a tree.

Some, but not all, of Wiesenfeld’s projects stem from personal experiences, inspiring long-lasting motifs in his work.

In his style of twisting metal to look like wooden branches, Wiesenfeld started making empty nests when his children left. His creative take on rocking chairs, such as “Rocking in the Shade,” symbolizes aging. The iron branches form a rocking chair that doubles as a sled, shaded by forged leaves.

“The rocking chair is usually a symbol of being sedentary, but in this one, it’s a sled moving forward, and you can sit on it to move forward and be active while you’re aging,” Wiesenfeld said. “They say different things in different pieces, but this one is to age with verve and energy and just keep moving. For me, (blacksmithing) is what gets me out of bed in the morning.”

Contact reporter Johanna Willett at jwillett@azstarnet.com or 573-4357.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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