Kitsap blacksmith creates lasting art in pursuit of tranquility

Silverdale couple, local blacksmith tell the story of “Continuation of Peace”

Standing sentinel atop a grassy hill in Silverdale overlooking Hood Canal is a forged steel sculpture, some 12 feet tall.

Upon close examination, one need not be an expert to recognize the handiwork of a blacksmith through the imperfections in the steel’s surface, as applied by the countless hammer strikes against heated metal in shaping something raw and lifeless into a piece of art, whose story will live on well beyond the lifetime of its creators.

Betsy and Mickey Hall look to one another across their living room when asked to retell the story of how the sculpture at the top of their driveway, titled “Continuation of Peace,” came to be.

“I’ll tell the story,” Betsy said. “We had this wonderful piece of art that was part of a staircase and we decided that it just couldn’t be thrown out.

“It really was, in our opinion, a work of art.”

Finding themselves unable to part with the original piece constructed by blacksmith Jerry Culberson in 1998, the Halls began to search for the right blacksmith to rework the railing into something new.

“The item did have a special meaning to us,” Mickey said. “Betsy had worked with Jerry’s wife — we went up there to the Old Cedar Forge shop and took a look at his whole operation. He came out, looked at the setting, came up with a design, we modified it a bit and he finished it. It was a railing that is quite gorgeous.”

In her search for a worthy candidate to take on the task of breathing new life into Culberson’s railing, Betsy began consulting with other artisans. Before long, she connected with Elijah Burnett and the Burnett Forge in Poulsbo.

For those who have come to know and recognize the differences between commercially manufactured metalwork and the intensely specialized, and yet ancient, trade of the modern-day blacksmith, Elijah Burnett’s handiwork that appears throughout Kitsap County is difficult to overlook.

While Burnett was not one of the two blacksmiths who originally assisted Culberson in constructing the Halls’ railing, a connection between him and the piece still remained.

At one time, Culberson served as Burnett’s master, patiently shaping the young blacksmith’s skills, knowledge and technique much in the way Burnett had learned to shape and mold the hot steel of his forge.

“Back in 1999 was when I started my apprenticeship with Jerry Culberson of Old Cedar Forge,” Burnett recalled. “That’s where I started my journey in this craft of blacksmithing. Through the craft, I became an artist.”

After learning of Burnett’s connection to Culberson, and without any input in the piece’s final design, the Halls offered the railing to Burnett so he could build their sculpture.

“We were not asked, nor gave any input into what we received back,” Betsy said. “I liked not having that control, and that’s not something I say very easily.”

Burnett says the piece sat in his shop for “probably too long” while he considered the possibilities in how to re-envision his former master’s work. Paying close attention to the troubled times globally and nationally, with the COVID-19 pandemic, nationwide riots and more personally, his own father falling ill, Burnett says the form of a bird began to take shape in his mind.

“There was a lot of stress in people’s lives, a lot of hard feelings that were going on in the world,” Burnett said. “But I was at peace; I am always at peace when I am creating and doing my work. I got to thinking about my journey in the craft and my education under Jerry, and the good times we had together.”

Burnett recalled hearing of the hardships Culberson faced over the years, including those endured during six tours of duty in the Vietnam War.

“A lot of hard times in his life, but what I got to see firsthand is the peace that he had in doing what he did for a living, in blacksmithing, in creating,” Burnett said. “He passed that on to me; we got to enjoy that peace together.

In contrast to the turmoil that has engulfed the world this year, he said, “I almost felt guilty about the peace that I was having during my creative process,” he added. “I kept seeing this bird in the design. I kept seeing what Jerry had created in his masterful eye, and I went with it.”

In describing the forms present in “Continuation of Peace” Burnett said he visualized the bird, held in a contained space, rising slowly upward, then finally breaking free of its confines and escaping skyward. At the base of the sculpture rests a scroll, with the words, “Continuation of Peace,” stamped above it. Below the scroll rests another section of wording stamped into the steel: “Old Cedar Forge, 1998.”

“I like the idea of the simplicity of it,” Betsy said of Burnett’s work. “That feels right for that piece of steel.”

“For me, it’s about the journey from captivity to freedom,” Mickey said. “I think the more we get to know Elijah and the story, the more important the piece becomes to us.”

Burnett seems as intentional in his choice of words as he was in the creation of his artwork, sometimes pausing for a moment to collect a thought before continuing:

“We’re all striving to raise ourselves to a point of peace,” he said. “We struggle like a bird trying to fly but are enclosed in the constraints of our life. But in the end, one way or another, we find peace.

“For the lucky ones like myself, we get to experience peace during our lives.”

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