The Austin Forging Competition, held each year at Community First! Village, is an exhilarating clash of some of the most talented blacksmiths in the country.
The battle of the metal workers rages 3 hours, and contestants are only permitted to use unpowered hand tools. The pounding of hammers ring on hot metal as flames blaze from each corner of the square arena, deep in the rolling woods of central Texas. Only a 4 foot barrier of wooden beams and corrugated metal separate the competitors from spectators. Children and grownups alike, stare wide-eyed from the sidelines as age-old techniques are used to bend metal to each artist’s will.
Throughout the events of the day, I followed the Battle Belles around.
The Battle Belles:
Blacksmiths Elizabeth and Anne Team Up in Austin Forging Competition
The two meet in a class at Penland School of Craft in 2007. Since then, they’ve followed each others’ careers–enjoying their friend’s success from afar. When Anne was invited to participate in the forging competition, she knew Elizabeth would be the perfect partner.
“I got into blacksmithing at Penland School of Craft in North Carolina. I originally signed up for an 8 week woodworking class and hated it! But as luck would have it, there was an iron studio right next door calling my name.
Metal work is my full-time job. I just finished with a two year blacksmithing apprenticeship at the Metal Museum in Memphis. I am now in what some people would call journeyman mode. I travel around working on metalwork in different places and learning from different people. I have equipment in storage, waiting for the right time to land and setup a forever shop.” –Elizabeth Belz
Elizabeth worked in healthcare for 13 years before she dedicated her life to metalwork. Currently, she’s working at John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina. Elizabeth assists with their marketing and development departments. She’ll be helping pilot new classes with them this fall. You can browse Elizabeth’s work on her website.
“I discovered blacksmithing while I was a student at Oregon College of Art and Craft in Portland. I was in the Metals Department, which specialized in jewelry, holloware, and small sculpture.
I had no idea that blacksmithing was something that people did, let alone that it has an amazing contemporary community producing incredible sculpture and architectural work. The summer between my 2nd and 3rd year, I received scholarships to attend Haystack Mountain School of Craft and Penland School of Craft.
I fell utterly in love with the process.” –Anne Bujold
Anne received her MFA in the Craft and Material Studies Department at Virginia Commonwealth University so she could teach at a college level and perfect her skills. She recently completed a two year residency at the Appalachian Center for Craft in Smithville, TN, and is currently working on a collaborative project through the end of the year. You can browse her work on her website.
Elizabeth has competed in several different events. Each time has given her greater confidence and taught her new skills you an only learn in the arena.
“It’s not all about showing off and winning. It’s about showing up, hanging out, exchanging ideas, being inspired—showing the public what can be done with metal work.” –Elizabeth Belz
This was Anne’s first time competing. The nervousness weighed on her as she stepped in the ring, but she instantly felt reassured as the process began. The crowd of onlookers faded from thought as her work intensified.
It was really amazing to drop into being focused with so much going on around us.
That’s the beauty of blacksmithing. When you have a piece of hot metal in the forge, that’s the only thing that matters in that moment. If you fail to keep your attention focused, it can burn up in no time, and you only have a short window to work it when you bring it out of the fire.
It’s very much a practice of being in the present moment.” –Anne Bujold
“I think one of the biggest misconceptions people have about blacksmithing and fabricating in general is that it’s for big, strong men. I mean look at me! If I can do this, anyone can if they have the desire!” –Elizabeth Belz
“It’s hard work, and it’s dirty, but anyone who is passionate about this work is capable of doing it.” –Anne Bujold
The duo decided to construct a Bat Bell for their entry. As the only female team, Anne and Elizabeth joked that they would be the “belles of the ball,” hence the name Battle Belles. What else would they craft but handmade bell?
The bat nods to the location of the competition. Austin is famous for the Mexican free-tailed bat colony that lives under the South Congress Bridge. All throughout summer, crowds gather along the river hoping to catch a glimpse of the tiny winged mammals. It’s quite the sight to see one of the world’s largest bat colonies in flight, silhouetted against the brilliant hues of a Texan dusk.
“I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia at a really young age. I think I was in my 20’s, and now I am 33 years old. I am currently waiting on an official diagnosis of Lupus. It’s not something I run around telling everyone, but it’s something I wake up with every day.
Sometimes it takes me a little longer than it should to get out of bed, but blacksmithing and metal work are what get me going every day. It sucks to be in pain all the time, but when you are heating metal up to 2000 degrees and hitting it with a sledge hammer—who has time to worry about the pain? It is really just you, fire, and that metal.” –Elizabeth Belz
“There is a lack of diversity in the field, and that’s something that needs to be actively addressed.
I am part of a project called the Society of Inclusive Blacksmiths. We started with a group project in 2018 and have been working towards building a community that can support, encourage, and inspire folks who want to pursue this work—because this work is for anyone who wants to do it.
We are developing a scholarship project, to provide direct support to underrepresented folks to take classes, as well as a mentorship project. Both will be launching before the end of the year.
It can be really hard to step into something when you don’t see yourself represented in that world, whether that’s race, gender, sexual orientation, or physical limitations. Building a network of support for those who encounter systemic barriers to pursuing their ambitions is important.
Blacksmithing will only benefit from having a more diverse pool of practitioners, bringing new perspectives to the craft.” –Anne BujoldBoth Elizabeth and Anne are involved in the Society of Inclusive Blacksmiths, doing their best to make the world of metal more inclusive.
“The community around smithing is one of my favorite parts. That really shines at an event like the AFC. The people who pursue this craft are some of the smartest, most driven, interesting people I’ve had the pleasure to spend time with. I feel so lucky to call these folks my friends.
Then of course there’s the making itself, which is incredibly gratifying. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do, but seeing my work improve over time is really satisfying.” –Anne Bujold
The Battle Belles add the finishing touches to their handcrafted Bat Bell.
The Battle Belles may not have won the competition that day, but they had fun and pushed themselves to greater heights in their careers. It was encouraging to see their friendship translate into the world of hot metal and creativity.
The community of metalworkers is constantly growing. If you’re interested, check out the Society of Inclusive Blacksmiths. There is a place for you to learn and flourish.