For centuries African-American blacksmiths created works that were both utilitarian and beautiful. But in recent years the craft has begun to die out, and few artisans remain. Philip Simmons of Charleston is one of the few remaining blacksmiths in the area. Through a long life, Simmons has demonstrated the marriage of art and craft. The gates and fences he has created can be seen throughout Charleston. Visitors to the restored area of the city see in the historic Charleston a long tradition of blacksmithing going back hundreds of years, thanks to Simmons.
Simmons has been recognized for his work both in the state and in the nation. In 1993 he was voted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame, which was created to honor the contributions of South Carolinians. The Smithsonian Museum named him a National Heritage Fellow and the National Endowment for the Arts named him a "master traditional artist." An iron gate that Simmons created for the Smithsonian with a star and fish design has been displayed all across the country. The State Museum in Columbia commissioned a gate which is on permanent display. The city of Charleston commissioned a gate for the Visitors' Center. Photographs of his work are on display at the Avery Center in Charleston.
Many of the more than 200 gates that Simmons created contain elaborate designs of animals and trees. One of his gates that incorporates a snake is thought to be the first gate in Charleston using an animal design. He has also designed ornamental fences, stair rails, room dividers and window grills. Shown is a photograph of one fine example of Simmons's gates in Charleston. (Photo by Aimee Smith.) A historic preservation group, the Philip Simmons Foundation, is currently recording Simmons' work, with his help. Simmons marked all of his pieces, but couldn't remember everything he has made. Every week, Simmons is driven around the city to hunt for his creations. The group has located more than 550 pieces, a difficult task made even harder since many people don't know they own his work or don't know his reputation.
Philip Simmons was born in 1912 on a barrier island off the South Carolina coast. His family lived in the town of Wando and moved to Charleston in 1920. Philip decided early on that he wanted to do ironwork, but because it was so dangerous, he had to wait until he was a little older to learn the trade.When Simmons was twelve, he dropped out of school and he began his apprenticeship as an ironworker. His teacher, named Peter Simmons (not related) helped him to develop his skills over the next thirty years. He began by cleaning floors in the shop, gradually moving on to other work. Much of the work involved such tasks as shoeing horses. At the time when Philip was learning his craft, the demand for his skill was fading due to the advent of the automobile. So Philip learned to use different types of tools, and he learned to work on cars instead of carriages. He also turned to repairs on the ironwork in houses, and in time became skilled at ornamental ironwork. The quality of his work was so good that it was difficult to tell if it was done by Simmons, or if it was the work of craftsmen of earlier times. Sometimes he would be commissioned to do something specific, but often the image was his own design.
By the 1930s Simmons had become a successful artisan, but the untimely death of his wife left him with a dilemma. Their three children were very young. It was impossible for him to run a business and look after small children at the same time. In order to support his family, he had to ask relatives and friends to care for his children. Simmons has said that it is his business that has paid the bills for him and for his family all his life. His work was always in demand.
At the age of 84, he continues to practise his craft, using the same forge he was trained on many years ago. He is now semi-retired, but is still designing ironwork. He has taken on apprentices of his own, who have learned both the art and the craft using the same techniques Simmons learned when he was a young man. After Philip Simmons is gone, the tradition of blacksmithing will live on in Charleston.
More information about Philip Simmons can be found at: http://www.philipsimmons.org/aboutsimmons.html
Cauthen, Andrew. "Artists in Iron and Words Chosen For Hall of Fame." The State (September 14, 1993), B1.
Flanders, Danny C. "Forging Ahead: Blacksmith is a Charleston - and U.S. - institution." The State (June 9, 1996), Home 4-6.
Flanders, Danny C. "Group seeks homeowners' help in documenting work." The State (June 9, 1996), Home 6.
Vlach, John Michael. By the Work of Their Hands: Studies in Afro-American Folklife. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1991.
last updated 2/5/2002
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