by Stephanie Williams
A passionate blacksmith, artist and sculptor by trade, Pete Mattila uses innovative methods to breathe new life into an age-old artform. His custom architectural and sculptural metal work is sought after for public and private commissions.
How did you get into blacksmithing? After immigrating to Australia in 2001, I realised this was a great opportunity to acquire new skills. I studied boilermaking, welding and engineering at TAFE for about two years, and then I got an apprenticeship at an industrial blacksmith shop in Inveresk, in Launceston, called Tasmanian Blacksmiths and Engineering. It’s not open anymore but the guy who ran it, Geoff White, used to be a toolsmith at the Ipswich Railyards, in Queensland.
He then moved to Tassie where he set up his shop. I pretty much begged him for a job – I’d been welding for ages and didn’t even know that a world of forging existed. For me, it was like a magical world and I fell in love with it right away. I worked with Geoff for a number of years and wanted to get fully certified as an industrial blacksmith. The last place where I trained was in Ultimo, in Sydney. I learned all these amazing things that steel has to offer. Seeing all this forged metal work and learning to understand the material really well, I realised that it’s an art form. It’s a medium that’s still untapped, especially in the sculptural sense. So I decided to go to a contemporary art school in Launceston. During my honours year, I started to win awards for my work. While completing my master’s degree, I spent some time at a workshop in Pittsburgh in the US because I felt it was good research. Later I spent half of every year working on sculpture commissions in Tasmania, then the other half of the year at an architectural iron workshop in Northern California. Part of the deal was that I had access to the workshop after hours when I could work on my own projects and develop my own style.
Over the years, I’ve been involved in some events with major performative actions. I once went to New Orleans with another blacksmith where we joined all these other artists. MONA, the one here in Hobart, was doing a gun buyback over there. I built a furnace, and we just fused all of these old guns together. Kirsha Kaechele had set it up because she had a lot of connections there. When I first started blacksmithing, I would have never thought that it could have such a powerful impact.
I’ve been back in Tasmania full-time now for about six years. I’ve set up my own shop in Battery Point, and I do commissions with my own designs. I also hold workshops where we do a bit of teaching.
When you were a kid, is this something you were interested in, or was this career path completely unexpected? It was completely unexpected. It found me, and I just fell in love with it at the right time. I knew that I was really hungry for skills and I could see that having hand skills could have the potential to change my life. It was something I really wanted to do, and it led to self-empowerment in a way. It was transformative.
Why do you think you’re so good at blacksmithing? I think it’s because I’m so passionate about it. Every time I talk about it and when I do it, I just light up. It’s such an old craft, but also such a new art form, if that makes sense? I feel like I’m always learning from the material. It translates into the modern world. I’m excited by the constant discoveries that happen. Maybe that’s the artist side of me. I’ve spent a lot of time pursuing the craft and meeting and learning from other people that are really good at it.
Is there an established blacksmithing scene in Tassie? There is, but not as big as, for example, the woodworking guilds. There are a number of blacksmiths here, like artist blacksmiths and knife makers. For a while, we formed a group because it helped with education and supporting each other and getting the word out about what we were doing. That was really successful for a while, but now there isn’t so much of a need for it anymore because people sort of know what we do. I get emails and phone calls from people all the time who are after forged work. I do mostly design work nowadays, or sculptural pieces.
You also run workshops for kids. How do kids and fire and metal mix? How do you keep the children safe? When parents contact me, we first have a chat about the risks involved and the rules that need to be followed. I then meet the kids to check them out. Some can be fully trusted near a fire, others need to be supervised all the time to avoid accidents.
I’ve known some of the kids for several years, and as they get older, they become more capable. When kids are eager to do the workshops, instead of the parents wanting them to do them, they’re amazingly safe in the workspace. And they’re so knowledgeable. They’ve done heaps of research beforehand. If a young person hasn’t done any work with me previously, it’s one-on-one tuition. If they have, then I can do two-on-one. The projects are always well planned and curated to make sure everything is really ultra-safe. I feel it’s important for kids to have such opportunities because it provides them with real life skills and brings out their artistic side. I always tell them, knowing how to make stuff with your hands is more important than knowing how to write a good email!
Do you have any favourite projects that you’ve worked on? I did a residency at the Inveresk Railyards in Launceston for about six months, where we made an enormous, fire-shooting sculpture. It was pretty magical. Just being inside this old railway museum, it gave it Industrial Revolution vibes.
Another favourite project was in the US and involved designing a set of wings for the Burning Man Festival. They had ten international blacksmiths there. We built the wings in California and then brought them down to Nevada. Inside a tent, all of us blacksmiths and a group of participants of Burning Man forged the feathers together. That was the wildest demonstration I had ever done. There were thousands of people. I’d never got so many hugs in my life! It was a really special experience.
A couple of years back, I made steel simply by collecting charcoal from an old-growth forest in Tasmania and some magnetite. That was really exciting too.
Where can people see your work? I did the seating around the big, bronze playground at MONA. There’s also a large piece of work at Birchs Bay, at the sculpture park, but this is going to be moved to the Junction Arts Festival in Launceston in September. It’s linked with Tasdance, so there will be a dance choreographed that goes with my work, apparently a four-hour show with 26 dancers. My artwork might even get permanently installed up there. Most of my work though is in private collections or on private properties. My Battery Point studio is not open to the public, but when people wander down, I just show them the space and what we’re working on because we’re always working on interesting stuff. We are currently making massive gates for the arboretum in Chudleigh.
Any trends happening at the moment in the blacksmithing industry? This whole knife making thing at the moment is really going bonkers. I’m not wickedly passionate about knives myself, but it falls into that bucket of making things out of steel. A lot of the other major crafts like glass work and ceramics and textiles have had their big days, but blacksmithing is still just percolating under the surface with a lot of contemporary design and making. Steel work and blacksmithing work hasn’t fully emerged in Australia yet. I think that there’s an immense amount of potential for it.
Have you ever seriously hurt yourself during blacksmithing? Do you still have all of your fingers? I burn myself occasionally, which I treat with cold water and aloe vera, but luckily, I’ve never had a major accident.
What do you love to do in Hobart when not working? I usually try to get out when I’m not working, because I’m in town all the time. I’ve got a new puppy, a Blue Heeler, so I’ve been hitting a lot of the dog parks lately. Every other week I’ll go to Salamanca Market and do the rounds, buying my bits and pieces. I love going up kunanyi and seeing the Octopus Tree.