With the fluid ease that comes from years of practice, blacksmith Lara Max used metal tongs on a recent afternoon to pull a glowing hot square of steel out of her small forge and place it carefully on her anvil.
Then Max, 48, selected a hammer and began to strike the steel square, her blows ringing throughout her rustic blacksmith shop even louder than the whoosh of the hot wind that came from her forge. Her long, curly hair flowed out from under her face shield, her blue jeans and work shirt covered by a heavy-duty apron, to protect her from errant sparks. Behind the forge, which can get as hot as 1,700 degrees, an open door gave a glimpse of thick snow falling on the trees that screen her property from the road nearby that runs past her rural Penobscot County homestead located about a dozen miles north of Orono.
In short, it’s a very long way from metropolitan Texas, where she comes from, and that’s just the way Max — a blacksmith, artist, jewelry-maker, house painter and even sheetrocker by trade — likes it. She grew up in Dallas-Fort Worth, which has a population of more than 7 million people and is known more for its high concentration of corporate headquarters, big hats and oil-rich history than for its quiet country roads and simple blacksmith shops.
“I didn’t belong,” she said. “I was 20 or 21 when I moved up here. I came to Maine to work as a whitewater guide, and it was a very good fit.”
Max found employment at Maine High Adventure, the Boy Scout base located on Grand Lake Matagamon, where she had come as a camper in the 1980s and loved it. It didn’t take her long to find her way back for good, and she stayed even after spending her first winter in the snowy city of Presque Isle. But it did take her a little longer to figure out what hats she would wear in order to make a living in the Pine Tree state.
“I’ve always been interested in nontraditional things,” Max said. “And as a kid, I wasn’t allowed not to be creative.”
That creative drive and a family history of making stuff has helped her to fit in up here, where many people choose to live off the beaten track and support themselves and their art with a variety of day jobs. Max said that great-grandfathers on her mom’s and her dad’s side of the family were blacksmiths, and a great-great uncle worked as a metalsmith. When she spent a weekend at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle taking an introductory course on blacksmithing, she was hooked.
“I had so much fun,” she said.
Now Max considers herself to be an artisan blacksmith who creates forms with texture and color out of basic metal shapes. That may not be what people first think of when they imagine someone striking an anvil by a fiery forge.
“It’s a whole different breed,” she said. “I don’t know anything about a horse. I do make things out of horseshoes.”
Instead of utilitarian items such as horseshoes, Max uses her forge and hammer to bend metal into more artistic shapes. She makes sculptures, such as a realistic-looking bass swimming through wavery grass made of hammered copper and a delicate iris, every petal forged by hand, that would look right at home planted in a yard or garden.
Over the years she has been honing her craft, Max has continued to have fun. One of her most popular items stemmed from an experiment.
“I was playing around, wondering what can I do with a square of metal,” she said.
Max used her hammer to mark that square with divots and then gently bent it into a concave shape. After it was cooled and polished, she found that the metal rang when struck by a mallet, just the way that Tibetan singing bowls do. The bowls are a type of bell that originated long ago in Asia that can be used for meditation, music, relaxation or healing. Now, she makes 300 of them a year and said they have become her bread and butter.
“I like to try new things, and a few things stick,” she said.
As she worked on several of the bowls, which she took out of the forge in turns, it looked to an untutored eye as if her fast-moving hammer was striking the steel square at random. But Max said there’s nothing random about it, and pointed out the visible hammer strikes on the hot steel resting on her anvil.
“It’s like three-dimensional target practice, and if you miss and hit the anvil, you feel it right up your arm. To me, it’s like drawing with a hammer,” she said. “Each one of these little divots is a hammer mark. Different hammers give me different textures. The first couple of bowls I made were really ugly. I had no hammer control. But I’ve been making these for 12 years now, and I know the shape that will give me a ring.”
After she’s finished striking them and shaping them on an antique sledge block, she sets the bowls down to cool, and their bright gold glow slowly fades to cherry red and then to the gray of the metal. The bowls, which last summer were featured in Boston Yoga magazine, are scooped up by yoga aficionados and meditation practitioners, along with schoolteachers who want to get the attention of the kids in their class and wives who need a particular sound to rouse their husbands. Max smiled as she remembered a woman who struck every singing bowl she had on stock at one of the summer art fairs the blacksmith attends until she found the one that made her hard-of-hearing husband take notice. And if the bowls are often used in meditation, it’s fair to say the making of them is a meditative exercise for Max.
“I find I get more relaxed and clear my head hammering,” she said. “It really makes you focus.”
When not working in front of her anvil or in her studio making jewelry, paintings, cards or her other creations, Max is busy running her homestead and the non-creative part of her business. She has chickens, a garden and some elderly sheep. She sells some eggs, trades hay for piglets and trades again for someone else to raise the piglets.
“I consider it a subsistence farm,” she said.
As with many Mainers, the summers are her busy season. Max is a member of some art galleries and co-ops that are located far from her homestead, and she also brings her work to some of the art fairs that bloom along the coast in the warmer months. That means long days, and lots of miles in her car, but to Max, being able to be a self-employed artist is worth it.
“I’m only accountable to myself,” she said. “It’s not so easy. Sometimes it’s hard to keep motivated. I glean and I trade. But it’s self-sufficient.”
To her, a good life means that when her arms are too tired to work on her sculptures, she can come inside her house and paint. She can also take all the time she needs to work on a project.
“I have the luxury of coming up with ideas, and I can work on them for years before the public sees them. Like the fish. I forged it over and over again in my sleep and in my daydreams,” she said. “I get to create, and there’s always something I can do.”
Lara Max’s work can be found at One Lupine Fiber Arts in Bangor, Coyote Moon in Belfast and the Art Space Gallery in Rockland, as well as on her website, laramaxartist.com. For more information, call 478-8032.