Metal Work: Blacksmiths

Knoxville makers find flexibility is steel’s greatest strength

Ask the average Joe to describe steel and expect to hear some of these words: Cold. Hard. Tough. Unyielding.

But ask the men and women in Knoxville who use steel and other metals to make artistic sculptures and functional household goods, and you’ll hear a different, and unexpected, set of descriptions: Forgiving. Flexible. Easy to fix mistakes.

Karly Stribling uses that forgiving quality as she shapes chandeliers and railings, incorporating some femininity into her creations. Mary Ruden does different sorts of work, assembling large metal outdoor sculptures for public art spaces and bronze busts to remember important women in history. Kevin Johnson enjoys the flexibility metal brings to the pieces he customizes for people’s homes—but no swimming pool fences, please.

These three metalworkers are just a sample of the talented men and women who inhabit Knoxville’s robust maker community. More can be found online at The Maker City’s website, themakercity.org, or that of the Foothills Craft Guild, foothillscraftguild.net.

Mary Ruden

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A need for space and a passion for the flora and fauna of the Great Smoky Mountains brought Mary Ruden to her current home in Sevier County. A Chicago native who’d been working in Miami, Florida, Ruden is a self-proclaimed “orchid and plant nut” who was attracted to the diversity of the park’s plant life.

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A former college art instructor, including at Pellissippi State, Ruden pursued sculpting in metal because it’s an unusual discipline: “I wanted to do something different. There are a million painters out there; not everybody can work in metal.”

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In addition to plant life, Ruden is inspired by women’s history and is committed to helping historic figures be remembered. A Ruden original bronze bust of Lizzie Crozier French, a women’s suffragist, is installed in a city hall in North Carolina.

Her work is also represented in several outdoor public art installations around the country. Her large outdoor work is displayed on the Belt Line in Atlanta, and a sundial featuring a portrait of Albert Einstein sits outside the entrance to the new American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge. She even decorated a cow when Chicago celebrated its history as a beef supplier with a plethora of cow sculptures around the city. 

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“I think a public art piece reaches more people,” she says. “If you want to influence people, you need to put up a big flag. Public art is the way to do it.” 

Ruden creates her work out of a large studio in Sevier County, complete with a crane to help her navigate around her work. When she isn’t working in metal, Ruden also quilts and paints. Her website is maryruden.com.

Kevin Johnson: The Iron Studio

Kevin Johnson got his start in metalworking with his dad in California. At age 14, Johnson began making wrought iron fencing for their home, and soon friends and family began hiring them for their iron fencing needs. Perhaps it was too much of a good thing: fencing is the one thing he doesn’t like to do out of his business, The Iron Studio, in West Knoxville.

K JOHNSON

Johnson, a mechanical engineer by trade, came to Knoxville as a consultant for IBM knowing his contract was short-lived. He started moonlighting in metal and has been doing it full time since the end of 1993. He creates vent hoods, benches, fireplace screens, chandeliers and other custom work, initially from his home and now out of a commercial space on Cogdill Road.

Kevin Johnson

“I like not doing the same thing every day,” he says of his work. “I like working with metal; it’s a very forgiving medium. And not a lot of people can do it, not that many people have welders and forges.”

Kevin Johnson

Johnson has completed several commissions for Blackberry Farm and Blackberry Mountain, including fireplace screens, a 274-bottle wine rack for a private home and work on a wine cellar at The Barn at Blackberry Farm. His three employees include his daughter, Kortlyn: “She’s a great craftsperson.” You can find more about Johnson’s work at theironstudio.com.

Karly Stribling: Soil and Steel

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Karly Stribling started metalworking as a high school student in Louisville, Kentucky, and never stopped. She majored in sculpture at the University of Tennessee. “Metal seemed to be what I excelled at and enjoyed,” she says. “It’s a very powerful material, and it lasts. It’s also very flexible and forgiving. I try to bring a femininity to it. I feel like I have something different to offer.”

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Stribling does more individual work than corporate, she says, both artistic and functional. “I really enjoy designing. It’s all about the balance between being able to make what I want and what the client wants as well.”

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A recent project took roughly half of the year of the pandemic to complete, she says. It was a sculpture memorializing singer-songwriter David Olney, who died in early 2020. “It was a fun challenge in that the client wanted a six-foot-tall visual interpretation of one of his songs.” She recently installed it in Santa Rosa, Florida.

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Stribling works from her home in Knoxville, and while it hasn’t been easy balancing work, family, and staying sane, Stribling says she feels lucky. “I was able to have a new metal shop built on our property. I had been working in our very small garage, and now I have a space that makes my heart skip a beat every morning when I walk in. I am able to do a lot more—and different kinds of—metal work.” Her website is soilandsteel.com.

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