Renowned blacksmith Jeffrey Funk claims he will not be “proselytizing” about the virtues of self-reliance, his study of the history of Luddism or his “ambivalence about the trajectory of our technical civilization” at the school he’s opening this summer out of his Bigfork workshop.
But it’s not like he’s going to avoid the subjects altogether.
The New Agrarian School, created and operated by Funk, will offer its first six classes this summer, two-week intensives that combine an artist’s creativity and a philosopher’s curiosity, which sounds about right for the 63-year-old blacksmith who has spent most of his 42-year career working quietly on hand-forged projects ranging “from ploughshares to public sculptures.”
Funk may bristle at being described as an artist, especially as a man who chooses his words very particularly and dismisses the Art (with a capital A) world that he believes has veered away from him, but Funk is, by most definitions, a brilliant artist. He spends his days creating, taking pieces of metal and bending them to his will, even if sometimes it is just to create a pair of tongs that will be used to hold another piece of metal. He’s made a living in front of his forges his entire adult life, even when that meant living out of a teepee and working out of a shed in the early days, and as he’s learned more and more about his craft he’s cultivated a philosophy that informs much of what the New Agrarian School is about.
“I’m interested in people and prospective students knowing that there’s a great, ground-level, creative hands-on world to be had,” Funk said. “Young people have grown up in so much electronic technology, but this is technology.”
Agrarian societies are based around cultivating the land, often understood to be focused on agriculture but in reality going beyond that, and that’s where Funk’s blacksmithing comes in. His vocation is rooted in taking metals from the earth and shaping them into something useful, and his first class at the school will teach how to forge blacksmithing tools. Funk is the instructor for that course along with another about making garden tools, and there is a third course, taught by another blacksmith, on forging kitchen utensils. But those three courses are only half of the offerings.
“I probably could teach just tool-making classes and I’d fill the classes, but I want to expand it beyond that,” Funk said. “Some of the classes are going to be more conceptual in nature.”
Two in particular — one led by Funk and another from New Orleans-based blacksmith Rachel David — will bend strongly to the philosophical side. David’s class is Roots of Form, which “will look at forms developed in both traditional and industrial societies, examine their nature, practice their execution …” according to the course description. Funk’s class, Forging from the Natural World, involves students carrying notebooks into the field, observing “forms that appeal to them” and “translat(ing) that into iron.”
The school’s other initial offering, taught by Whitefish blacksmith Tony Stewart, is an art course called Forming of Mascarons and Related Decorative Shapes.
The variety in the offerings is deliberate.
“There’s a lot of people who have a draw to blacksmithing who are not coming from what they would describe as an art perspective,” Funk said. “But my philosophy, which I try not to impose on anyone but I’ll offer it, is that being practical doesn’t exclude the possibility of an aesthetic experience.”
Along with the classes, students will also have the opportunity to stay onsite in primitive accommodations, free to philosophize and socialize after long days working together.
In addition to the coursework, Funk said he will freely share his opinion on the fuels used in metalwork. He eschews coal to power his forges, instead using more environmentally friendly propane and sustainable options like charcoal and wood pellets.
Funk said his age was one factor in his decision to open the school, admitting he can’t spend the eight to 10 hours a day at the forge that he used to, but the opportunity to share his passion for the craft, his immense knowledge and his well-considered philosophies are at least as important.
“I don’t have the track record of having a school here, but it’s a really good facility and so people can get into it pretty deep, pretty quickly,” Funk said. “And, as you can probably tell, I’m still excited about it. I love this stuff as much or more than ever. I really do.”
Summer classes are limited to six students per course, and a few are restricted to students with some blacksmithing experience. The cost of a two-week summer course is $1,500. Funk plans to offer shorter classes in the fall and winter and, if all goes well, continue expanding the school in future years.