June is Studio Safety Month, and CERF+ will be opening the next cycle of Get Ready Grants on June 15 to artists working in craft disciplines to conduct activities that will help safeguard their studios, protect their careers and prepare for emergencies.
This month, we feature James Aevermann, a blacksmith and metalsmith in Mangilao, Guam. Born and raised in Guam, Aevermann is the son of a Korean mother and German father. He shares fascinating anecdotes about CHamoru arts and his own artistic journey. CHamoru are the indigenous people of the Mariana Islands, and Aevermann apprenticed under one of the last CHamoru master blacksmiths, an experience that transformed his life. He is also a recent Get Ready Grant grantee and reveals his experience assessing his studio needs and using his grant to create a safer working environment.
Please tell us about the arts community in Guam.
James Aevermann: The arts community on Guam is very diverse, with artists ranging from photographers, to filmmakers, musicians, theater professionals, painters, sculptors, and of course, traditional folk artists. There are several crafts that Guam considers to be traditional, dating their origins to pre-Spanish colonization of the island. Coconut weaving, trap-making, net weaving, wood, bone, and shell carving, canoe carving, and of course, blacksmithing are considered the main traditional CHamoru crafts.
Please describe CHamoru blacksmithing and what makes it unique.
James Aevermann: CHamoru blacksmithing has a long history on Guam, dating back to pre-Spanish colonization. It was originally brought to Guam by a Chinese sailor who was shipwrecked and stranded on the islands. In return for the native people taking him in and helping him to survive, he taught them blacksmithing. Guam does not have any iron deposits, so any iron that made its way here was in very small quantities and usually through trade with other islands. When the Spanish began using Guam as a port in their trade routes between Asia and Mexico, more metals were brought to the island. As the years went on, the art of blacksmithing evolved with it, gaining influences from the Spanish, then Americans, followed by the Japanese during World War II. After the war ended and the United States reclaimed Guam, Americans began to industrialize the island heavily, and traditional crafts like blacksmithing began to die out in favor of more “lucrative jobs.”
Is your own work part of the CHamoru tradition?
James Aevermann: My work, and my craft, is part of the long CHamoru tradition. There are several traditional CHamoru tools that are not manufactured, and since the Spanish occupation, people have relied on blacksmiths to make them. Of the eight traditional tools, the fusinos (a farming tool for tilling and cutting) and the machete are the most important tools needed for people to work the land. The only way to learn how to make these tools was to apprentice under a Master Blacksmith (Herreran CHamoru). Starting in 2014, I apprenticed under Master Francisco Lizama. In 2018, I was named a Journeyman by Lizama, signifying that I had completed my training in learning how to craft the traditional CHamoru tools and could now pass that knowledge on as well. Unfortunately, since Master Lizama in passed away in 2021, Guam no longer has any more Master Blacksmiths. I have continued the tradition, making hand-forged tools for people while also putting my own mark and my own influence into the craft.
Eight traditional CHamoru tools made by James Aevermann.
Would you tell us a bit about Lizamas Forge and your role?
James Aevermann: Lizamas Forge was started by Master Francisco Lizama and his two sons, Sean and Troy, and I was invited to be a part of the group. Our goal was the ensure that the art of traditional CHamoru blacksmithing would be preserved and passed onto future generations. As such, we focused our efforts in teaching and spreading the word about our craft. We would hold demonstrations, exhibits, participate in fairs both on Guam and the neighboring islands, like Saipan, and teach basic forging courses to anyone interested, with the hopes that they would find a passion for it and stay to learn how to forge the traditional tools. My role at Lizamas Forge was twofold. I served as one of the primary blacksmiths, fulfilling customer orders for tools, making repairs, and completing the shop’s inventory. My other duty was as an instructor, teaching basic forging classes and starting apprentices on the techniques that would be used to forge the traditional tools.
Where do you and other blacksmiths on the island get your materials?
James Aevermann: Most of the materials we work with are recycled or discarded auto parts, such as suspension springs, axels, and leaf springs. We sometimes also get old farm equipment parts like disc plows or excess items from construction projects like rebar. We try to give new life to old things and repurpose a lot of metals. As for the wood, we harvest it locally from fallen trees or pruned branches. Of course, if a customer wants a specific type of handle material, we have to get creative or order things from off of the island, but I try to keep things as local as possible. Other than wood, I sometimes work with things like carabao horn or deer antlers, but I personally try to stay away from that unless I absolutely have to use because the dust generated from horn and bone is pretty awful.
How did you hear about CERF+?
James Aevermann: I first heard about CERF+ in 2020 at the height of the pandemic and recovery efforts. Someone at Breaking Wave Theatre Company posted the announcement about the emergency relief grants in a group chat. Since then, I read up on the organization and have been following along with all the amazing work that CERF+ has been doing for artists all across America.
Aevermann recognized that the process of making his work included several hazards. In February 2022, Aevermann applied for and received a Get Ready Grant. Would you tell us how you used your Get Ready Grant from CERF+?
James Aevermann: Since the start of the pandemic and the constant fluctuations in social distancing and lockdown mandates, I began slowly building up my own personal shop at my house because people needed items made, and I couldn’t keep relying on windows of opportunity to get back to Lizamas Forge. Over the past two years, I personally built a structure beside my house to work out of. With a combination of tools that I purchased and several that were gifted to me from others at Lizamas Forge, I created a functional, though still incomplete shop for myself. My work involves cutting and sanding wood as well as sanding, grinding, and polishing metal. As a result, significant dust and metal shavings are produced. Sparks from grinding metal could potentially ignite sawdust. I purchased a dust collector and air filtration system for this studio that I am now working and teaching out of.
All photos courtesy of James Aevermann. To learn more about James, follow him on Instagram @guam_blacksmith
CERF+’s Get Ready Grant cycle opens on June 15, 2022. CERF+’s Get Ready Grants of up to $500 enable artists to invest in their safety and career resilience to lessen impacts or avoid emergencies altogether. Last year in response to COVID-19, we expanded the program to support the measures artists are taking to increase their recovery and resilience in the face of the pandemic, including building a stronger online presence and purchasing the equipment necessary to do so, installing equipment to safely bring people into their studios, and hiring childcare support in order to get back in their studios. Applications are due July 6, 2022. What project will you propose to make to safeguard your studio or career?