BOISE Recipients of this year's Idaho Governor's Awards in the Arts include arts patrons, two painters, a dancer, a silversmith, a Nez Perce elder, an orchestra director, an opera director and a blacksmith.
In a field of mostly fine-arts types, Nahum Hersom's award for traditional and folk art is unique. No other blacksmith has ever received it.
"I was amazed that I got it with all the people in Idaho who do art and craft work," he said. "On the other hand, this is big craft work, not the rinky-dink stuff."
Few who know his work would argue. Hersom is to a common blacksmith what a Monet is to an Elvis on velvet. He hasn't made a horseshoe in years, but he's credited with keeping an ancient art form alive in the United States.
Don Kemper of the Artist Blacksmith Association of North America calls Hersom "an internationally recognized master in the craft and art of repousse metal working. He is recognized as the elder statesman of the handful of masters of repousse."
Repousse is an art form in which designs on metal are raised in relief by hammering it from the reverse side. Dating to ancient times and widely practiced in Europe in the 16th through 18th centuries, it was becoming a lost art in the United States when Hersom walked into the shop of master metal worker Valentin Goelz in Los Angeles more than 60 years ago.
"I was awed," he said. "I asked him how I could learn, and he said I didn't want to because it was hard, dirty work and nobody was doing it anymore. But he took me as his student, and now I'm known all over the world. If you look up repousse on the Internet, you'll find me."
Samples of his work can be found in his home, his shop and a book he wrote on repousse: intricate metal leaves and flowers, swags and scallops, fleur-de-lis, a mask of a Roman god wearing a crown of grapes. He works with metals from iron and copper to silver and gold.
He starts a project by drawing a pattern on paper. Then he punches tiny holes in the pattern, like dots in a connect-the dots drawing. That done, he cuts the metal into the proper shape with a band saw and pounds the dots with hammers and punches to form the design.
"It's tedious, time-consuming work," he said. "It's not something you just come out here and wham, bam and whap at. You have to be deliberate and conscientious."
In his heyday, Hersom's projects included the elegant chandelier in the lobby of Downtown Boise's long-defunct Pinney Theater and pieces gracing homes and businesses in places such as Aspen, Colo., and Beverly Hills, Calif. At 90, he no longer works full time but still spends time in his Northwest Boise shop, tinkering or teaching repousse.
Except for a few large power tools, the shop could be a holdover from another century. A hundred hammers hang from a board above a worn workbench. Each has a special weight and configuration for pounding specific shapes in metal. Tools hang from nails and boards, line shelves and cupboards, fill boxes and cans. There are thousands of tools hammers, punches, pliers, saws, drills chisels, tongs they seem endless. Hersom built or rebuilt virtually all of them.
A regular visitor to the shop is Boise State University professor Anika Smulovitz, who teaches metalsmithing and jewelry making.
"I met Nahum at a gem show and was so impressed that I took a summer workshop from him," she said. "Now I take a lesson a week.
"His work is amazing, and he's devoted to teaching. He's worked hard to keep the art form alive, and because of that it's gaining in the blacksmithing community. Two people came all the way from Australia to take lessons from him."
Hersom isn't currently taking students but has had 50 since 1983. His hope is that they'll carry on his passion for repousse.
"It's a creative, artistic endeavor that can last your whole life," he said. "Once you start doing it, you can't stop. It becomes part of you."