“Every blow from Carl Jennings’ hammer delivered something of his life force, forging a unique body of work that combined the ancient traditions of the master smith with those of mid-twentieth-century sculpture and the design aesthetic of postwar modernism.” – Dave Hampton (1)
C. Carl Jennings (1910-2003), renown California artist-blacksmith, was born in 1910 in Marion, Illinois. The craft was in his blood, as both his father and grandfather were traditional blacksmiths. When Jennings finished high school, he moved with his father to San Francisco, where they worked in the blacksmiths shop at Pacific Gas & Electric starting in 1928. However, during the 1930s, Jennings also pursued an applied art degree from the California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC, now the California College of the Arts), Oakland, California. At first, he was unsure if he could afford CCAC’s tuition, but Jennings was able to finish his certificate in 1934. After graduation, while working as a journeyman blacksmith, he completed an apprenticeship under John Forester. He cites working with Forester, a Hungarian-trained blacksmith, as his first experience with “art smithing” (2). It was also during this period of his life that Jennings met and married his wife Elizabeth Gallagan.
During WWII, Jennings worked as a welder and metalworker at Naval Air Station Alameda. In 1947, Jennings used his retirement savings from the military to buy land in Lafayette, California. It was here that he established his own blacksmiths shop, El Diablo Forge. During this period, Jennings told Anvil Magazine, “I took on practically everything that came in the door, including D8 tractors and lawn mowers, which were usually more lucrative. But decorative metal was my goal; being creative was more rewarding and satisfying” (3).
“As the son and grandson of traditional blacksmiths, Jennings labored in the trade but had the additional perspective of a progressive art education. He was uniquely positioned to reject blacksmithing’s most obvious decorative motifs, like the tedious scrolling and twisting of bar stock. Operating his own forge have him the chance to develop a style that was partly defined by the absence of these familiar techniques.”
– David Hampton (4)
Jennings made mostly functional work for clients such as lighting fixtures, grilles, and gates, but he also made more abstract, sculptural works on his own time. Even his functional work had a modern aesthetic, rejecting the traditional scrollwork and decorative leaves his father had taught him to do. Starting in the 1950’s, Jennings began participating in group exhibitions in Northern California, mostly centered on studio craft. His first solo exhibition Carl Jennings: Forged Iron opened in December 1963 at the Richmond Art Center, Richmond, California, and he continued to exhibit his work in the Bay Area throughout the 1960s. However, by the time he was “recognized by a new generation of smiths as the crucial forerunner that he was” during the Craft Revival of the 1970s, Jennings had sold his land in Lafayette, closed El Diablo Forge, and semi-retired (5).
In 1968, Jennings and his wife Elizabeth purchased land in Sonoma County, and his first retirement project was to begin constructing their dream house. He handmade many elements in the home, from the toilet paper holder and door hardware to the large repoussé fireplace. To learn more about the Jennings’ unique, handcrafted home, watch this documentary, The House that C. Carl Jennings Built. If you look closely in the second video, at the 0:16 mark, you’ll notice a poster in Jennings’ home that advertises the Metal Museum’s 20th Anniversary!
While enjoying retirement in the mid-1970s, Jennings was persuaded to teach some blacksmithing workshops at the College of the Redwoods, Eureka, California. He also was a founding member of the California Blacksmith Association (CBA) and served as its first Vice President. In 1977, he hosted CBA’s first workshop at his home in Sonoma, and he stayed heavily involved in CBA for the rest of his life. In 1988, he was elected into the American Craft Council’s College of Fellows and presented with the Alex W. Bealer Award from the Artist-Blacksmith Association of North America (ABANA).
The Metal Museum selected Jennings as our 1990 Master Metalsmith. In his accompanying exhibition, he included newer sculptural works that he created after retirement. He referred to these works as his “seamless hollow forms,” crafted from a hydraulic press and tools he had designed himself (6). According to F. Jack Hurley, “now there was time to experiment, Carl returned to some of the ideas and methods that had attracted him back in art school. A series of masks and heads has been an ongoing interest. Using raising and repoussé techniques on hot steel, he has produced a number of primitive, yet very lively pieces.” (7) Jennings donated nine of these later works to the Metal Museum in 1990 and 2003. He also made two rosettes for our 10th Anniversary Gates in 1989.
Jennings passed away in May of 2003 at the age of 93. In the words of fellow artist and blacksmith Tom Joyce, “[Jennings was] a rare bridge spanning traditional metalworking ideology with an emphasis on contemporary design and innovation. He was one of the very few who weathered the decline of our profession at midcentury to greet the revival we’re fortunate to experience now, with contributions poignant for this and following generations.” (8) His work continues to be included in pivotal blacksmithing exhibitions, including the 2010 exhibition IRON: Forged, Tempered, Quenched at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, Houston, Texas, and his 2013 solo exhibition Struck by Modernism: C. Carl Jennings, California Artist-Blacksmith at the Mingei International Museum, San Diego, California. To see more about C. Carl Jennings’ life, check out his memorial page on Facebook. His descendants are very active in sharing pictures and other treasures from his life.*
*The first 3 photos in this blog were taken from C. Carl Jennings' memorial Facebook page.
1. Dave Hampton, “Struck by Modernism," Struck by Modernism: C. Carl Jennings, California Artist-Blacksmith, (San Diego, CA: Mingei International Museum), 5.
3. Rob Edwards, “Interview with Carl Jennings,” Anvil Magazine (March 1992): 25.
4. Hampton, “Struck by Modernism,” 6.
5. Ibid, 16.
6. Ibid, 27-28.
8. Tom Joyce, “Some Thoughts on Carl Jennings,” The Anvil’s Ring 32.1 (Fall 2003): 22.