There is an odd, yet soothing rhythm and clanging at Orion Forge, a 1,000-square-foot warehouse that feels as if it could double as a modern day car garage for Connor MacLeod from Highlander. In the center, a forge blazes at more than 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit and a double-horned anvil is anchored nearby, still red-hot from the steel that was most recently shaped on its face.
The 11-year-old Orion Forge has been in this space for six years and hosts two metal workers who are entering a currently secret, yet purportedly "epic," piece in this year's Oregon WinterFest Swift Steel Fire Pit Competition. Kellen Bateham and Hunter Dahlberg show off last year's runner-up from the Fire Pit Competition. It stands waist-high, and is shaped like approximately 10-foot-wide bicycle cassettes, from the center of which rises an intentionally-cracked pipe that is discretely choked by tree roots made of steel. Despite its solid and metal form, it is emotive and calls to the surface notions of the strength of living nature. Blacksmithing "is more than making swords," Dahlberg says as a rebuttal to the common misconception about his trade. Bateham adds that it is more than a way to make a living. Both Bateham and Dahlberg say, "The best thing I did was decide to be a blacksmith."
And when it comes to this year's installation, these three-time WinterFest fire pit professionals give almost nothing away when discussing their work. The men say they have put countless hours into their piece and Dahlberg describes it as "fire-dining. Or, heavy metal. You choose."
In its third year, and first with Swift Steel sponsoring, the Fire Pit Competition has grown into an international affair, attracting 12 of the best metal-workers in the region, as well as Jennifer Elsworth of Faerie Forge, hailing from New Zealand. All told, a dozen installations—some holding tranquil flames, others breathing fire—will be on display beginning at 5 pm Friday and will burn bright until 6 pm Sunday. With the installations lined along the Deschutes River in the Old Mill District, they will be at the heart of the festival. Each will be competing for "Best of Show," and an attractive cash prize.
Another participant, Gustav Sculptor, is coming from Portland. A 25-year sculpting veteran, he is participating in WinterFest for the first time this year. Sculptor (yes, an appropriate name) started Manifestation PDX, an artist's collective in southeast Portland, which he manages with his fellow fire pit competitor Richard Cawley. Sculptor shares that blacksmithing is an "exploration of my relationship to life I have here on this tiny speck of dust floating in unfathomable space," and explains that his interest in blacksmithing was once an "art habit," but he is now grateful that after years of "working unpleasant jobs" he can make art a full time career. Reflecting on what has led him to participate in the WinterFest Fire Pit Competition he says, "I have to give those bad jobs credit....Each a prerequisite onto the next [and] executed with more finesse each time due to lessons learned."
Over the past few months, Sculptor has been "brain storming, building, testing, tearing apart and rebuilding" something that he wants to reflect the mission of Manifestation PDX, which is to say "encourage free thought for the advancement of humankind."
Karin Roy, who has been organizing the competition for Lay It Out Events since 2013, explains that there is more to these fire pit pieces than a competition. "They create a gathering place," she says. That means festival goers can look forward to staying warm and artistically engaged while enjoying food and beverages. Another highlight is the Central Oregon Metal Arts Guild (COMAG) Fire Arts Experiential Area, which will allow willing community members to try their hand at shaping metal. "This is truly a one of a kind event," says Roy.