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Iron Man 

Blacksmith's studio doubles as "museum of tools"

Urban development mixes a bittersweet cocktail.

Fast-moving urban development gives the city a buzz, just like a gin and tonic affects our senses. But when the mix includes the inevitable gentrification of previously disregarded parts of town, the cocktail is often bitter for the tribe of artists living there and, most often, it is sweetest for the developers who go there to make more money.

In a well-known process of a city's growth, artists are often "the affecting presence," those people who find places that are a little cheaper to inhabit, to work or to play -- they claim them and make them better, more interesting places. Then the bourgeoisie discover them, consume the ambience avidly, and before too long, the artists find their digs (which are usually rented) are sold out from under them by greedy landlords or developers.

Artists are good for development, but is development good for artists?

Adjacent to the NoDa district, and clearly situated in the path of such gentrification, is Cullman Avenue, where a small community of artists and craftsmen inhabits a series of smaller-scale, single-story brick warehouses. Whether the land where they're located is gobbled up by a new greenway or by the creation of more condos for "creative class" wannabes -- whatever form the developer's dream takes -- these studios and workshops will be in the way.

If they have to move, these artists will find other, cheaper places to set up shop. Artists have to be adaptable. The gentrification cycle is a way-of-life in Charlotte.

The enthusiastic Theron Ross is one craftsman-artist caught right in the middle of this swath of changes. Artistic Ironwork and Big Toe Studio, owned and operated by Ross, is located on Cullman Avenue. The gallery is in front and the ironworking studio in the back. As Ross describes it, his studio is also "a museum of tools" where he has amassed an assembly of metal-working tools. Some of them are 50 to over 100 years old and still in working condition, such as a two-ton 19th century hammer that has pride of place in the space.

Hand-forged authenticity is pretty rare in the building industry today -- in any form -- and Ross is busily grabbing up some of the strands left behind after so much furniture and fittings have been out-sourced to countries with lower labor costs.

Ross, a blacksmith who forges metal rather than welding it, is liable to take one of those simple, well-built but boring pieces of furniture sent to America from who-knows-where, set it up next to his blacksmithing tools in his Cullman Road studio and embellish it with the spiral motifs from shepherd's crooks and great bands of belted metal.

Ross is clearly excited about his blacksmithing, his funky space complete with an authentic yurt (a tribal tent), the neighborhood where his studio/gallery is situated, and the works of art featured in Big Toe Gallery. This art includes his own forged iron sculptures, beautiful woodwork by Zack Sessions, and soft, bright, colorful, post-impressionistic paintings by Cher Cosper. Cosper's works, which feature settings in France and elsewhere, are composed of small dabs of color from a small brush.

Ross enjoys several strands of creativity, and his more down-to-earth architectural commissions include patterned metal panels for porches, door handles, cantilevered kitchen counters, pastry racks, wine racks and pot hangers. He also makes outdoor railings with the texture of tree bark. One commissioned 40-foot-long railing is made of three pieces, and blended on site along a hilly, twisting path. Other bread-and-butter commissions include fire screens and fireplace tools.

Ross' forged details reveal the honesty of traditional craft. "Joins have natural bulges," explains Ross. When designing a piece, he says that forging metal opens doors in ways that welded metal or cast iron can't.

Ross has a separate portfolio of sculpture. His designs swirl into spirals, flowers and mini-Mongolian yurts. In a sculpture titled "Space Yurts," three old metal hairdryers find new life and meaning. He reuses other steel elements, I-beams in particular. "These are the souls of buildings," he says.

Some of his sculptures, especially those that juxtapose unrelated elements, contain a whiff of the surreal. His combo frying pan and telephone belongs in The Futurist Cookbook.

Works of art such as "Flower" have a built-in paradox: They are about something soft and yielding, yet made of something hard molded into the shape of a delicate thing. Ross credits North Carolina metal artist Elizabeth Brim, whose work often contains intriguing contradictions in terms, for influencing his development of ironwork forging.

His work is "all forged" and Ross refers to the transformation of the metal through heating as "my passion." His learning experience has lots to do with Penland. Not surprisingly, blacksmiths are rare, and the Carolina blacksmith community is small and tight. Ross has several mentors and close friends within it, most of them associated with Penland. Among them are Albert Paley and Nol Putnam, as well as Elizabeth Brim, a former McColl Center for Visual Arts artist-in-residence.

Artistic Ironwork and Big Toe Studio is off the beaten path, but I hope developers leave the artists' spaces in peace -- at least for now.

Artistic Ironwork and Big Toe Studio, 3123 Cullman Ave., is open for First Friday gallery crawls or by appointment at 704-376-8688. To see more work by Theron Ross visit Beet Fine Contemporary Crafts and Functional Art, 3202-A North Davidson St., or www.beetonline.com.

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