The public will have the chance to learn about Phoenixville’s history as a steel town and see artwork produced in a modern iron forge when the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area’s newest exhibit opens Friday.
The exhibit is titled “Blasting Heavy Metal! Inside the Phoenix Iron Company” and features the society’s collection of artifacts and archives from the steel company that was once the heart of the borough as well as the metal sculpture and other work of local metalsmiths Ian Coleman and Alicia Mann.
The gallery will hold an opening from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday at the historical society’s building at 204 Church Street with an after party at Molly Maguire’s. At the opening, the artists will be on hand to discuss what it’s like to work in a forge. The exhibit is free and open to the public and runs through the end of November.
In combining the historical artifacts and archives from Phoenixville’s history as a steel town with contemporary art pieces, Anni Weden, the chair of the Historical Society’s museum, hopes to link the past to the present and make it relevant to young people today.
“When they come in and people take a look at this art, they’re also going to see diagrams, pictures and artifacts from the steel company, too,” she said. “It’s going to be right in front of them, part of the same exhibit, so that history won’t be lost.”
The historical aspect of the exhibit was also a major draw for the artists.
“We’re actually really excited about that because we live here, and Phoenixville was founded on this idea of the foundry and it’s really cool to be a part of the area,” Mann said.
“[We] kind of continue the tradition in kind of a different way than it was,” Coleman added. “I love studying history, so being able to tie in the stuff I’m making to people that did this in the industrial professional setting and really built an area, it’s an honor.
“And most things are done the same way still. Not that much has changed. You can look at tooling in their case, and it’s the same as us,” he said with a laugh.
The core differences in the tools used today, Mann explained, is the efficiency and safety of the power tools used — from the compressed air and steam-powered hammers used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to the electrically powered hammers of today.
Much of their work takes traditional, functional crafting techniques, such as certain types of joints or designs, and exploits them to show the beauty of them. One example is the exaggerated butterfly joints in a shelf made by Mann, and the butterfly-shaped brackets she used to mount it.
The pair has a lot of experience with functional craftsmanship. Mann and Coleman create high-end furniture and lighting and restore high-end antiques for a living, and smith for artistic purposes as a hobby.
“We probably spend, if not more, [then] just as much time making our tools as our actual pieces,” Mann said.
“Yeah, making the tools is what gives you the ability to make the pieces,” Coleman added.
Because of the importance of their home-crafted tools and to help tie in their work with the local historical significance, the exhibit also features a display of many of the artists’ tools. As an example, Coleman pointed to a chisel he forged himself and then ground a curve into in order to cut arched lines into his work.
“You get to see who they are through their work, as well as what does it mean to work within a forge,” Weden said.
In addition to their metalwork, the exhibit also features some painting, sketches, photography and other art by Mann, including pictures she has taken of work in the forge.
One such photo showcases the inherent dangers of working in a forge. It shows Coleman standing by their crucible after it blew out, with a river of molten iron from the crucible flowing past.
“It was beautiful, though,” Mann said. “Look at that color.”
While many of the pieces highlight the craftsmanship of the art, others explore religious and esoteric themes. One of Coleman’s works, titled “The Inner Gates of Dis,” shows the gate to the lower circles of Hell from Dante’s “Inferno.”
Another work is a juxtaposition of animus and anima, the spiritual and psychological aspects of masculinity and femininity, and depicts a male and a female figure, emerging from hands, and linked at the neck.
Amongst all of Mann’s and Coleman’s works and the historical pieces in the exhibit, Weden said there is something for everyone in the exhibit.
“These guys make iron so hip, basically,” Weden said. “Their stuff is so cool.”