The following is a brief profile on Matt Dempsey and his partner Savannah Barr, two of the latest tenants at the Pajama Factory in Williamsport, PA.
Matt Dempsey loves a challenge. For Dempsey, that challenge might be making a thing that nobody has made in generations, or perhaps something that has never been made before. Dempsey works with metal. He pounds it with hammers and heats it using fire and bellows and showers of sparks and, of course, a huge anvil of the sort rarely seen outside of cartoons. It’s the kind of anvil that makes you picture it being unsuccessfully dropped upon roadrunners, more often landing upon coyotes.
“Matt the blacksmith” is how he’s often referred to around the factory, since there are already several people named Matt around the place, but if you call him a blacksmith in his presence, he’ll correct you.
“A blacksmith is a person with very specialized training. I am not a blacksmith,.” he explains. “I am an an artist working primarily in metal.”
Dempsey, 37, is self-taught in his craft. He didn’t apprentice, he learned to do what he does by tackling specific problems and forging both the tools and the techniques to solve each problem.
“Most people just go buy a hammer when they need one, but I wind up making most of mine. Each one was made to do something very specific and the ones that prove useful wind up being used again.” The same goes for many of his other tools: a pair of tongs he he showed was made for a project, when no other pair was quite right for the job. The same goes for his “Hardy tools”, specialized shaping tools made with a stout square shank that fits into the square hole in his anvil.
It’s an uphill battle in semantics, though, for as long as he’s pounding away on that anvil that sits in his workshop, he’s going to be “the blacksmith” to the casual observer.
Dempsey came to the area from Bradford, PA, the home of Zippo lighters and Case knives, both iconic American brands that epitomize reliability and dependability, traits that seem to fit with the sort of work that he does. He and his partner, Savannah Barr, came to the area for Dempsey to work in the gas industry, but it wasn’t long before he was introduced to Mark Winkelman of the Pajama Factory.
It was a natural fit and fast friendship, as Dempsey loves nothing more than solving a unique problem and a hundred year old building like the Pajama Factory is brimming with just those sorts of puzzles. You see it as you enter his studio space on the ground floor of the factory, next to the recently-closed Cobbler’s Outlet store: the latch on the door to his shop is a heavy black thing of iron, made specifically for that door, no doubt because it does something that the store-bought latches don’t.
”I got into metalwork when I learned to weld. I spent six years welding custom prototype radiators for show cars,” he explains. “It taught me to understand metal, to think about how it behaves in certain situations.”
It was a skill that proved useful when he took up horn carving as a hobby.
Turning an ornately-carved horn in his hands, he explains. “To make these kinds of cuts in the materials, you need knives in very specific shapes. I had to learn to make my own.”
Through his involvement with The Society for Creative Anachronism, an “international organization dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th-century Europe”, he was able to meet others with a similar interest in the seemingly obsolete: “I really enjoy the old technology. Before everything was plugged into a wall socket, you had to know how to create the things for your day-to-day life.”
That sort of thinking was what helped him when he was part of the crew of the Appledore IV, a twin-masted schooner that sails the Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron, a wooden sailing ship used in marine biology and education, another of his unusual experiences. “A boat like the Appeldore isn’t a floating museum piece, it’s a working ship. You need a lot of hard-to-find skills to do that safely.”
He isn’t pretentious in the least, and there is no hint of affectation in his demeanor. He’s down-to-Earth in what he does, but when he talks about his work, there’s a playful glint in his eye and his demeanor becomes noticeably more animated. For this reason, it’s fun to watch him work, as everything becomes a demonstration. His partner, Savannah Barr, had some of her textile designs, in this case, long pieces of beautifully dyed silk, drying on large wooden frames. “See where the dye pattern looks different? She’s used salt to change how the dye is absorbed.”
Sure enough, there are tiny crystals of salt on the silk and the pattern it’s made is beautiful, but equally fascinating is the way the silk is held on the drying frame: every inch or so there’s a string attached to the edge of the silk that drapes over the edge of the frame. At the end of each string is a weight, carefully adjusted to pull the silk taut, without distorting the fabric.
Barr is not only an artist in textiles, she is also a photographer, as well as a journalist.
When asked what was in store for them at the Pajama Factory, Dempsey replied: “Classes and workshops. I plan to set up some very hands-on events for people of all ages. Something where they can come in and later walk away with something they made themselves. To get that going, though, I need more commission work.” These commissions and customers help finance his more creative projects and activities, he explained, but it all goes hand-in-hand, like everything else the pair explained.
“See these masks? See this curve here and that right angle on that one?” He shows a set of copper masks, one an owl, another, an impish-looking gargoyle. “I was doing a project where I needed a large circle of sheet copper and I had to cut it from a square piece. These masks were made from the corners I cut off.”
So much of what the pair does is like that—the tools and the process are as fascinating as the thing that gets created.
Matt Dempsey is available for commissioned work, both artistic and practical. He can be reached at (989) 415-8859.