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Smelt, forge, and cast at the Fire Arts Center

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The Fire Arts Center of Chicago can be found off the Paulina brown line on 1800 W. Cornelia Ave. Behind an unassuming door in the Cornelia Arts Center, this institution is dedicated to the practice and teaching of the skills of the blacksmiths of old.

There's always been an element of magic attached to blacksmithing in the cultures of the world, metaphorically and sometimes literally. The blacksmith was a figure of magic in Finnish and central African culture; their work forging and casting iron was accompanied by rituals, song, dance and traditional clothing to ensure their metal products would be strong and true.

In comparison, there's a bit less ritual and formality in the Fire Arts Center's workshop, which is cluttered with many different items and works in progress. On one side are sets of tongs, hammers, tools, boxes, and bronze busts. To the right, on a set of muddy shelves, are piles of plaster and brick molds used to cast bronze. Lastly, in the center there are two anvils, bars of metal stock, and a surprisingly tiny furnace positioned underneath a smoke hood.

There still is a magic to it all, and every one who works at this location has a certain pride at practicing this ancient science, a skill that was vital to humanity's survival and technological progress for thousands of years.

The Fire Arts Center hosts several different kinds of classes, each of which either runs for 10 weeks for $285, or 16 weeks for 400. The Metal Furniture Studio classes teaches people how to fabricate and braze metal furnishings for tabletops, while the Knife and Sword Making courses teach students to make bladed weapons and tools, often using recycled railroad ties as stock materials. The Metal Sculpture courses teach the basics of designing metal sculptures, and how to reshape them with gas forging and welding techniques. Lastly, the Foundry courses teach students how to cast with bronze, using moldings, kilns, and wax casings to create works of art.

The Fire Arts Center's 20th anniversary is coming up, and it's members are keeping busy. A few are experimenting with burnout kilns, contraptions that resemble a hybrid of propane tanks and crucible and burn at intense temperatures for as long as gas is pumped into them. Two others are currently forging a dagger; one of them is hammering a red-hot railroad tie at an angle, twisting it into a circular rod, while the other hammers divots into his tie so he can turn it into a wrist guard for the dagger.

It's hard, dehydrating work. It's also work with quite a bit of magic to it.

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