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Nature's Forge - Blacksmith bends metal to reflect her environment

Article by Matt Driscoll/ Photography by Heather Douglas

The story of fire and metal is nearly as old as civilization itself. Although the methods have changed over the centuries, Deb Harkness follows a very long line of blacksmiths bending metal to their will.

Unlike her forebears, Harkness’s finished products are more creative than those traditionally crafted by blacksmiths. Three dimensional animals, custom made weather vanes and one-of-a-kind dining sets, all fall within Harkness’s purview.

Although she creates a multitude of designs for a multitude of functions, her passion lies with recreating the natural world in forged metal.

“I live on the water and what I see in nature is what truly inspires me to get moving in the shop,” says Harkness from her studio in Beaumaris.

Harkness spent most of her professional life working for the federal government but she’s always had a love of the arts, and black and white sketch work in particular. She found the stark beauty of that work reflected in three dimensions via the world of metalworking.

She became inspired to take up blacksmithing after watching local artist Jim Carter at work. Carter has been blacksmithing for over 30 years and runs a studio on Falkenburg Road, just outside of Bracebridge.

“I would go out to watch him work, and sometimes I would buy his work,” she says. “He would have demonstrations as well and that was where I really started thinking this was something I wanted to do.”
In 2000, she decided to take a course offered at Sir Sandford Fleming College’s Haliburton Campus.

The artist blacksmith program teaches students how to control fire and hot metal to create pieces that range from small scale objects to large installations. Fleming’s blacksmith studio has multiple propane forges, coke (a grey, hard and porous fuel with a high carbon content and few impurities) forges, cutting and welding equipment, as well as specialty tools.

“I thought it was a wonderful experience,” she says. “It was quite a condensed course but it really laid the foundations.”

Upon her graduation, Harkness started apprenticing at a local blacksmith shop, learning the basics at first and then expanding her knowledge and skill set.

“You begin by drawing a sketch on cardboard and then transfer it onto 14 gauge sheet metal and start cutting it with the plasma cutter, then it just grew from there,” she says.

Harkness apprenticed for eight years and then decided it was time to branch off on her own. Building a blacksmith’s studio is a time and money intensive process, she says.

“I had to get my forge certified and import a power hammer from took quite a while to get everything in place,” she says

Her studio now has a propane forge with three burners that offer instant heat, along with a variety of different hammers and various other tools of the trade. Each hand-forged piece comes to its final form through a method of sketching, forging, welding, plasma cutting and painting.

Harkness is originally from Pickering but she moved to the area in 1985 to live year round with her husband at his Birch Island cottage on Lake Muskoka.

“It’s an absolutely beautiful place to live but it can be treacherous getting to and from an island during the ‘in-between’ seasons,” says Harkness.

In 1991 she moved to her current home in Beaumaris, and says she continues to marvel at the natural wonder offered by the region’s ecosystem.

“The windswept Georgian pine is one of my favourites, and it’s also one of my best selling pieces,” she says. “They’re often made of rock and steel and they’re some of my biggest and heaviest pieces. I made one piece where the tree was three feet high and background was six feet across.”

Peacocks, horses, candle holders and flowers have all been brought to life in steel on Harkness’s forge.
Recently she’s been creating live edge coffee tables, moulding the legs in all manner of artistic relief.
While COVID-19 has limited Harkness’s ability to welcome guests, she still enjoys having people in her studio one at a time.

It’s a unique opportunity for the curious to see the incredible scenery of the Lake Muskoka shoreline, and its reflection cast back in solid steel.

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