|Metalsmith Don Asbee's Functional Art Adorns Local Settings
By Kris Hilgedick
Columbia Daily Tribune
October 2, 2010
Metal artist Don Asbee was a college freshman when a friend — a young man with a promising career in academia ahead of him — decided to “chuck it all” and head to Montana to learn how to shoe horses.
“It just resonated with me,” Asbee said. “I just decided to burn all my bridges and follow him. I had never even seen an anvil. I’d never even picked up a horse’s foot.”
He didn’t realize that blacksmithing is a separate profession from horse-shoeing, although they share some similar skill sets.
A city slicker from the New York area, Asbee found himself studying “range sciences” alongside the sons and daughters of ranchers. His parents were furious he left college, he said.
After finishing the program, Asbee followed his family to Missouri. At the time, his father had transferred jobs from the New York region to St. Charles.
Don Asbee and then-wife Joan searched the real estate listings for land they could afford and found a parcel in Bland. Although Asbee and Joan have since divorced, they have children together, and they have remained a close-knit family. “Joan and I are still really close,” Asbee said.
Asbee spent about seven years shoeing horses in Bland. But it was the metal work that captivated him. He began to focus more and more on it, repairing farmers’ machinery and crafting one-of-a-kind parts.
When he started building wood-burning stoves, his career took its current form.
Asbee is the sort of person who studies something to perfect it. He examined the functionality of wood stoves to improve the way they draw smoke. He describes his approach to the stoves as “reinventing the wheel.”
His stoves also “became more and more artful,” he said.
For each homeowner who contacted him, he built a stove that was uniquely handcrafted. Today, insurance rules require a specific fire-safety rating, which makes it difficult for Asbee to sell custom stoves, so he has moved on to other work.
“It kept me from getting into a mass-production, mass-marketing approach,” he said.
Asbee said many iron workers learn how to make a widget and then do it so well they can reduce costs and sell hundreds of them.
“That never fit me at all,” Asbee said. “I don’t fit the Chamber of Commerce model.”
Instead, Asbee, 58, focuses on one-of-a-kind functional pieces that often decorate opulent homes. He crafts gates, fire screens, chandeliers and kitchen pot racks.
He’s completed commercial projects, such as iron signs at Boone Tavern and the Saint Louis Zoo. His work is displayed at the Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and at Les Bourgeois Vineyards in Rocheport.
However, an early installation at the Kellogg corporate headquarters in Battlecreek, Mich., showcased Asbee’s artistry and demonstrated his ability to tackle large-scale projects.
“It really got me on the map,” Asbee said.
Nearly all of Asbee’s clients are well-to-do; he’s worked for many families in Ladue, one of the state’s wealthier enclaves. He’s worked the family of former U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth and the Trulaske family, for which the University of Missouri’s College of Business is named.
Asbee laments the fact that many people believe his work is too expensive. For the record, he charges $65 per hour. He doesn’t think many auto repair shop workers earn less than that.
He wished people who appreciate his work wouldn’t automatically assume it’s out of their reach. “Well, give me a chance to bid that!” he tells them.
“It’s very labor-intensive and time-consuming to produce,” he said. “I have 38 years’ worth of experience.”
An environmentalist at heart, Asbee loves to save and repair things.
When he installed a sculpture at the National Biodiesel Board called “Algenesis Revisited,” he recycled travertine stone from the original building’s facade and metal from another site.
“We wanted to reuse something distinct from the building,” said Donnell Rehagen, chief operating officer for the board. “We want people to recognize you can take an old resource and turn it into a new one.”
Featuring images from nature, Asbee’s wall sculpture represents biodiesel’s future because many researchers believe algae will yield the next big breakthrough in biodiesel production.
Rehagen said Asbee did a good job of crafting a sculpture that fit naturally in a tall, narrow space. “He did an exceptional job of capturing what we wanted him to do,” Rehagen said.
Asbee uses his propane forge far more frequently than his two coal forges, and not just because coal soot would blacken his shop over time. He’s upset about mountaintop removal. “I don’t like an industry that pays so little attention to the environment,” he said.
At the moment, he’s helping with an art auction called Helmet Heroes. The money raised will help fund a scholarship for students interested in military social work. Trained workers will be better prepared to help veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Called “Casque Volant,” Asbee’s design has Mercury-like wings elevating a World War II-style helmet.
When he works, he enjoys bouncing ideas off other artists and architects.
“I love working with other artists and designers,” he said. “I have an approach that lends itself to collaboration.”
Sometimes Asbee’s work can be rather dark in nature. Many of his projects feature medieval textures and shapes, dark, twisting tentacles of unseen creatures and asymmetrical pieces that speak to our industrial past.
He’s not sure what inspires him. “Maybe it’s from my childhood,” he said.
Asbee is a member of Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. Asbee said he was targeted by predatory priests as a boy and lived with guilt and shame for years.
“It was a very dark thing to recover from,” he said.
But he chalked up his imagery to the medium he’s chosen for himself. “It’s the nature of blacksmithing. ... It implies moving a dark metal,” he said.
He might be approaching the summit of his skill, but he’s nowhere near finished.
Asbee said he’s mastered blacksmithing by now, but he hasn’t learned everything there is to learn. “There’s always another layer, another aspect of this art waiting to reveal itself,” he said.
And he enjoys teaching the craft.
On Monday, Asbee taught John Baker — the two friends met at a cocktail party — how to lay a tidy weld joint.
“It’s like squeezing a tube of toothpaste,” Asbee said as he demonstrated the skill.
Baker is the husband of former state representative Judy Baker; until seven weeks ago, he served as pastor at First Baptist Church on Broadway.
Baker is a hobbyist who always has enjoyed woodworking but wanted to learn a new skill. Asbee said he is always interested in “promoting the beauty of metal” and enjoys teaching others his trade.
One a pastor and the other an artist, together the two men have pondered ways to memorialize the end of life — specifically through the creation of urns.
“It sounds really morbid,” Asbee chuckled.
“I’m just fine with cremation,” Baker said. “There’s no reason you can’t do a lovely one.”
It might be a wide-open market for Asbee to explore. He thinks he might be able to take the elements of iron and ashes and turn them into a compelling, meaningful sculpture to faithfully memorialize a person’s life.
Although many of his customers live complex lifestyles, Asbee’s own life is a portrait of Waldenesque simplicity. He lives in a tiny room adjoining the rear of his garage/shop. A ship’s ladder — metal, of course — leads to a small loft.
Some of his work is displayed, but the small apartment is hardly a museum.
For him, the joy comes from creating his sculptures, not owning them.
“I just feel so blessed to be able to do what I love to do and have people waiting for me to get it done,” he said.
Reach Kris Hilgedick at 573-815-1722 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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