Some girls want to be a ballerina when they grow up. Aislinn Lewis wanted to be a blacksmith.
The 23-year-old American College of the Building Arts student discovered the craft when she was a teenager growing up in Montross, Va. She was visiting George Washington's birthplace when she noticed a few living historians firing up some iron. Pretty soon she was volunteering at the site, learning the age-old techniques of crafting objects by taking fire to metal.
"I've always loved to make things, and it was another way to make stuff," Lewis says. "I was really intrigued with the process of heating up something that's really hard and making it soft and turning it into something completely different from what it started as, which still fascinates me."
Being homeschooled allowed Lewis the flexibility to explore her interests.
"I think being homeschooled definitely was key in me becoming a blacksmith," she says. "I do think it allowed me to explore where I might not otherwise have done. I have always been surrounded by people, especially my parents, who have encouraged me to delve into my interests."
She joined the local blacksmithing guild and learned to make more intricate pieces; one of her favorites is a small garden gate with a dragonfly design. But it wasn't until Lewis heard about ACBA that she started seriously considering blacksmithing as a career path.
"Once I found out about the school, it showed me that people were doing it professionally," she says. "I felt like I needed more training. There's really not anywhere else in the U.S. like this school that gives you a really solid four-year training. Otherwise you'd be stuck with weekend workshops. You'd accumulate the information over time, but this is definitely a lot more straightforward."
Two days a week, Lewis takes part in intensive workshops with fellow ironworking students, tackling a different project each semester. Last semester they made a small garden gate. So far this semester, they've crafted the tools that they'll use for the next project — nails, hinges, latches, and locks. Then they'll move on to crafting railings that will be used at the Old City Jail, the school's main campus. The other three days of the week are devoted to traditional liberal arts classes.
The Forged Architectural Ironwork Program trains students to work with various kinds of metal. The first two years, students learn the basic techniques: how to use the forge and bench, how to draw. The final two years are more intensive, with a focus on practical skills and expanded techniques, like modern fabrication, gas forges, and power hammers.
Like other ACBA students, Lewis was encouraged to do a summer internship. She worked in Colonial Williamsburg, where she dressed in period garb and created small, useful objects, like tools and eating utensils.
"I really like making things that are both beautiful and functional," she says. She also loves Gothic-stlye ironwork and cites master craftsman Samuel Yellin as a huge influence. As for Charleston's own blacksmith superstar, the late Philip Simmons, Lewis says he has a strong presence at ACBA.
"He was a major artistic force here in town, as you know," Lewis says. "He was an inspiration in the founding of the school, and his grandson is our provost. His style was very distinctive, and I think his work is a great reflection of the Lowcountry."
When she graduates in 2012, Lewis hopes to pursue a career in historical reproduction. Whether she stays in Charleston or moves to another historic city, we'll be sure to enjoy her forged creations for generations to come.