At an age where many of his friends are retiring, blacksmith Jeffrey Funk is opening a school.
To pass decades of hard-earned skills and knowledge on to a new generation, Funk has created the New Agrarian School — an intensive program for aspiring metal workers based in his shop near Bigfork.
The six courses will run from one to two weeks, with each focusing on a different aspect of forged metal work. The faculty includes Funk and three more instructors.
“It’s going to be a fusion of art, craft and self-reliance,” Funk said. “There’s a significant hunger for that, especially on the part of young people. While people today are immersed in electronic technologies, it may not be fully satisfying.”
New Agrarian School workshops offer selections for beginning to advanced metal workers and include basic forging and tool creation, anvil work inspired by the natural world, and the roots of form in traditional and industrial societies.
Funk and his assistant, Peter Haarklou, are working diligently to build up their stock of tools in preparation for the first workshop. Funk made every tool in his shop — including hammers, tongs and forges — and he wants to provide students with the same quality of handcrafted implements.
“We build everything here, and now I need five times as many,” Funk said.
Funk, 63, has extensive instruction experience in blacksmith techniques. He’s taught at schools around the United States, Canada and Belgium, creating a name for himself among an international community of metal crafters.
Originally from Wilmington, Delaware, Funk began his career in the mid-1970s.
“At that time, blacksmithing was considered mostly a dead craft,” he said. “But there were people, mostly on the East Coast, who were trying to bring it back to life. A few books were written, and I got those books. I had an anvil and a couple hammers and a forge, and started doing it.”
He moved to the Flathead Valley in 1976 to study at the Yellow Bay Biological Research Station in environmental science, but it wasn’t long before he changed course to set up his blacksmith shop. It was the perfect time to develop a clientele for the architectural metal work that became a cornerstone of his career.
“In 1978, Bigfork was just emerging into being more of an arty type of community,” he said.
His first significant commission was for a number of gates in 1978 for Bigfork’s Sea Star Restaurant and Gallery. (The building eventually became Showthyme restaurant.) Funk also designed gates and other metal pieces for Kootenai Galleries in downtown Bigfork and Kootenai Lodge on Swan Lake before expanding to customers nationwide.
“I’ve always done practical work for local people, fixing things and small jobs, but my bread and butter has been architectural metalwork,” Funk said.
Creating custom building fixtures is a natural fit for Funk, whose father was an architect.
“Being brought up in architecture prepared me for the kind of thinking that’s helpful in architectural metal work and everything I do,” he said. “Blacksmithing requires the ability to be methodical and practical, but always tending to the aesthetic at the same time.”
He said he has a “healthy dose of curiosity,” which has taken him multiple directions in the blacksmithing world. He’s recently focused on creating custom tools for agriculture and woodworking — axes, chisels, hammers and hoes.
“What makes this shop pretty unusual is the breadth of work I do,” he said. “Usually knife makers make knives, wrought iron people make wrought iron, but I have always done everything.”
Funk said the word “artist” is often used to describe him, but he said works of art have not been a significant source of income. A sculpture in Kalispell’s Depot Park, featuring metal trout leaping from a concrete pillar, is his most public art work. It was commissioned by the city in the early 1990s.
As an old-school blacksmith, Funk said his emphasis is on forging. Through heat, hammering and casting, he transforms basic chunks of steel, wrought iron, bronze, cast iron or aluminum into objects that can be both practical and beautiful.
He’s excited to share his passion for his craft with students this summer.
“The demographic should be varied,” he said. “Retirees, young people who took metal working in college or art school, where they can’t get this level of experience.”
There are similar blacksmith programs in the eastern half of the country, but Funk doesn’t know of any western schools that offer intensive instruction.
Funk and his wife, Betsy, grow a large garden each summer on their 10-acre property, and he envisions wrapping that aspect of his life into the New Agrarian School curriculum.
“The reason for the name of the school is a focus on self-reliance,” he said. “Agriculture, woodworking, eventually classes might integrate food-growing. I’ve also been active in the organic and sustainable food movement for many years.
“I get letters from people around the country who want to make what they need. It’s not about being a survivalist, but early 20th-century self-reliance.”
For more information visit www.newagrarianschool.org or www.jeffreyfunkmetalworker.com.
Reporter Heidi Gaiser may be reached at 758-4438 or firstname.lastname@example.org.