O‘AHU’S NORTH SHORE IS KNOWN FOR ITS POUNDING SURF, WITH ITS POWERFUL AND RHYTHMIC CADENCE, AND FOR BEING AN AREA ATTRACTIVE TO ARTISTS FOR ITS SIMPLE WAY OF LIFE. Those who choose to wander and get lost along its country lanes that meander from rural byways to upland valleys and shoreline communities will find much of that rural simplicity along the roadside. Dotting many neighborhoods, one finds unattended fruit stands cobbled together from weathered planks and broken surfboards, their colorful backyard bounty on display and available; lazy coconut trees and sentinel mailboxes carrying the patina of generations gently lean on myriad hand-painted bicycles for support, many clustered around the sandy paths that lead down to beaches and waves. This is the scenery that feeds local artists’ eyes, and which transforms passing visitors’ lives, dialing down the hurried and frenetic, slowing the pace of urban living, and reminding us of what life was like before modern times and the advent of town’s human-hamster-wheel office-bound careers.
Ages ago, actual lifelong careers were built on what we now regard as artisanal crafts. Lives were dedicated to singular pursuits, and people made objects of use that they became known for. Families passed down the skills of a trade from generation to generation, with no formal training required, as it was acquired by countless hours of observation and effort. From hoops and staves, coopers made barrels. From warp and weft, weavers made cloth. With hammer and tongs, blacksmiths went at it, forging the tools that underpinned much of life, from farming to transportation, to everyday household living. Turning iron into tools transformed civilization, and the skill was common, like the proverbial Smiths who took its name and are literally spread far and wide—every village had one. And it is this type of anvil pounding craftwork that we discovered along an idyllic stretch of Mokule‘ia seaside, where local artist and bladesmith Gabriel Lennon turns found steel into knives, cleavers, axes and more in his open air seaside forge.
He shared that the roots of his artistic journey are to be found in the tales of medieval mythology that he read as an adolescent, and also in the early video games; the countless hours of his youth spent exploring the world of dungeons, and yes, dragons. The swords that slayed the games’ beasts were equally mythical, yet based on actual tools of the knight’s trade. Armor, chain mail, swords. As inspiration, or commission, strike him, the forge is lit, and the tools of the trade are hefted. A fortuitous study abroad trip to England during college led to a real sword-making apprenticeship, and the result of that was creating his first sword. From those beginnings, a passion for metalworking was born, and back on O‘ahu, he set up shop as a bladesmith, joining a small but growing cadre of local practitioners. Add a dose of sunshine, and Hawai‘i’s cooling trades to temper the furnace’s heat, and Lennon’s Five Shield Forge was born.
Lennon’s ears hear the music in his craft, as his eye shapes whatever bladed instrument is being made. His hands leave the mark of a maker; these knives, machetes and cleavers do not aspire to mere factory-produced finishes, but aim to retain the individual signs of an artist’s work. Blows that start as bangs become pings that change in timbre as the metal is worked. The sound of red-hot steel being quenched in oil is close to what one hears when deglazing a hot pan. Except this metal is glowing, and that latent heat can only become a tortuous cry of metal.
The angry whine of a grinder is punctuated by the singing of metal as the edge is put on. Ever finer grit, ever sharper edge; the process of making blades truly reflects the continuous cycle of improvement that defines any craft, or art. While our modern world has evolved and trans- formed from the era of guilds, it is clear that this innate desire to hone one’s skills is in all of us.
Recent pieces from Lennon have been massive cleavers, their hefty blades balanced by elegant “scales,” which are the paired wooden pieces that make up the handle. These cleavers are equally at home in a chef’s kitchen, or on display. Scores of hours on his latest cleaver resulted in a work of art that became a wedding gift; one can’t help but wonder at the appropriateness of handing newly- weds a glinting blade so soon, but as he shares, “Depending on the word’s sense, one can cleave strongly together, or one can cleave apart.” Such is the dichotomy of an artist’s creations that can be used as tools or admired as art.