Friday, March 18, 2011

Forge in Sutton Junction revisited


By M. Helmuth Starhemberg
The blacksmith shop of Olivier Burnham sits smack in the middle of the village of Sutton Junction on Valley road which connects Sutton to Brome. "This place is well over 100 years old and was once surrounded by buildings. Sutton Juncion was larger than Sutton and the railroad had repair yards here and shops and warehouses", explains Burnham (44) His place had been a woodworking shop, a metal working outfit and in WWII retread tires were manufactured here as all the good tires had to go to Canada's armed forces. Then it was a cantine. Since 1996 Olivier has been here and has built a thriving business as sculptor, smith and creator of ornamental ironwork for architects and interior decorators. He builds creative bannisters, railings, chandeliers and hat racks or any other item that can be made from iron stock.
"I work to architectural plans and specifications if this is desired" explains Burnham"but the most important thing is that I can be creative because I wish to make enduring works of beauty. If you just want a rod iron fence, this is not the place for you"
Originally from a town near Nice, France, he had in 1995 taken a course in iron work in Toulouse but was very unhappy about the structured environment he found himself in."I started out as a sculptor and wanted to learn the techniques of shaping metal, of welding and do correct spine work. Three months before the course ended, my instructor told me to 'shape up or refund the cost of the course' because he had become too 'independent'. I stuck it out and now I am glad that I did because it did offer me a good foundation to build on"he explains. And he adds that the course "did give me knowlege of working the heat and to explore different styles".

In 1996 he had befriended a woman from Quebec who invited him to come and visit. "It was either a remote part of France or Quebec" he tells. "I am so glad that I came here because I have been made incredibly welcome. I do not even have to advertise, the work just keeps coming in from referrals of previous customers.
The forge is a place right out of Brother's Grimm, a huge center fire, a more than 100 year old ten ton drop hammer, antique anvils and tools, iron stock and projects in making everywhere. My flashlight probably scared the magic dragon away but who knows, he might live there in some corner

A local restaurant "Il Duetto" is his "gallery". Burnham designed all the iron work for the place and many of his sculptures are showcased there as well. In the center of Sutton he has three of his pieces on display, one of them is the beautiful arch depicting bicycles which spans halfway across Rue Principale and is the starting point of the big international bicycle race every year. But the loving detail of this artisan's craft lies in his whimsical creations, many of which can be seen in his showroom. He uses a great variety of everyday items and incorporates them in finely crafted ironwork.

Olivier does not currently have any employees. "I used to try this and I had a number of apprentices, but they normally last about three months after which they figure out that this is hard, demanding and exacting work. It is hot, physically exhausting and often dirty and smelly". He adds "you have to have the passion for this kind of work otherwise it won't work out. This is not a job, it is a 'calling', something that, like poetry or painting cannot easily be taught. You either have it or you don't".

Burnham's huge building has just recently acquired a tenant, an organic, artesinal chocolate business and this spring will start art classes and a full cafe on the premises. "You have to keep the energy flowing and things have to evolve. When I can add something or somebody creative to the place it will enrich us all"
In one corner of the forge which is about 100 meters from the main building for reasons of fire security, there is a huge ornate very old iron cemetary cross, heavily rusted."The Catholic church of Sutton has asked me to restore this and a number of others that are in the cemetary behind the church" explains Burnham. "Somebody made those things one or two hundred years ago and I try to recreate the pieces in the same spirit in which they were forged by unnamed local artisans so long ago. This gives me the great satisfaction of the continuity of my own work which someone may have to restore a hundred years from now".
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