Paul Webster is a local blacksmith who heads up the forging community at the Historic Duluth Armory. At 52, he’s a jack-of-all-trades who’s also managed to master a few over the years.
He grew up in Tamarack and went to college at UMD. He first took up the craft of blacksmithing in 1988. “I started out at Arms and Armor. They needed a grinder grunt, but it turns out I had a feel for the steel and within a year and a half, I was weapons foreman.”
But making a living as a blacksmith can be daunting. “I currently call it a ‘jobbie.’ It’s not quite a job, but it’s more than a hobby. My actual full-time job is as a field manager for Black Goose Chimney & Duct.”
The Armory Fire Arts Center, a forge/workshop/art gallery adjacent to the Historic Duluth Armory at 1325 London Road, has been in operation since 2013. “I had been training people in the art, primarily through community education. I really enjoy teaching, and so I had all these apprentices at my shop on the homestead.
“After about 10 years, I realized we needed a different space, a more neutral space, because we were at a point where we had too many blacksmiths, each of whom were requiring more forge time. So I took the names of the people working in my shop and I called them, asking if they wanted to be board members in a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Of the seven I called, five said yes.”
Photo by Jon McCoy
Paul Webster brings the art of
blacksmithing to Duluth, where
“artists are hiding in the woodwork.”
Even an art as obscure as blacksmithing found a niche in Duluth. “This is something that occasionally comes up in forging community discussions. Duluth has artists kind of hiding in the woodwork, honing their skills and trying to make a place for themselves while they go on making a living at their day jobs, so to speak.
“Very occasionally, someone will break out and actually make a comfortable living as an artist. What we need is more venues to help keep that drive alive and to generally build more interest. I liked [former] Mayor [Don] Ness’ idea of the Arts Corridor...There’s an understanding that the Twin Ports have a palpable artistic vibe.”
And that vibe is gradually finding more focus at the Armory Fire Arts Center, which in addition to open houses and school tours, sports an art gallery and a gift shop. “Say a group of ten teenage students show up for the introductory course. Of those ten, two or three will be interested and come back for more classes, and one or two will eventually get his or her forge.”
The gender-neutral language is no accident. Webster is actively seeking to rectify the gender disparity in his chosen art form. “Blacksmithing is ridiculously manly. However, two of our board members are female. Over the years we’ve seen more and more interest and expertise from women in blacksmithing.”
In addition to being a blacksmith, mason, and teacher—he’s currently enrolled in the welding program at Lake Superior College and working towards renewing his teacher’s license—Webster is a keen navigator of life itself. “In the long term—because we’re all mortals and we all develop injuries, especially in the labor intensive occupations—the fact that I’m trying to share out the craft to people who can help me stay in the craft, people for whom I could someday be a consultant, for example, is my attempt to ‘even out’ this very physical craft in an aging body. By the time you reach your mid-40s, you realize the Reaper doesn’t necessarily just show up and one day take you; the Reaper likes to come and body-check you every now and then.”