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Hamptons Life

Apr 10, 2018 11:27 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Metalsmith James DeMartis Practices Iron Age Vocation In Springs

James DeMartis's workshop. KYRIL BROMLEY
Apr 10, 2018 12:26 PM

When I enter James DeMartis’s studio on Springs-Fireplace Road, I am met by his very passionate assistant Kyle Fletcher. The self-described “Jack of all trades” helps with blacksmithing, fabricating and machining. “Pretty much the three processes that we do here,” he said.

While his boss was on the phone in a back office, Mr. Fletcher began my tour of the cavernous space. The metalsmith business, which started out with a one-bay garage, has now grown into three bays.

His team recently expanded the workshop in stages over six weeks, by adding doorways and lighting. In addition, welding, forging, sanding and finishing areas were created for a better organized, more efficient space.

I might as well have been on the moon. I could not help but notice hundreds of hand tools hanging on the walls. “These are James’s accouterments,” Mr. Fletcher said. “He’s collected them over years at barn sales and yard sales. Eighty percent are antiques, tools of a bygone age.”

Most everything in the space is a tool. “A tool is a means to an end,” Mr. Fletcher said. “Each tool has a purpose.” Some things, like a hammer, can accomplish many different tasks. “The persuader,” or “the driving force,” is used in conjunction with another tool.

Others are specialty tools that do just one job, such as the wooden swage, a butcher block type table with two oval indentations, which Mr. DeMartis used earlier in the day to form copper shades for lighting designer Lindsey Adelman.

“Working with my hands, that tactile experience, gives me a certain satisfaction,” Mr. Fletcher said. “I’m kind of a rare breed. Most young people are pushed toward academics, not metal shops.”

Mr. DeMartis and his team do everything from custom art and architectural work to repairs and modifications of all things metal. “I can spend a lifetime on this and not learn everything,” Mr. Fletcher said.

Mr. DeMartis arrived and put Mr. Fletcher to work lengthening an art deco fire screen. Seated at a large table, he uses a pedal of the TIG welding machine, which enables him to control the heat better than a MIG welder. Handy when working with an electrical current that gets hotter than the surface of the sun.

While welders are the backbone of the shop, the hammer is the most used tool. Mr. DeMartis and Mr. Fletcher usually work on 20 jobs at once and the most common jobs are railings, indoor and outdoor. “We always have railings going on in the shop,” he said.

Jobs can get pretty odd too, like custom refrigerator doors made especially for condiments. “You think it can’t get any weirder and then it does,” Mr. DeMartis said.

Looking around the shop, there are two intricate globes created to commemorate a client’s anniversary, a pair of 19th century silver dragon boot scrapers from Europe, outdoor furniture decorated with scallop shells and seahorses, a 1940s cigar shop Indian that was once used as a display inside a Ralph Lauren shop and a bronze Don Cesar statue with a broken sword, also from the 1800s. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“The more you look the more you see,” Mr. DeMartis said. “I’m always looking for well made beautiful tools.”

A crucible for melting bronze seems to hang in mid air. He doesn’t melt much bronze these days. “It’s such a beautiful object,” he said of the crucible. “I just love looking at it.”

Mr. DeMartis has at least a dozen anvils, the oldest of which dates back 250 years. “I like to collect different sizes, time periods and shapes,” he said. “They all serve the same purpose, which is to hammer hot metal, and can last forever if they’re not abused.”

Stock racks hold steel, stainless steel, aluminum, brass, bronze and copper of different lengths and shapes. “Back in the day, you’d have to fabricate your shapes, but today they come in every shape you can imagine,” he said.

Fascinated by a 5-foot-by-5-foot acorn table, Mr. DeMartis kindly demonstrates the reason behind the square holes on the flat surface by reaching for a clamping dog, a wooden block and smithing hammer. The bent metal holds the material in place while he works on it. Originally, the thick, heavy cast metal was used as flooring in shipyards. “I’m told it came from the Brooklyn Navy Yard,” he said. “It’s been brought up to nice working height with wheels.”

Mr. DeMartis was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Westchester County. He came to the East End in 1992, after answering an ad in the Village Voice to work for the eccentric artist Nova Mihai Popa at his Ark Project, an outdoor sculpture park in Water Mill. “I’m one of the few to survive to tell the tale,” he said of the once bustling community compound.

He then worked for John Battle, a metal worker in Bridgehampton, before moving to his own studio in East Hampton 17 years ago. He’s become a fixture in Springs, generously giving blacksmith demonstrations for the public in the Parson Forge, across from Ashawagh Hall.

The 1886 barn originally belonged to Charles Parson, who used the tools of the trade to fashion equipment for farmers and fishermen. “It’s the greatest aspect of historic Springs,” he said. “I’m delighted to use the space.”

He tries to coincide with the Springs Farmers Market in the summer. “It’s so much fun. I just open my doors to a built-in crowd.”

For the past several years, he’s been a part of Loring Bolger’s “Sculpture in Springs” project. But his biggest project was putting his daughter into first grade at the Springs School this year.

Hanging high on the walls of his studio are several fantasy landscape paintings by his namesake. “My dad was a fine art painter,” said Mr. DeMartis, who is mounting a retrospective of his father’s work at Ashawagh Hall from May 18 to 20. The pastel colors stick out from all the rusty shades of brown.

“I tried painting and drawing in college but it didn’t click until I got a welding torch and hammer in my hand,” he said. “The physicality really grabbed me.”

As his business evolves and develops, he has less time to devote to artwork but life is a compromise. “That’s the trade off,” he said. He enjoys donating to charity auctions such as Project Most and he has a shop on the website 1stDibs and his personal website, jamesdemartis.com.

You can find his indoor sculpture “Pipe Dream” in the exhibition “East End Collected 4,” curated by Paton Miller, at the Southampton Arts Center until May 20. “It’s an incredible show,” Mr. DeMartis said. “I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”

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