Kitch­ener mas­ter black­smith San­dra Dunn a ‘rare breed’


Kitch­ener mas­ter black­smith San­dra Dunn a ‘rare breed’

W ith a swing of her ham­mer, black­smith San­dra Dunn coaxes po­etry and pas­sion out of fire and metal. She pos­sesses as many cre­ative ideas as she does tools in her new shop and teach­ing fa­cil­ity in a tidy-look­ing in­dus­trial build­ing in Kitch­ener’s Bridge­port neigh­bour­hood.

The en­gag­ing, in­tense woman, wear­ing jeans and a worn, blue T-shirt with holes that at­test to her work grind­ing metal, is a pow­er­house. She’s an artist, a col­lab­o­ra­tor, a teacher, a men­tor, a com­mu­nity builder, a hum­ble mas­ter black­smith with in­ter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tions to her name. (She’s dis­in­clined to use the term “mas­ter” be­cause “the work speaks for it­self.”)

She de­signs and makes the sculp­tures, ar­chi­tec­tural iron­work and fur­ni­ture in forged cop­per, alu­minum and bronze that come out of her shop. Her works are in pri­vate and pub­lic col­lec­tions in Canada.

“She’s a rare breed,” says Ron Doyle, who com­mis­sioned Dunn to “help me cre­ate the iron sense of Ha­cienda Sar­ria,” a Span­ish­style wed­ding and spe­cial events venue he founded at the end of Union Street in Kitch­ener. Her “mas­ter­piece” front gate is the first hint that guests are in for a treat when they drive in­side.

“She’s an artist; she’s a math­e­ma­ti­cian; she’s an en­gi­neer. She un­der­stands chem­istry and ma­te­rial strengths,” Doyle says. “She’s a woman in a very phys­i­cal game, pound­ing steel with heat and smoke.”

Doyle’s friend, Hana Gart­ner, re­tired in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist best known for her award-win­ning work with CBC’s “The Fifth Es­tate,” was im­pressed when she met Dunn at her shop.

“Ron Doyle took me around to her shop and I didn’t want to leave,” Gart­ner says. “First of all, how many black­smiths do you get to meet and how many of them are women?

“She ap­peared a bit shy ini­tially, but the minute I started pep­per­ing her with ques­tions about black­smithing, San­dra sparked more brightly than her forge,” Gart­ner wrote in an email.

“Who’d ever think that some­one could wax so poetic talk­ing about forg­ing flow­ers from cold hard steel. This isn’t just a job. For Dunn, it’s clearly a labour of love.”

On this day, Dunn, whose short, blonde hair and dark-rimmed glasses ac­cen­tu­ate an ex­pres­sive face, is sur­vey­ing her new workspace, shortly af­ter her move in April. The 2,400-square-foot space in Unit B at 8 Grand Ave. is for both teach­ing and


“I’m so glad I’m here,” she says, gaz­ing out the win­dows at her neigh­bour across the road, W.S. Bell Cartage with its distinc­tive red and white trucks. “I love this area. I used to live on a farm near Bridge­port and Bloom­ing­dale.”

As an elec­tri­cian works on a lad­der high over­head, Dunn de­scribes her plans for black­smith work­shops. She’s ex­cited to get the four forges that she de­signed in place, for two stu­dents at each one. Eight sets of tongs and ham­mers are ready, made by Dunn and mem­bers of her team, Bron­son Koz­das, who was one of her black­smithing stu­dents, and black­smith Aimie Botelho.

A glass wall at the en­trance will sep­a­rate the shop’s noise and dust from a clean space for draw­ing and de­sign work and visit­ing lec­tur­ers, she says.

“There’s no good teach­ing fa­cil­ity in On­tario other than Hal­ibur­ton,” Dunn says, re­fer­ring to the Hal­ibur­ton School of Art and De­sign where she was for­merly an in­struc­tor for 12 years.

It’s a credit to Dunn that Adrian Legge, an in­ter­na­tion­ally known mas­ter black­smithing in­struc­tor at Here­ford Col­lege of Arts in Eng­land, with whom she has worked, ac­cepted her in­vi­ta­tion to come to Canada in Septem­ber to teach mas­ter classes for black­smiths that fo­cus on de­sign.

Dunn, who has taught in Aus­tralia, New Zealand and Hawaii, also of­fers in­tro­duc­tory cour­ses at her shop, in­clud­ing one for women called “Sis­ters of Fire.”

Stu­dents need not worry about fit­ting the tra­di­tional im­age of the burly black­smith.

“You have to know how to use your body. You don’t have to be a big, mus­cu­lar per­son,” she says.

Dunn is just as busy with her cre­ative ven­tures.

Chief among them, she’s work­ing on a sculp­ture for the Ion light rail tran­sit stop at Grand River Hospi­tal. Called “Spinal Col­umn,” the piece is a bench re­sem­bling a spinal col­umn forged from a piece of light rail track. Ten works from var­i­ous artists

were se­lected for the route.

“She’s a very well-re­spected lo­cal artist,” says Kate Hager­man, Water­loo Re­gion’s su­per­vi­sor of cul­tural her­itage plan­ning, de­vel­op­ment and leg­isla­tive ser­vices.

“She of­fered as part of the process to let peo­ple see her do­ing cre­ative work in the stu­dio. She’s very down-to-earth. She can trans­late very well what she can see in her head.”

Ear­lier this sum­mer, the City of Water­loo un­veiled Dunn’s first piece of pub­lic art, “Fish Out of Wa­ter,” at its ser­vice cen­tre re­spon­si­ble for wa­ter and sew­ers. The sculp­ture fea­tures a cas­cad­ing cop­per “stream” – with metal fish swim­ming up­ward – that ap­pears to pour down a drain from a pipe sus­pended in the air.

In June, Dunn fin­ished a com­mis­sioned piece in time for Water­loo’s Open Streets fes­ti­val, a whim­si­cal bi­cy­cle built for four with seats at vary­ing lev­els.

She forged rail­ings for a house in Toronto’s wealthy Rosedale neigh­bour­hood. For fun, she crafted a kayak out of Sitka spruce in a friend’s garage to take to her fam­ily’s cot­tage at Fletcher Lake.

To fo­cus on her shop, she post­poned a July trip to Aus­tralia where she was to lead a com­mu­nity project.

In Septem­ber 2016, Dunn was one of 25 mas­ter black­smiths from around the world to gather in Ypres, Bel­gium, where they de­signed and made unique rail­ing pan­els that would sur­round the new First World War Peace Mon­u­ment. The year be­fore, she or­ga­nized black­smithing groups across Canada to give cit­i­zens a chance to forge some of the 2,016 steel pop­pies that were in­stalled at the ceno­taph base.

“It puts her in a league of her own,” Doyle says.

Dunn’s sched­ule is in sharp con­trast to four years ago when she won­dered if she could con­tinue black­smithing for a liv­ing.

Then, Two Smiths, the busi­ness in which she and cop­per­smith Steve White were part­ners for 14 years, didn’t have enough projects to sus­tain it. Af­ter 20 years in busi­ness, Two Smiths was on the verge of bank­ruptcy.

“It’s a strug­gle for any busi­ness that is mak­ing things by hand,” she says. “Every­thing leav­ing the shop is a pro­to­type. You fig­ure out the de­sign and how to build it and make the tools to build it.”

In 2013, White re­tired. Dunn de­cided to stay in the game.

“I started a plan and read it over,” she says. “I re­al­ized it is valu­able hav­ing knowl­edge and skills. You don’t need stuff if you have skills.” At the same time, she

learned “never be afraid to dream.

“My fo­cus is not on mak­ing a lot of money,” she says. “My fo­cus is do­ing in­ter­est­ing work.”

First things first, how­ever. She had to pack up her shop on Bor­den Av­enue in Kitch­ener and find a new lo­ca­tion. With Doyle’s help, she found a place on Ardelt Av­enue.

“We moved 30,000 pounds in 30 hours,” she says. She was es­pe­cially grate­ful for mov­ing help from Doyle, as well as Dou­ble R Steel and Die-Kat Cranes, a metal work­ing busi­ness and a crane com­pany with which she had shared the shop space. They didn’t ask her for a cent in re­turn.

“They said, ‘you help peo­ple when you can,’” she says.

It makes sense that peo­ple want to help her, says Darin White, a photographer/sto­ry­teller who uses bench space at the shop in ex­change for pho­to­graphs for Dunn’s web­site and pro­mo­tions, and lessons in weld­ing.

“San­dra has a su­per-gen­er­ous spirit. She’s re­ally open.

“She sets the tone in her shop. It’s re­spect­ful, cre­ative, open, gen­er­ous. She’s an ex­cel­lent teacher. She is sup­port­ive and she has a con­fi­dence in what she’s do­ing.

“Some peo­ple have a nar­row lens on the uni­verse. San­dra’s is wide open,” White says.

Dunn’s con­fi­dence was boosted six years ago when she col­lab­o­rated with black­smiths at an in­ter­na­tional event in Saskatchewan.

While chat­ting over the anvil, she dis­cov­ered her fel­low black­smiths weren’t flush with money ei­ther. “It’s hard to make a liv­ing. I found out they’re all in the same po­si­tion. It’s not mo­ti­vated by money.”

She cred­its Doyle for in­spir­ing her and for giv­ing her steady work, with dead­lines, at Ha­cienda Sar­ria around 2007. Among the projects there, you can see the strik­ing metal sculp­ture of Don Quixote and his horse, his loyal squire San­cho Panza, wind­mill blades on the wa­ter tower and the ar­rest­ing front gate that she de­signed and made.

She learned she didn’t need to fo­cus on per­fec­tion.

“In the end, he (Doyle) let me not take my­self so se­ri­ously. I started look­ing at old iron­work and none of it is per­fect and why do I have that idea any­way?” she says.

“She has the stamina and willpower and chutz­pah to carry a project to the end,” Doyle says. The big gate is stun­ning. “I just walk by and stop to touch it.”

Now, in her sixth shop in 24 years, Dunn, 50, is start­ing to forge parts for the Ion sculp­ture. She’s also look­ing for­ward to mak­ing an al­tar, lectern, four floor-stand­ing

can­dle­sticks and litur­gi­cal fur­ni­ture for the Brothers of the Good Shep­herd whose out­reach work she re­spects.

“I’m most ex­cited about the Ion piece. It’s not of­ten that you get a com­mis­sion to do a large piece of forged iron,” she says. The tim­ing couldn’t be bet­ter as she sets up the new teach­ing shop.

“Get­ting the com­mis­sion has made all of it pos­si­ble.”

Dunn’s 84-year-old fa­ther died five days be­fore she left for Ypres to join other black­smiths from around the world to work on the peace mon­u­ment.

She con­sid­ered stay­ing home, but the fact that her fa­ther was a vet­eran, hav­ing joined the Cana­dian mil­i­tary when he was 21, helped con­vince her that the trip was a mean­ing­ful way to re­mem­ber him.

Her Ger­man-born grand­fa­ther fought in the First World War, she says.

“The peace mon­u­ment is about how point­less war is and how there are so many sim­i­lar­i­ties among all of us,” Dunn says. “It was a re­ally pow­er­ful project be­cause all these black­smiths came to­gether. Ev­ery day, 60 peo­ple were forg­ing at the same time.”

It hit her when she saw pho­tos of young sol­diers who had died in the trenches and she thought of her own 19-year-old son, Liam Dunn Kelly, a univer­sity stu­dent. “Ev­ery­one was some­one’s brother and child. It was very sober­ing.”

Her fa­ther’s in­flu­ence is partly the rea­son she was able to see her­self as a black­smith in the early days when she was look­ing for a fo­cus af­ter grad­u­at­ing with a bach­e­lor de­gree in fine arts from the Univer­sity of Water­loo.

“I never felt as though dad had male or fe­male jobs for us. He treated us as equals. I never un­der­stood how rare that is un­til I be­came an adult,” she says.

Early in his ca­reer, Dunn’s fa­ther, a quiet, re­served man, flew a Her­cules air­craft, the huge, four-en­gine tur­bo­prop mil­i­tary trans­port plane. He flew sup­plies to re­mote com­mu­ni­ties in the Arc­tic, and to An­gola and other dan­ger­ous lo­ca­tions af­ter he re­tired from the mil­i­tary. Later, he taught pi­lots how to fly Har­vard air­craft.

Her par­ents val­ued ed­u­ca­tion. Her mother, with a Grade 10 ed­u­ca­tion, fin­ished high school by cor­re­spon­dence and took Queen’s Univer­sity cour­ses by mail. When they moved to Tren­ton mil­i­tary base, her mother drove back and forth to Queen’s in Kingston and fin­ished her mas­ter’s de­gree in Ger­man lit­er­a­ture.

Her fa­ther, who loved lit­er­a­ture, read Sa­muel Tay­lor Co­leridge’s works at the cot­tage that he de­signed and built and gave his daugh­ter CBC tapes of au­thor in­ter­views to lis­ten to in her truck. Dunn stud­ied English in ad­di­tion to fine art in univer­sity.

Her fa­ther was pas­sion­ate about the nat­u­ral world and their house was filled with books about plants and an­i­mal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. She learned the names of ma­jor con­stel­la­tions. “I have a tele­scope and I can still name the con­stel­la­tions.

“Even in Ypres, I looked at the con­stel­la­tions and thought of dad.”

When she was 20, Dunn took a break from her univer­sity classes in win­ter and helped to work a trap line in North­ern On­tario. Liv­ing in a small cabin with a tin wood stove, she trapped beaver, martin, muskrat, ot­ter and mink. The ex­pe­ri­ence gave her an even bet­ter ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the nat­u­ral world and its in­ter­con­nected wa­ter­ways.

That pas­sion is re­flected in her de­signs. “Cop­per Tree,” for ex­am­ple, is a cop­per, stain­less steel and brass sculp­ture of a whim­si­cal tree lo­cated on a pri­vate trail in Rock­wood. Its trunk has com­part­ments in which a child can store bits of na­ture. Dunn filled one com­part­ment with etched cop­per plates with plant and an­i­mal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion im­ages.

She was en­thralled with the work of the late Haida artist Bill Reid.

“I re­al­ized I was at­tracted to the Haida tra­di­tions about sym­bols and how an­i­mals par­tic­i­pate. I re­al­ized what I ap­pre­ci­ate about black­smithing is that it’s a tra­di­tional craft.”

She was in her mid-20s when she vis­ited Arte­facts, a sal­vage and de­sign com­pany in St. Ja­cobs, and fell in love with the forge. “I was try­ing to fig­ure out what to do. I knew I wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t have a lot to say.”

She signed up for black­smithing work­shops and took cour­ses in Canada and in­ter­na­tion­ally.

Armed with forge and fire, Dunn has plenty to say.

“She’s fear­less cre­atively,” White says.

San­dra Dunn’s tal­ents are on dis­play at the en­trance to Kitch­ener’s Ha­cienda Sar­ria, a Span­ish-style wed­ding and spe­cial events venue.

‘Spinal Col­umn,’ a bench forged from a piece of light rail track, will be found at the Ion tran­sit stop at Grand River Hospi­tal.

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