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Blacksmith Cathi Borthwick

Author: Judy Harper
Issue: August, 2013, Page 177
Photos by Garrett Cook

Using metal, fire and muscle, Cathi Borthwick creates artistic and functional pieces.

Blacksmith Cathi Borthwick Flirts With Fire, Crafting Functional Art From Steel

Flag Forge is a dark and dusty shop filled with anvils, medieval-looking tools and black ovens that breathe fire. Walls covered with dirt and soot serve as testimony to the countless fires that have burned there. Iron pieces—some completed, some under construction—lie on the floor and on tables.

The work is hot, dirty and physically demanding, yet it stokes the flames of creativity in Cathi Borthwick, who has a deep love for the age-old craft of blacksmithing. “Steel is a magic medium,” she insists. “At room temperature, it is as hard as … well, steel. But at a working heat of 2,000 degrees F, it has the consistency of modeling clay and can be forged into wonderful shapes.”

Armed with a degree in psychology and a background in finance, accounting and computer programming, Borthwick left California and landed in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1982 with an insatiable urge to create. A friend introduced her to blacksmithing.

“This business was a bit of a lark,” she admits. “It looked like a fun life, so out of total ignorance, I decided to go for it. I was fortunate to have enough money to get through the steepest part of the learning curve. I knew that in one year I would either be broke or have a business.

Photos - From left: This floor lamp, made from steel pipe and forged and painted to resemble ponderosa pine bark, is 56"H without the shade. The lizard is 8" long and was designed as a pull for a drawer or a cabinet door. “Some people like putting them up on the wall or the patio for the fun of it,” says the artist.

“Blacksmithing involves a lot of math and engineering, and engages me on lots of levels,” she notes. “My first attempt was a disaster. The way metal works is not the way my mind works. Rather than me bending to the metal, I was trying to make the metal bend to me. I fought it for a long time, but one day I hit the metal where it was supposed to be hit and ‘Wow!’ Once it is heated, the metal is so malleable, like modeling clay. I find it endlessly fascinating.”

Confident yet humble, the genial artist now leaves her mark on tables, mirrors, light fixtures, towel bars, fireplace tools, coat racks, and cabinet and door hardware. Bridging the gap between functionality and art, her work is characterized by simple lines and detailed hammer work. Many of her pieces also reflect an appreciation for nature.

“I made a lot of kitchen utensils when I started, which became odious—I was a human factory and found it boring. I had a little freedom, but a dinner fork kind of has to be so long. After a while I decided that I have made all the flatware I’m going to make.”

This Zen birdbath, 32"H by 18"D, is topped with a ceramic bowl.
Surrounded by an arsenal of anvils, hammers, punches, tongs and chisels, the petite 63-year-old spends her days bending, twisting and shaping metal, all the while being careful not to brand herself. She has her share of war stories, including one about accidentally setting herself on fire. The worst injury came from a deer hook that she was re-heating with a torch. The piece slipped out of the vice and flipped through the air before piercing her lip completely through to her gums. “The worst part was that I couldn’t touch it because it was so hot, so it just dangled there until it cooled,” she recalls.

Borthwick continues to evolve artistically, changing her style when something new excites her. Most recently, she began collaborating with friends who work with fiber, as well as fused glass. Featured in galleries, shops and art shows throughout the country, her works have earned dozens of awards, including “Best in Metal” at the 2013 Scottsdale Arts Festival.

Despite her blackened hands, Borthwick says that, away from her shop, people seldom surmise what she does for a living. “They see my hands, and even though it’s not the right kind of dirt, they ask if I am a gardener. I was at one art show and a couple of women were suspicious that I really did the work. They told their blacksmith husbands that I didn’t have a burn mark on me. The men looked at me and asked, ‘What’s your story?’” All doubts subsided when she related her tale about the deer hook.

Borthwick says that while she used to say she had the worst boss in the world—herself—she has learned to step away from the shop and balance her life with other passions, including hiking, backpacking, boating and cross-country skiing.

“This is definitely a physical job. I’m older, but the iron isn’t getting any lighter,” she muses. “I have no plans to stop, as long as I find it interesting and my body holds out. The heat does so much of the work for you—it’s not like taking cold steel and bending it. But the bottom line, it’s still heavy work. One day I will gracefully retire.”

Standing 30"H and 12" square, this accent table is topped with a limestone tile from Morocco.

Cathi Borthwick shares her
passion for wildlife in this fireplace set, which stands 34"H.
Heat, pound, repeat—it’s just another day at the office for artist Cathi Borthwick, who is holding a 2,000-degrees F steel bar and proceeds to pound it vigorously with a hammer. Wearing steel-toe boots, protective glasses, ear protectors, overalls and thrift-shop finds that she can “burn through,” the blacksmith notes that “Some days, I can’t believe what comes off my end of the hammer, and other times I have a fight with the metal.”

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