Appalachian Blacksmiths Association
Organized in 1978, the
Appalachian Blacksmiths Association is an affiliate of ABANA. We represent blacksmiths,
bladesmiths, and farriers in West Virginia and its surrounding states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky.
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Appalachian Blacksmiths Association
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Samuel Yellin's Gift to West Virginia;
By George Nichols
Originally appeared in the Weston Independent, 12/15/1976
George Nichols, a blacksmith who resides on the Right Hand Fork of Freeman's Creek, Lewis County, has researched the background of a significant landmark and its iron work. The Citizens Bank of Weston stands as one of several masterpieces Yellin completed in this country and is the only one in West Virginia and Nichols provided the following information concerning the local work and its master craftsman.
In this year of bicentennial awareness, communities around the country begin a search for those artifacts, large and small, commemorated and forgotten, which provide that all important link either directly with our forefathers or at least with the customs and practices of their 1776 period.
Blacksmithing or forging wrought iron or mild steel on an anvil with hammer and tongs has historically been a very important part of our heritage.
Smithing was, until the early 1900's, a craft which produced items of a functional nature, Many of the items were beautiful in their simplicity but were rarely works of artistic expression combined with functionality .
SAMUEL YELLIN, American master of wrought iron-1885 to 194O-changed all of this. At the age of 22, he came to America as a master blacksmith. Having started his training at age seven in the village of Mogiler, Poland, under a Russian taskmaster, at the age of 17 he was a master smith in the old world tradition of fine craftsman.
As is the tradition of new masters in all trades, he set out to see the world, earning his way with the tools of his trade-spending three years in Belgium, two years in England, and in 1906 coming to America and working in Philadelphia. Later he established his own shop and by the early twenties employed over 200 craftsmen. "Blacksmith" rather than "artisan" was how he preferred to refer to himself; nevertheless he was a complex man and a recognized genius.
In 1920, the American Institute of Architects presented him with a medal for his extraordinary work. This was the first time that a craftsman rather than an architect had been given such an honor in America.
In 1925, he was voted Outstanding Citizen of Philadelphia and given $10,000. He was acknowledged to be America's foremost authority on history and technique of decorative ironwork, and in 1940 was asked by Encyclopedia Britannica to write the section "Modem Technique and Practice" on ironwork.
Of all his objectives, Samuel Yellin's greatest efforts were directed toward rekindling a real love of craftsmanship and bringing about a real renaissance in handmade crafts. In his zeal for his art and because of his deep concern over the lack of thorough training for iron craftsmen, he threw open the gates of his shop after a strenuous workday to all who wished to learn the craft. He gave his guidance, facilities of his shop, his library, and in the words of Emerson, "his philosophical inspiration that the beautiful rests on the foundation of the necessary ."
Yellin mentioned that a craftsman's first preoccupation should be with learning the capabilities of his own material and that this material must be suited to the meaning he wished to convey.
Samuel Yellin sketched with a "hammer for a pencil and the red hot iron for the drawing paper." Ideas were hammered out at the anvil in his belief that it was the sketch which furnished the character, quality, and the inspiration for the finished work. Before detailed architectural drawings, study sketches in the actual material were made, for here many things are revealed which could not possibly be shown on paper: for example, the character of a twisted member or the flexibility of the material. His craftsmen completed a work from these sketches and careful shop drawings. Yellin supervised very closely the work from rough drawings to final buffing.
Nowhere in Yellin's work appears the stereotyped. Infinite variety was always his objective for it was this which gave life to the pattern. He said, "Only the imperceptive will ask why I avoid making every leaf in a foliated design just like every other leaf."
In 1940, Samuel Yellin died in Philadelphia, leaving a legacy of the highest artistic achievement in wrought iron work and providing a continuing inspiration and challenge for those who would follow him in his form of art.
All of West Virginia can be thankful for and proud of its "artistic masterpiece." That is the grilles, screens and lighting fixtures on and in the Citizens Bank of Weston.
The strength, security and beauty are conveyed in the artistically executed window grilles, door gates and lights in the bank. Look closely at the flowing twists of the main door members, the finials showing flame-like quality and the delicate look of the foliated design attached to the main door members. Looking at them, you can almost hear the anvil's ring and see the glistening perspiration of the smith as he works to complete the details on each of the massive pieces before final assembly and installation.
Take the time to stop and look closely at the ironwork. Notice that the look is handmade. Touch the metal. Where today do you find such heavy material so skillfully rendered in the traditional manner? The design for the Citizens Bank, as far as this writer knows, is original. An original work of art by a master is to be treasured for sure, but thankfully can be shared by all who will but take the time.
This writer is indebted to Harvey F. Yellin, Philadelphia, Pa., son of Samuel, and also Myra Tomash Davis of the Dimock Gallery, The George Washington University, Washington, D. C., for the information contained herein.
(The original article also lists other prominent projects that Samuel Yellin built.)
George Nichols is a founding member of the Appalachian Blacksmiths Association.