ART OR CRAFT? The Makers Chime In! Featured Maker: Kellen Bateham

(Owl Armor – 5’ Tall 3’ wing span – Forged Steel by Kellen Bateham)

Bend native Kellen Bateham is a contemporary blacksmith and self-proclaimed ‘nonprofit junkie’ currently serving as president of the Northwest Blacksmith Association ( An incredibly active member of the blacksmith community, Bateham is a three time, first place winner of the Oregon Winterfest Fire Competition and one of the founders of The Peoples’ Forge (, an association dedicated to bridging the gap between artist, public and craftsperson. The nonprofit junkie has worked and continues to work extensively with the Central Oregon Metal Arts Guild and will exhibit some works in its annual show this August 27-29 at the Oxford Hotel in Bend.

As a metal arts practitioner, Bateham is the perfect person to chime in on the “art or craft?” discussion for the term “metal arts” itself suggests a divergence from the craft with which the blacksmith was traditionally associated. As our understanding of professions changes, we must reassess our relationship to them, particularly where values are concerned. Below, Kellen Bateham offers a glimpse into the life of a contemporary blacksmith and some insights gleaned from it.

ME: Describe your art / craft.

KELLEN: I am a contemporary blacksmith. I say contemporary because what I do is fairly far from Ye Olde Traditional Blacksmith who, for me, always evokes thoughts of armor, swords and plowshares. This is a craft that has been around for thousands of years and has been a driving force in the advancement of civilization and society. Cities had a smithy on every corner and the small town forge was often a staple place for commerce and community. Ye Olde Blacksmith was the King of Crafts. They made almost all the tools used by craftspeople — like hammers, nails, needles, knives, scissors, saws, cookware and the list goes on and on. As time passed, these smiths refined the craft again and again, spending lifetimes mastering fire and movement as they built a skeleton that supported society as it grew. And then electricity came along and changed everything. 

Although the rhythmic sounds of hammer and anvil still pulse in my shop and the ancient fundamentals of forging are fully engaged, many of the processes I use are wholly modern and contemporary. Modern shops are a buzz of electric motors, machinery, hydraulic presses, compressed gasses, welders, powerhammers and (my favorite) induction forging technology (go watch a short video; you’ll be glad you did!). These ‘modern’ technologies allow for bigger, stronger and more intricate objects to be created faster and more accurately than ever before. With the rise of industry, mass production and shipping, the blacksmith’s craft has shifted from being among the most needed and important elements of a community to one that fills more of an artisanal role.

More often than not, I find myself creating functional yet artistic architectural ironworks but revel in the challenge and freedom that sculptural pieces, trophies and awards allow. The forms I create take on a life and presence that is unique to things born from fire and worked by hammer and hand. Long lost are the days of forging hundreds of nails to build a house. Blacksmiths have entered an era where our role is creating focal pieces that enhance the beauty of an entire building.

ME: That is certainly a considerable role change, one that seems to have morphed from craft to art according to the demands and innovations of the times.

Do you consider your work art or craft?

KELLEN: As a contemporary blacksmith, I strive to achieve the unachievable: mastery of a craft that has no ceiling, no floor. As a craftsman, I have always felt myself pulled towards the beauty and artistry of pleasing aesthetics. All that I make is driven by craft and influenced by art. Even when forging tools like pliers, I approach them with a mindset that holds space for functionality and form. This ensures they’re as pleasing to the eye as they are to the hand. Other projects that may be seen purely as art, like my sculptures and murals, are still built entirely on a foundation of craft and understanding of how metal is manipulated.

ME: So it seems craft is the driving force, or engine, behind the work, and art is the factor that influences how this engine is presented and refined. 

How does your work address artistic concerns, like those that a painter or sculptor must consider (form, composition, color, value, texture)?

KELLEN: My work often drifts towards the artistic side of the craft. I am drawn to whimsy and the absurd, to clean lines and subtle textures, to functionality and uniqueness. I find joy in the spontaneity and complexity of design choices that focus on a small detail to complement the whole. I’ve had great teachers and have learned to value the impact that a smooth transition, a soft curve or a brutal corner can have on the eye and the soul. My work is often tempered by the necessities of practical engineering as I strive to create items that satisfy the craftsman in my hands and the artist in my heart.

ME: Many of the elements you articulate certainly resonate with my training as a painter and focus on core principles of good design, principles that transcend discipline. 

What is your opinion on the arts / crafts dyad?

KELLEN: I believe that art is only half the coin that is craft. Any craft may lead to art, but all art is derived from craft. The distinction I would make is more between doing craft and being a craftsperson. Everyone is capable of doing craft and I highly encourage everyone to craft everyday — it’s so good for your mind and body! However, to become a craftsperson takes time and practice and a steady dedication towards holding one’s work to an increasingly higher standard and engaging continual movement towards mastery. It’s my belief that the blacksmith craft is practiced by more people today than at any other point in history but has fewer masters than ever before. The demands and expectations of modern society have not been kind to the craft and are especially hard on those just beginning their journey into it.

My own journey has been profoundly influenced by nonprofit educational groups that focus on preserving these ancient skills while encouraging the growth of new ones. I’ve become a non-profit junkie of sorts, volunteering my time to help these organizations move forward with their missions. The last year and a half has been especially hard on non-profit groups and presented some serious challenges. In my role as President of the Northwest Blacksmith Association (NWBA) I’ve helped keep our craft-based community vibrant by working on a series of online demonstrations. Over the course of this pandemic, I’ve helped schedule and run over 50 online demos from shops across the U.S. as well as Canada, Spain, Ghana, Russia, France and Brazil. One of the things I’ve learned from this experience is that while we may not speak the same language and may be separated by hemispheres, we all speak the same craft and that’s an incredible way to communicate. The times may have changed but I believe the blacksmith is still the King of Crafts.

ME: Thank you, Kellen. We appreciate the discussion!

To view the works of Kellen Bateham, please visit his website: You may also follow the adventures of Kellen and his shop rat, Harold on Instagram @harold_s_rat and @ special_ops_metal.

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