All fired up, with somewhere to go
By MARIE THOMAS McNAUGHTON / TOWNS Correspondent
His Redwood Drive forge hidden behind Jennifer Convertibles and Elite Martial Arts, and sharing quarters with Acur-it Auto Repair, Lowell Chaput is not your usual Rohnert Park resident or business owner.
A metallurgist, interior designer, sculptor and master of fine architectural detail, Chaput, 69, has been living history since the 1970s, when he first fell in love with the ancient craft of blacksmithing.
He works in iron, brass, bronze, copper and stainless steel. His work can be found in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights, where he spent six years creating functional art for one house; in Ross, where he created classical Italian iron work for Huey Lewis; and in the Mayacamas region, where he installed the oak leaf gates for Fred Furth’s Chalk Hill estate.
Chaput’s only public art so far is the gate at the Cloverdale train station, which he created with Toby Hickman for the Sonoma County Transit Authority.
This weekend offers a special opportunity to see more of Chaput’s and other blacksmiths’ art at the California Blacksmith Association’s annual spring conference, the gallery of which is open to the public Friday afternoon, 3-6 p.m., and all day Saturday at the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds in Petaluma.
However, you can see other pieces at some very public venues, including his weathervane at the top of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and the widow’s walk at Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in Fantasyland, Disneyland.
Delicate iron gates at the old Gump’s building in Union Square contrast with the hammered copper sheeting and Celtic hardware that protect the doors of the Irish Cultural Center near Ocean Beach, both in San Francisco.
Rohnert Park old-timers may remember his signage for Fletchers Restaurant at Raley’s Town Center, which featured hollow-formed bronze sheets backed with pink neon.
The Chaput family settled in Rohnert Park nearly 30 years ago, first in the B Section and then in L. Lowell and Linda now reside in the M Section, where his creations decorate the house and garden, including all sculptural hardware in the kitchen.
“I was born in San Francisco, raised in the Silicon Valley when it was known for prunes and apricots,” he recalled. “I majored in welding technology at San Jose City College and went on to general industrial welding and repair work.”
Then, in 1975, he did a metal arts workshop with Alex Weygers, a Dutch artist then practicing in the Carmel Valley, and “blacksmithing got into my blood,” he said.
“Imagine my surprise when he came home and said he wanted to spend his life as a blacksmith,” said Linda, 63. “But here we are, having raised our family, still together, and he’s still working in metal as an artist.”
It wasn’t a conventional life. In the 1970s, the Chaputs donned costumes and worked autumn weekends in the blacksmith shop of the Renaissance Fair at Black Point in Novato.
For a while, the family lived in the Sacramento Valley while Chaput worked metal at an agricultural tool shop. In the end, he remembers, “it was creating and repairing one plough after the other.”
That’s when they moved to Sonoma County and Chaput set up a forge in Petaluma, determined to be a serious artist rather than a laborer.
He has studied with masters around the world and created masterpieces of his own here and abroad.
In 1987, he worked three weeks with Vaclov Jaros, a master smith and sculptor in Prague. There he lived with a family and learned about classical European technique, creating scrolls and volutes from the 18th and 19th centuries.
His work also reflects the aesthetics and techniques of Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, abstract and contemporary stylings.
In 2005, he received a grant to study blacksmithing in Europe, visiting six countries, and dozens of museums and events in three weeks. In 2007 and 2009, he participated in the biennial “Fabro,” an exposition in Stia, Italy, that draws artists and fabricators from all over the world.
The forge, which features hundreds of examples of his work and contains traditional and modern tools, will be open to the public the first two weekends in June for Art at the Source.
The Forge is at 5677 Redwood Drive, Suite E, Rohnert Park, 586-1324.