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SMITHS OF TODAY ARE BANGING OUT NEW ANVIL CHORUS HORSESHOES HAVE GIVEN WAY TO MUCH MORE ARTISTIC FORMS

Blacksmiths don't do horseshoes any more. At least most of them.

No. Horseshoes is not their main line of work.

Iron railings, andirons, free-standing metal sculpture, table frames, chandeliers, wall hangings, fancy letter openers -- even fruit bowls, yes.

But you have to search a while among the 500 blacksmiths attending a national convention of blacksmiths here to find one who actually makes horseshoes -- known to purists as a farrier.

"I do manure spreaders to sculptures," said Mitchell Fitzgibbon of Westfield. "I don't shoe horses. Frankly, they scare me."

Fitzgibbon calls himself an artist in steel. But area farmers know him as a skilled repairer of broken farm implements.

A smith for 15 of his 40 years, Fitzgibbon displayed a $40 envelope opener that looked liked a small curved Turkish scimitar and a dragon's head that goes for $1,200.

Fitzgibbon, who once studied opera, says smithing has it all over singing.

"I can correct an error when I'm forging something. I even get ideas from my mistakes. But if you sing a wrong note or fail to come in on time, you are dead meat in front of an audience."

A key figure at the International Conference on Blacksmithing at Alfred State Agricultural & Technical College is Francis Whitaker of Carbondale, Colo. Regarded as the dean of American smiths, the 83-year-old Whitaker has been a smith for 68 years and has written "The Blacksmith Cookbook," the trade bible.

"If you don't have it, you can make it," he said of a smith's all-around skills.

Whitaker wasted little time getting to work. He attracted an audience of fellow smiths even as he performed the simple task of pounding sharp points into the orange-hot stakes that would hold his vise.

His market?

"The billionaires of Aspen," he said.

What has he sold lately?

"A balcony railing for $13,000. I worked on it a couple of weeks."

About 100 artistic works by members of the Artist Blacksmiths Association of North America are exhibited in the Fosdick/Nelson Gallery across the road on the Alfred University campus daily through Saturday night. And on Saturday, some will be auctioned to the public.

The conference is for professional and serious hobbyists. Most pay $350 registration and room and board fees for the five-day event, which started Wednesday. Single-day visitors are charged $50, said Michael Presutti, the Belmont registered physician's assistant and blacksmith hobbyist who acts as the conference spokesman.

Charles Orlando of the nearby Town of Amity and one of the few who will admit to being both a smith and a farrier is chairman of the conference. When he retired two years ago at the age of 55 as assistant director of special education for the Cattaraugus-Allegany Board of Cooperative Educational Services, Orlando was able to direct his full attention to the skills of using the forge, anvil, hammer and other tools that bend and shape iron.

Thirty-five conference-goers will put on demonstrations of blacksmith techniques for their colleagues. Whitaker is one, and Matthias Peters of Stolberg, Germany, is another.

Blacksmithing is no longer solely a man's world -- if it ever was.

Dorothy Steigler of Rochester, Wash., who fashions flowers from steel and copper, is the association president. And Cathy Morgan of Clarksville, Ga., will demonstrate how she makes open fruit bowls and other housewares.

The conference theme is "Old Tradition, New Dimensions." Peters, using a gas-fired forge and other modern tools, designs modern shaped railing sculptures.

"In West Germany, there are 200 serious blacksmiths and thousands of hobbyists," Peter said.

Even though his practice is largely with pleasure and draft horse, veterinarian Robert Becker of Oxford, Mich., is one more smith who does not shoe horses. Instead, when he is not caring for horses, he makes such things as brass andirons that sell for $2,000 a set.

"I practice medicine in the spring and summer when people ride their horses, and I do most of my smithing in the winter when they don't."

Anthony Barrett, a Grand Island hobbyist, is a double threat at the conference. A systems control engineer for the Linde Division of Union Carbide Corp., Barrett marches around the open demonstration field blowing his bagpipe when he's not at his forge.

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