We sat down on Brenda and Woody Harman’s porch out in Pocahontas County to interview them about their creative partnership, BrenWood Forge & Broom. Brenda is a broom-maker and Woody is a blacksmith.
Come back here Thursday at 6pm to see the video portion of the interview.
Check out their open studio coming September 14th and 15th! – http://www.madwv.com/event/open-studio-brenwood-forge-and-broom/2019-09-14/
How did both of you get started with your craft?
Woody: I got started, I went to horseshoeing school in Michigan and a blacksmith out of Grenich Village. I worked with him in the evenings on the forges at the horseshoeing school. I was very rudimentary but it piqued my interest. When I was 26, I had cancer. While I was recovering from the cancer it was like, “Okay, you do not know if you are going live very long or not.” So, I decided to do more blacksmithing as to have a legacy left of my life and it would be here forever. You know? I did it as a hobbyist for the next 25 years and, when we moved down here to West Virginia, I retired from my day job. We moved down here. I just started wanting to do the blacksmithing. I luckily got a job for a house at the Greenbrier and that forced me to go into an upper level of blacksmithing.
Brenda: And more artistic.
W: And more artistic… and I am still working on that. I attribute that as to one of the things that took me from one level to another in blacksmithing.
B: I was looking for a home based business that I could stay at home and make some money. My husband here, Woody, needed a broom for a fireplace tool set. So, he asked me to make one. What I did is I tore apart an old broom and figured out how it was made. Then, I made a broom. I made it on his handle. He asked me to make another one. It got to the point where I decided I should figure out how to make a really quality broom.
So, at that time, I went to John C. Campbell Folk School and went to a weekend class. I had a great time, learned how to make a broom. I came home with all kinds of great ideas, but then realized how much I didn’t know about making a broom. I talked Woody into letting me go back to John C. Campbell for a week long class. I have been making brooms ever since and I even try to make a new kind of broom each year, just to introduce something new that perks people’s interest in my hand-tied brooms.
How do you find the new kinds of brooms that you make?
B: I listen to what people say and I try to figure out what tool I could make out of the broom-straw. A lot of times it is just listening to other people talking. I make a variety of brooms and brushes now, from closed brushes to percussion drum stick brushes. I have had a lot of different people contact me from other areas of the country and other countries. They ask me to custom makes something.
From there I sometimes start producing it and selling it. A lot of times it is just listening to other people’s ideas and figuring out what I can utilize.
What does working in heritage crafts mean to both of you?
B: Both blacksmithing and broom-making in our opinion is a heritage craft. They are traditional crafts that have been around for ages. The broom-making probably predates the blacksmithing only because… your cave people (both laugh)… those who lived in the cave wanted to maybe clean out an area to cook their food. So, they would have picked up a stray twig or bundle of grass or something to brush aside an area that they would use to create a fire. So, I would say that a broom would predate blacksmithing. Your blacksmith was the foundation for the whole civilization because they built tools.
W: The roman blacksmiths put shoes on their horses which let the conquer the known world at the time. Their horses did not go lame. That is just a small thing that a lot of people don’t realize. Just having a steel plate on a horse’s foot to keep it sound so you can travel long distances.
B: There was a blacksmith and a broom-maker in every village.
W: Like she said they are both heritage crafts. Both are the type of crafts where if someone wanted to become a broom-maker or a blacksmith they would apprentice under an existing one in the area. So, you would learn your craft from a person who was already proficient at it.
The blacksmith probably had a longer apprenticeship program because there are so many different things to make, from nails to hinges to hammers. Anything out of metal is what they would have used. A lot of small towns as the United States spread West, to attract a blacksmith, would give them a house and a blacksmith shop, because without them they would have to go to the next village to get anything, to get their nails or their hinges, any hardware.
How else do you think your two crafts relate?
B: I think our crafts compliment each other. His metal work is often used for my handles and my brooms fulfill his toolsets for the fireplace and stuff. Even in their texture, mine being natural fiber and his being cold hard steel, it’s a nice clash of materials. We took the name BrenWood, our business name. My first name is Brenda, his nickname is Woody, that is how we came up with BrenWood. I think it goes well together.
W: It rolls of the tongue nicely.
Yeah, it does!
W: When we demo and stuff, we are usually a big attraction. We do the Louisberg farmers market. We’ll have people coming down there, they’re there to buy fruit and vegetables and so on, and they always come down to watch her sew a broom.
B: The smoke from his forge and the clanging of the hammer on the anvil makes the noise and sparks their interest. They come to see what is going on.
W: A lot of old timers come down to check out my setup and things like that. It is kinda nice and even when we demo at the Pocahontas County Artisan’s Co-Op everyone tells us that we are one of the main attractions of interest. They check out everyone else too. It seems like we are a decent hit wherever we go.
Have either of you taught other people your craft?
W: Teaching classes is a plus and minus situation. When you are teaching you cannot create anything yourself because you are teaching the basics or maybe an upper basics area, which slows you down on your own. I have been trying to get Marlinton to get a blacksmith shop and I would like to have 3 young people to come in that I could work with to have them run it.
B: I would say that when you teach a class or someone to do your trade that helps you improve. It makes you better at what you do. You pay attention to detail more and you actually learn what you are doing and how you are doing it to such a degree that you become better at what you are doing.
W: I agree with that. It definitely does…
One of the biggest things that I have in blacksmithing is this “Forging Fire” that is on television now. Every young person wants to make a knife, but they do not want to learn the basics. They just want to jump into making a knife. (Laughs) You know?
First you gotta learn the basics, how the metal moves when its hot, at which heat does it move, how do you forge weld metals together, before you can ever make a knife. They don’t realize that they would have 3-6 months of learning the basics before they could ever make a good quality knife.
How long have you all been doing demonstrations for?
W: We have been doing demonstrating a long time. Even when we lived in Ohio. There was a couple of shows that we would go to a year and I would always set up a forge. Sometimes I would heat up steel horseshoes and stamp people’s names into them while they watched. That really went over big. I think in one two day show I did over 400 horseshoes. My arms wanted to drop off.
B: I think demonstrating is a real important part of selling and presenting your craft.
W: And educating the public…
B: And educating, yes. So, we definitely have done the demonstrations from day one. It helps you have a relationship to the public, to talk to them, to talk about what you are doing, and present your artwork in a positive light. I think that demonstration is a plus for anybody.
W: Tamarack helped us with the presentations by getting us to write up our bios and our artist statements, stuff like that. I never thought about that much but after we started doing it people do read them. It puts a personality into what you are doing. They can associate you more with it then. They know your history. They know what you are doing.
Here is a link to their MAD page…