A certain kind of people are attracted to Santa Fe. They come in droves. You might be able to pick them out on the street by a particular quality of their hands or hair, but I couldn't describe that quality to you here. They use many words to describe themselves, but all agree on the common appellation of Maker, with a capital M.
"I'm an artist-blacksmith," says Maxwell Bennett. "Or sometimes a blacksmith-artist." Bennett, 27, is one of many metalworkers crafting out of a shop in the booming Siler Road industrial district. Originally from La Puebla, 25 miles north of town, he was introduced to metalwork through a shop class at the Waldorf School he attended, and he's been in practice ever since. He's also representative of the younger generation of Makers, who continually exist under the patronage of their teachers. "I try to balance traditional technique with the modern aesthetic," Bennett says about his style and artistic vision.
The principle of balance between past and present applies to his daily work in the shop, iron-to-live-with (2873 Industrial Road, 474-3060), where he works with owner Helmut Hillenkamp and apprentice Tiago Renê Torres da Silva. Their working arrangement is fluid but secure, common to many Makers. "He's kind of a contractor, a subcontractor," Hillenkamp says. Sometimes Bennett trades labor on Hillenkamp's projects for use of the shop for his own work, like when he creates fine art and practical crafts, such as the new railing installed at the Canyon Road restaurant El Farol during its recent remodel. But, for a recent project, Bennett will be working under Hillenkamp nearly full-time until it is complete.
Makers often share a drive to be in control of their own life story through the objects they create and the communities they build. Hillenkamp's story starts in Germany, where he learned basic metalwork and HVAC construction techniques. He then worked in Northern California, creating custom railing for the nonprofit Esalen Institute, before migrating to Switzerland in 1990 to study forging and the elements of blacksmith artistry. In 1991, he visited Cuenca, Ecuador, to work on projects on the recommendation of his teacher, where he came to deeply appreciate the value of the community behind a smith.
"I don't have to be a tourist. My skills allow me to visit places as a member of the community," he says of his time in Cuenca. At the end of 1991, he moved to Santa Fe and studied under the legendary Tom Joyce. At the time, the local blacksmithing community was taking off with Joyce's work sparking a renaissance of handcrafted architectural features and tools in the traditional Spanish style. After two years of working under Joyce, Hillenkamp opened his own shop on Industrial, joined his sense of Swiss-German precision from his roots with the high-end appeal of hand-forged metal and began making his mark on the community. You've doubtlessly seen his work—perhaps most noticeably the bus shelter in the Railyard park on Cerrillos Road. He created the metal structure and his wife Christy Hengst, an accomplished ceramics artist, who designed and executed the inlaid mosaic map of the city.
This particular work is indicative of Hillenkamp's passion for this city and exemplary of a Maker's duty to give back to their neighbors, regardless of particular craft. "Santa Fe is a great community of Makers, who make things on their own as artists and artisans. … That's why I'm still here," Hillenkamp says. Blacksmiths especially embody a transformative process at every level of their work, starting with cold metal and heating it up to craft tools. They take knowledge from the past and mold it into a foundation for the future; they use the support of the community to cast a career for themselves; they use their lives to forge useful, beautiful improvements to their neighbor's lives. The process is personal and happens within the spirit of each smith.
Take da Silva, Hillenkamp's apprentice; he came to the States in 2016 to teach capoeira, but quickly took to smithing, changing the course of his life. One of my favorite transformative projects at iron-to-live-with (besides the role of the apprentice himself) is their work with the Guns to Gardens project. Initiated by local nonprofit New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence in collaboration with several metalworking studios, the project sought to repurpose firearms as gardening accoutrements. I was first surprised to see a bucket of gun barrels at the shop, but when Bennett displayed the small forged tools, I was exceedingly pleased.
Not merely continuing their ancient, traditional craft, Santa Fe's blacksmiths are conscious of the community's contemporary needs. The long-term project under which Bennett is employed will, in about a year's time, adorn the steps of Owl Point Farm in La Madera, an organic hacienda and community organization that rehabilitates agricultural communities in Northern New Mexico.
But why not just use prefabricated metal materials and skip the year wait? Because the value of handworked metal is backed by the time and energy of the artist-blacksmith and the community that enables their work: "Using forged steel gives you a feeling that you're in charge of your world," Hillenkamp says. "Things aren't just plopped into your environment."