Blacksmithing doesn’t exactly make for the easiest avocation at the entry level.
“I would do it in a campfire,” Jesse Sommer said about his early metalworking efforts at home. “It would take almost an hour to even get it kind of hot. To make one thing, it would take a whole weekend.”
Today, he fashions a variety of items from steel using the high temperatures produced by his coal-burning forge.
“I cut grass for about a year to save up money for it,” he said.
The Peters Township High School junior is among the recipients of the 2019 Handmade Arcade Youth Maker Scholarship, and with it comes the opportunity to sell his wares at one of Pittsburgh’s best-attended arts and crafts fairs.
Marking its 15th anniversary, Handmade Arcade is scheduled from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Dec. 7 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
Among the features is the Youth Maker Alley, showcasing the dozen artists, ages 16 to 18, who have been awarded scholarships, which include free vendor space, stipends, mentoring and professional development workshops. The program is sponsored by Mt. Lebanon-based Matt’s Maker Space.
Jesse’s stepmother, Audra Azoury, has been a Handmade Arcade participant for several years, featuring her distinctive metal jewelry and ornaments. She predicts that the Jesse Sommer Forge booth will fare well:
“You need gifts for men. So hopefully, he’ll sell out all his grilling tongs and things.”
That also would include the likes of barbecue forks, bottle openers, hooks, coat racks and more of Jesse’s creations.
He became interested in blacksmithing through a program he attended two years ago at Touchstone Center for Crafts in Fayette County.
“I was amazed at how many things he made and how good he got,” Audra recalled.
Today, he can take a steel bar and, within about 20 minutes, emerge with a decorative piece featuring an ornate scroll on one side and a thin, sharp-tipped leaf on the other.
“Those leaves are pretty tricky to get right,” he said. “If you’re not careful, you can break that off easily. There was one day I went out to forge, and I think I broke like four or five leaves. I just kept hitting them in the wrong spot.”
Jesse generally works with round bars of steel from nearby Minerd & Sons Inc. in Cecil Township, and he also uses reclaimed metals, such as railroad spikes – he’s working on making one a knife – and coil springs from vehicles. He even has some sizable nuts and bolts from Kennywood Park that he plans to put to good use.
Along the way, he receives the constant encouragement of his stepmother, whose studio is inside the house. Audra uses modern cutting technology to produce intricately designed metal pieces, including a popular line with Western Pennsylvania themes.
And they can be timely. A new stainless-steel ornament depicts the late-October incident of a Port Authority bus encountering a Downtown Pittsburgh sinkhole.
The origins of Audra Azoury Designs date back to her being selected to display her sculptures at an art show at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.
“I had the idea of making a collection of jewelry that was based on their architecture, and they actually bought it,” Audra recalled. “And that’s how I started.”
She since has worked on collections for Kentuck Knob, another Fayette County home designed by Wright, and two of his plans brought to fruition in and around Buffalo, N.Y.: the Graycliff estate and Darwin D. Martin House Complex.
“I love it, because I get to have these behind-the-scenes tours of the houses,” she said. “I get to see the basements and the nooks and crannies that you don’t get to see on the usual tours.”
Her artistry will be on display in a booth right across the aisle from Jesse’s during Handmade Arcade.
“They do an amazing job of organizing it and making it a really fun time,” she said. “You definitely are not going to get things anywhere else that you find at Handmade Arcade.”