Renowned Blacksmith Has Forged a New Idea of the Feminine

Lady’s Day: Elizabeth Brim always wears pearls when she works.
Photo by Clark Hodgin

Elizabeth Brim got her MFA in printmaking from the University of Georgia, but she found her fame in hot steel. Since the ’90s, Brim has been an ironwork instructor at Penland School of Craft. In 2010, she received the Alex W. Bealer award, the highest honor bestowed by the Artist Blacksmith Association of North America. This past April, she won Best in Show for her piece “Shimmy” at the Fire on the Mountain Blacksmithing Festival in Spruce Pine (she’ll be the event’s Master Blacksmith next year). Brim’s sculpture can be found in collections at the NC Museum of Art in Raleigh, the Mint Museum in Charlotte, and the Metal Museum in Memphis. The late Anthony Bourdain visited Brim’s studio in Penland two years ago for his series “Raw Craft.” Known for his own unconventional genius, Bourdain found a fellow traveler in Brim, calling the maker “a rebel.” Through her pieces, mighty conversation starters all, she has forged a fresh identity for traditionally feminine apparel and accessories.

When did you realize you could make a living as an ironwork artist?

When I was still a work-study student at Penland, I painted the screen door on this old building. I thought it would be cool to have a door handle that looked like a snake. So I forged a steel snake and put it on the door. People saw it and started asking if they could buy one. I started making and selling them and realized I could make money selling ironwork art. That snake I made is now in the history archives at Penland Gallery. 

Elizabeth Brim holds up a flowery detail.
Photo by Clark Hodgin

When did you incorporate your feminine imagery?

I was inspired by a fairytale, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” about a princess whose shoes got tattered when she danced. I thought, if she had iron shoes, she could dance forever. So I made those and won first prize in the Southeastern Regional Blacksmithing Conference art show. Then, in 1988, I took the shoes to a national — really it’s international — conference in Birmingham, Alabama. [The shoes] got a lot of attention, and people noticed me. They were different from anything else. Others were making grills and fireplace tools, and here were these high-heeled shoes.

Tutu
Photo by Clark Hodgin

Please explain how you make an inflated iron pillow.

I take two pieces of metal and weld around the edges. The pillow is heated in a gas forge, so it’s a consistent orange color. [Then I] put a pipe in the side and shoot compressed air through it. It’s pretty cool.

CATCH ! Apron in permanent collection of North Carolina Museum of Art.
Photo by Clark Hodgin

I saw remarkable footage of you doing that while wearing pearls.

When I got into blacksmithing, my mother said she didn’t approve because it wasn’t ladylike. I told my friend and he said, “Just wear a string a pearls and you will always be ladylike.” Now my mother tells me all the time how proud of me she is.

How has blacksmithing shaped you as an artist and as a person?

It’s made me a lot more confident in who I am. Life is such a precious gift, and we are very fortunate to do what we enjoy and do best. And I think the people who come to Penland are part of the magic. Being at Penland all these years and knowing all these super-cool people has made me who I am. 

The blacksmith’s original piece was inspired by an old fairytale about a princess with tattered shoes. “[But] if she had iron shoes, she could live forever,” says Brim.
Photo by Clark Hodgin

Elizabeth Brim, Penland. The blacksmith’s work can be seen on her website (elizabethbrim.com) and she can be reached at elizabethbrim8@gmail.com. Brim’s work is often displayed at Penland Gallery & Visitors Center (828-765-6211, penland.org). A large public work (“Serviceberry Tree”) is located at the corner of Roan Road and Oak Avenuein Spruce Pine. Episode 7 of “Raw Craft with Anthony Bourdain,” on YouTube, shows Brim teaching Bourdain ironwork.

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