2019 TRADITIONAL ARTS APPRENTICESHIP PROGRAM: BOB ALEXANDER AND LISA THOMPSON
With this final 2019 Traditional Arts Apprenticeship team profile, we introduce you to blacksmith Robert (Bob) Alexander, a second-time TAAP master artist, and his new apprentice. This year, Alexander, of DeSoto, Mo., teamed up with Lisa Thompson, who lives about forty miles away in Ste. Genevieve. Like most of the blacksmiths who have participated in TAAP, Alexander and Thompson are both active members of the Blacksmith Association of Missouri (BAM!).
Master blacksmith Bob Alexander watches as apprentice Lisa Thompson works. Photo by Deborah A. Bailey
Bob Alexander is a master artist with over a quarter century of experience, though he tells us that he came to the blacksmithing tradition as an adult. Previously, he enjoyed a career in woodworking and carpentry that was inspired by his high school wood shop instructor. Now a full-time blacksmith at Scrub Oak Forge , Alexander forges restoration hardware for historic homes, creates custom pieces for contemporary homes, makes tools for tradespeople and knives for hunters, as well as more artistic pieces, like the sculpture pictured below.
A fish sculpted by Bob Alexander. Photo by Lisa L. Higgins
Folklorists often ask: “From whom did you learn the tradition?” In fact, MFAP includes a version of that question in its TAAP application for both the master artist and the proposed apprentice. In Alexander’s answer, he outlined a tree of learning with deep roots and strong branches, starting by giving special credit to Missouri blacksmiths like the late Tom Clark of Potosi, Mo, Bob Patrick, and the late Doug “Iron Man” Hendrickson, as well as noting the influences of Uri Hofi (Israel), Clay Spencer (AL), Joe Miller (NC), and Jerry Darnell (NC).
Bob Alexander may be as dedicated to teaching as he is to making. He presents workshops at blacksmith clubs, volunteers with the BAM demonstration team, instructs YMCA counselors and Boy Scouts, and often teaches at the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina. In an upcoming Campbell Folk School course, he will teach “Making Useful Items from Junk.” Alexander is also teaching “Learn to Play a Dobro;” he’s a Bob of many trades. These last several months, Lisa Thompson has worked hard under Alexander’s tutelage to perfect her joinery.
Thompson tells us that she spent nearly twenty years in an aluminum and magnesium factory, which eventually led her to blacksmithing; the plant where she worked assembled valve covers for Ford. “I always loved the process of taking metal and turning it into a completely different and functioning part.” In 2016, she left factory work to apprentice as a farrier; by the spring of 2018, Thompson purchased her own coal forge and anvil. Then, she joined BAM. Even before applying for TAAP with Alexander, Thompson was working at her forge daily and visiting Alexander’s Scrub Oak Forge weekly, leaving each week with homework. In the apprenticeship, Alexander noted in their lesson plan that Thompson would fine tune her forge welding, tenoning, slot punching, drifting, riveting, tapering, and scroll form. And, she would also learn the essential (and advanced) task of creating a life-sized template of her final product–a sign for her blacksmithing business (initial draft pictured below).
Sketch of business sign. Image courtesy of the team.
MFAP’s folk arts specialist Deborah Bailey visited Scrub Oak Forge on March 14 to observe the team at work. The sign was still a work in progress, and we look forward to seeing photos of the final product!
Join MFAP and the Missouri State Museum on Saturday, June 15, 2019 from 1:00 – 4:00 p.m., as we welcome Bob Alexander and Lisa Thompson, as well as other current and previous TAAP blacksmiths to demonstrate during a “hammer in” at the Historic Jefferson Landing in Missouri’s capitol.
Come for the hammer in, grab a picnic dinner, and stay for an evening of music brought to you by the Rock Band ensemble of the 399th Army Band from Ft. Leonard Wood.
The heart of Missouri Folk Arts Program is its Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program. Master artists work one-on-one with apprentices to keep folk arts knowledge and practices alive. In Missouri, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Missouri Arts Council, and the University of Missouri, the first master-apprentice lesson took place on December 10, 1984. Since then, Missouri has supported over 400 apprenticeships in which 200+ master artists have mentored more than 500 apprentices in every region and many communities in the state. Many apprentices have in their turn grown in their artistry and later recognized as master artists in TAAP. They forge anew living links in the chain of Missouri’s folk arts. Some TAAP artists practice traditional regional crafts that date back to Missouri’s Native American peoples and early European settlers. Some newer immigrants, such as Latinxs, Sudanese, and Bosnians, have sustained their artistic traditions in their new homes in Missouri. Still more traditions have migrated to Missouri from other regions of the U.S. All are re-imagined and honed into dynamic Show Me State traditions. Among the arts that have been fostered in TAAP over the decades are blacksmithing, cowboy poetry, old-time short-bow fiddling, African-American storytelling, Ozark Riverways paddle carving, Vietnamese dragon dancing, Western saddle making, old-time clawhammer banjo, wood joinery, square dance calling, German bobbin lace, turkey calls, Mexican paper flowers, and Slovenian button-box accordion.