Max Randolph's classic trade in a magical art

© 2017-Paso Robles Press

Blacksmith artist channels passion for metal sculpture

Walking into Max Randolph’s Paso Robles hillside studio, one might see the fifth generation blacksmith turning and forming a massive steel pipe over his great, hand-refurbished forging oven, sparks flying, steel morphing from red to yellow, sweat dripping off his forehead onto his beard, and think, bewildered – what year is this? Where am I? The Industrial Revolution of America? The Art Nouveau movement in France? A sword and weaponry mercantile down thither the stone steps of Casterly Rock?

“I really took to steel because I loved the permanence of it,” Randolph said, describing the entry into the blacksmith profession as coming “from a lifetime of being misunderstood to all of a sudden finding a means to express yourself.”

Blacksmithing is one of the world’s oldest trades with hand tools so ancient there is an entire section of the Pioneer Museum in Paso Robles dedicated to the blacksmith. By the 1950s people stopped needing the blacksmith to make their agricultural implements and shoe nails or to straighten their axles. Industry had edged its way in. But as a young boy Randolph saw much opportunity in the beauteous trade, and he’s known his path would be in the blacksmith vocation since the early age of 14 when he saw a person demonstrate the art of bending iron at the county fair and picked up welding from a neighbor who didn’t mind a curious kid hanging out absorbing some skills.

Randolph can make anything, from an Art Deco-style lamp to a entire estate entrance gate romantically wrapped in wrought iron flora and fauna. Randolph is a true artist, a genius type, wild with passion for progressing his work and grounding himself in the human experience, and while only 28-years-old, he seems to be channelling the spirit of a much older soul. 

Talking to Randolph can be a history lesson of sorts, so much so that local school children have visited his studio on field trips. He makes the young ones ask questions to guess what he’s forming out of a single piece of iron. As he’d flush the tail out, the children were yelling out, “A knife! A sword! A tree!” but Randolph was making a hummingbird.

“They need to see the magic in the world,” Randolph said. “And also the magic they can create himself. Now it’s like, ‘here’s an ipad, now get out of my face kid.’”

He volunteers as a judge for Skills U.S.A. with fellow youth advocate and blacksmith Matt Kennedy. Welders from the industry look for bright stars within local high schools. Get Randolph going on how important it is to give young tradespeople encouragement and feedback, and the conversation could go on for hours.

“I grew up in Skills U.S.A… It’s easy to get discouraged,” he said. “Pushing college, that’s fine, but lots of college grads aren’t finding jobs. You have a lot of skilless, tradeless work force. We need builders, welders, pipefitters.”

What he didn’t teach himself he learned from mentors so he has a real grip on learning the fundamentals early on to prolong them, but then let the imagination go.

“But do not be a forever student,” he warned. “You need to set out on your own and learn your heart. Learn your inspiration. Get very acclimated to your own mind. Don’t try to build what your master would build.”

He said he’d take on an apprentice one day (male or female) as he had once done, with Atascadero blacksmith Jerry Wheeler.

“It was perfect, because I was strong and willing and he was about ready to retire,” Randolph said.

He has no intention of doing anything else besides art, night and day. And he’s worked so hard on perfection, he may never know the pain of the starving artist. He belongs to a brotherhood of blacksmiths, who seem to understand each other like no one else can.

“We have our rightful place in the fine arts,” he said. “No other trade can do with steel and iron like a smith can. There’s no machine that has the human intuition, the human condition to make something feel alive. How human is it of us to want to take something cold, black and dead, the most dead thing you can think of, and imagine and humanize it?”

As a menace of a kid, but a tireless builder and seeker of the ‘how does this work?’ Randolph hadn’t planned on becoming a blacksmith, but later learned the craft was within his marrow. It wasn’t until after Randolph declared that he would be a blacksmith for a living when his family told him he comes from a long line of blacksmiths. His great grandfather was the last of his lineage to carry on the craft, a free-spirited artist who could build anything, including hot rods. And now Randolph is continuing along the tradition.

Randolph describes his childhood self as “Animal” from the Muppets. “Go figure,” he laughed. “I was just this problem child,” he said, “this hellian.”

Randolph grew up in Paso Robles and Atascadero. He went to Winifred Pifer Elementary, George Flamson Middle School and Paso Robles High School. Aside from a few teachers who noticed his special gifts, he said he was a terrible student. Unruly. Insatiable. A “little crazy man.” Like so many kids today, Randolph was medicated for ADHD. You can’t see it now, because the energy has worked it’s way out of structured school and into the creative process.

“If they would have given me a ball of clay, I probably would have done great,” he said, describing a time when he unscrewed all the nuts and bolts from the school overhead projector and let hell break loose as it crashed to the floor. He said he liked to make his classmates laugh as a distraction, but the projector – he wanted to know how it worked.

He was always building things as a boy — birdhouses, treehouses. The youngest of three siblings, he looked to his brother and sister for more to build. His sister was also a creative and later became valedictorian at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles. She taught him culture through exposure to the arts. And Randolph would beg his brother to teach him how to build things, as his brother was a carpenter. Randolph is quite an accomplished woodworker. He learned quite a bit as a construction worker, but he fell hard into the “rabbit hole” of metalwork.

Today he is booked solid with commissions, sought after by interior designers, winery owners, and fine art patrons. But his quest is a humble one: to discover more, to honor the heritage and of course... to love and find connection.

“To create true beauty, at least through our experience – that is the ultimate challenge,” said the long, curly-haired Randolph. His little weiner dog Copper follows him wherever he goes. Randolph is working on a collection of gallery pieces that incorporate male and female figures in steel, with copper irises, hand hammered into form. The most delicate and most honored parts of the female he makes in glass: her heart, the back of her skull where the emotional part of the brain lies, and her womb.

“To give movement to steel is very difficult, but to really tap into people’s hearts, that’s the final frontier,” he said. Randolph likes to see hard lines for him. Flow and grace for her. “It’s kind of undeniable how graceful and beautiful women are.”

The male/female piece is the piece that resonates the most with Randolph. He’s enjoying his work, discovering, pushing himself further and further. He fondly remembers the family that commissioned a glass, wood and steel doorway for San Ysabel Ranch.

“They trusted me without any repertoire,” he said. “The piece really turned me into a projectile, if I could say so.”

He gives off a mad scientist kind of vibe as he talks excitedly with his hands and apologizes for rambling on when he gets excited about firing up another subject.

“I’m obsessed with romance and love,” he said. “Especially if you’ve ever experienced real love.”

As a teen, Randolph starting with welding and building barbecues because of his close family’s love for the grill, taking an advanced welding course in high school, and earning awards from his pieces. He moved on to furniture, lighting fixtures and lamps.

“It’s weird,” he said. “There was never a plan. It’s really wild. My focus was challenging myself. When I’d meet challenge and I’d meet something that either told me I couldn’t do it, or it couldn’t be done, or no one does that, well, okay, yeah, try me!”

Randolph laughed, and described constantly giving everything he had, finding he had more and more to give after going that far. His drive and love for a challenge kept him pushing himself. “Now all of a sudden you’re doing things that not many people can do and not really looking at the ones you’re racing with. You’re looking at the finish line. You realize you’re more and more alone. You’re still pushing, faster. You can never go fast enough, but you keep passing people. And it’s not a race against people, it’s a race always against yourself.”

Without having the burden of competitiveness, Randolph could immerse himself in inspiration. Along came an interior designer, Lori Krivacsy, who discovered his talent early on, his supportive mother and a few teachers who believed in him, but he has the benefit of a tight community of metalworkers.

“No one understands us like we do,” he said. “If you find someone who is protective about their knowledge, it means that they don’t have much. And you get that sometimes,” he said.

Two mentor blacksmiths in Randolph’s life have been Robert ‘Bob’ Bentley, Sculpterra’s metal fabricator and “brilliant scholar,” and Randy Augsburger, an “immaculate blacksmith” who uses an old school, traditional approach.

Randolph could be described as a combination of the two contrasting influences.

He has created hundreds of masterpieces to date, including swords, which he doesn’t even seem to think is a very big deal. He was once commissioned to make a chef’s knife for a partner at Dreamworks, but his current project is even more decadent. Now in pencil and wooden model stage, his new obsession is a steel hobbit door made to fit into the rocks of a private underground wine cellar in a cave adorned with real stalactites. It is something right out of Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbook. Exposed gearworks. A kaleidoscope mechanism with tempered glass. A rolling slide on bearings that opens an eight-foot round door.

He had his client choose from a series of three hand drawn designs and scale models: a vault style, a cathedral style, and the gearworks hobbit style door, which the client, a homeowner in Santa Margarita, preferred, but the models are still being refined. He was still thinking about it during the interview. He apologized in his gruff, gravelly voice, “I’m sorry. I get sidetracked,” he said. “Well, I don’t want actuators. I don’t want all of these wires that are hidden in our very plastic Barbie doll world. I want to see gearworks. I want to understand how something moves. I want to watch it work.”

Randolph loves conversation about art and life, and has pride in being a part of the brotherhood of blacksmithing, but is in no way arrogant. He’s kind of like Santa Claus in his younger years, getting ready for Christmas. He wishes he could work more with ‘his people,’ the ordinary folk, but the sheer amount of time his work takes makes his art a bit out of reach for most people. His vocabulary is beyond ordinary. He uses words like nebulous and happenstance. He doesn’t cuss, but uses ‘gosh’ and ‘my goodness’ instead. He loves the connection he makes with clients and mentors and every once and awhile, out ‘mingling’ with his friends, because “my gosh, I’m a hermit,” he said. 

“I haven’t decided the counterweight system,” Randolph said, fiddling with the door model. He estimated the total time he will put into the project is about 1,000 hours. Randolph is passionate about figuring out things. “College was out of the question for me. Books are out of the question for me,” he said. The most college he ever completed was a few small business courses to help him start a metalsmithing studio.

So Randolph learned by good ol’ trial and error. He learned drafting by staring at a drafting ruler until the mathematical concepts clicked. If he is stumped on how to solve a problem with a design, he asks his fellow blacksmiths how they would do it.

“Trust one’s intuition,” he said. “Honestly, that’s the best teacher. If you would just pay attention for a minute and critical think, you can be shocked by what you would learn. You spend time on an issue long enough and it will answer itself.”

A creature of habit, Randolph wakes between four and five every morning, meditates over a French press and it’s process, from propane flame to bean grinding, and then he goes to his sketching room to “wind up.” He’ll put on some Bach, Shubert or Vivaldi. He has a long list of favorite classical composers and to prove it, a bust of Beethoven sits among his piles and pinned up draft work in his drawing studio, but like his artwork: a mix of traditional blacksmithing and distinctly creative flow, he likes the contemporary works as well, like Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman. Before spending the rest of the day as an unleashed fireball out in the shop, Randolph usually watches “something weird” on YouTube, like a science experiment or a physics phenomenon. The music and videos allow his senses to become acute, to become a nerve for his feelings and “shepherd” his “stimuli,” as he put it. He usually stops working around 10:30 p.m. He said he loves to untie his leather apron at the end of the day, only to repeat the routine tomorrow with the same intense passion and creative verve.

He bent over, sanding a commision of old school steel worked dining chairs with Japanese nickel and copper inlays. No nails. All hand crafted. All Randolph. When the rest of the interior designers get their hands on Randolph’s original artisan creations he’s going to need an office manager. But he’s a relentless perfectionist. He tires of his pieces and “drives himself bonkers” noticing every flaw.

“It’s terrible. I see everything. Every quirk and mess up. Even when no one else will see it.”

Most of his work would be considered Art Nouveau or Art Deco, but the dining chair series was definitely Old English eclectic, with only the most intricate Art Nouveau touches. On the end chairs, with elkhorns as the armrests, Randolph sat down casually and reached to where a hidden dagger/beer bottle opener will go. The chairs were just waiting for the leather to ship from Germany to finish the pieces. It’s hard to believe those pieces started with a couple curves and lines on a sheet of paper.

But artworks like this were all over the studio, just up the path from his home, near a well irrigated pumpkin patch as Randolph gets ready for his favorite season.

He will be ready for a family one day, he said, “In due time,” but until then, he’s been joyfully taking part in the all consuming, ever rotating crank of working with clients.

“I love bringing the art form to the human experience,” said Randolph. “Because, my goodness, what a journey that is,” he laughed, and the laugh lines danced on the edges of his blue-green eyes, “Pain and all that. To be a creature of the fabric of the experience. To live it all. In fullness.”

You may contact Reporter Beth Giuffre with questions and/or feedback at [email protected]

© 2017-Paso Robles Press


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