Since 1976, Pratt Fine Arts Center in the Central District has taught forging, woodworking, stone carving, welding and more — drawing a large cohort of women to study traditionally male-dominated art forms.
Satisfied that the bar was sufficiently hot, she pulled it out of the forge, laid its radiantly orange tip on an anvil and began hammering, showing a handful of students how to “draw out” metal — turning and pounding the bar to make it thinner and longer. Geertsen wore one glove to hold the bar, but her hammering hand was bare.
“I like to get the feel of the hammer,” she said over the roar of the forge flames, but cautioned students against doing it her way until they were more experienced. “You can get burns from molten flying bits,” she said. “But I’ve been hammering hot metal for a lot of years.”
Pratt Fine Arts Center
1902 S. Main St., Seattle; 206-328-2200 or pratt.org.
The students — surrounded by large anvils on massive wood blocks, 50-gallon drums full of water, and wall racks loaded with hammers, mallets, tongs and files — nodded attentively.
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But one detail set it apart from other metalworking studios: The women in the class outnumbered the men by nearly two to one — and both instructors were, in Geertsen’s words, “ladies.” Next door, in a smaller room, sculptor Eva Funderburgh was teaching students how to make molds for pouring molten bronze.
“Ironically, of all the studio managers at Pratt, there’s only one guy, up in the glass studio,” said wood-studio manager Anne Briggs. “We have a disproportionate number of kick-ass ladies doing rad stuff.”
For 40 years, Pratt has been teaching classes across a wide spectrum of arts — blacksmithing, woodworking, glassblowing, stone carving — that are often dominated by men. (It also teaches classes in painting, drawing and printmaking.)
Geertsen, who is also Pratt’s metal and stone studio manager, has been a blacksmithing instructor at the school since 2007. She said the number of female students fluctuates from class to class, but there’s a strong cohort of women at Pratt. She suspects that’s because “the more lady instructors you have, the more ladies show up. It’s less intimidating.”
According to 2014 statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor, women make up around 47 percent of the U.S. workforce, but the percentage of women in metalworking fields ranges from 1.3 percent (tool and die makers) to 5.2 percent (sheet-metal workers).
Clearly, there’s something different about Pratt.
Founded in 1976, Pratt Fine Arts Center is named in honor of Edwin T. Pratt, a civil-rights leader who was slain outside his Shoreline home in 1969. Pratt executive director Steve Galatro says the center wants to “make art accessible to all” and takes special steps “to overcome systems of oppression like age, gender, race, economics, etc., that might prevent someone from participating.” The nonprofit supports itself on donations and student fees. (Its 2014 tax forms show an income breakdown of $824,485 in donations and $1,349,628 in revenue from its programs.)
Blacksmithing instruction fees can range from a one-time class for $115 (materials included), where beginners make forged bottle openers, to a $390, six-week “continuing blacksmithing” series with Geertsen.
Pratt offers a variety of grants and subsidies, including a 75 percent class discount for students whose household incomes fall at or below 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines. It also hosts women-only programs like the $85 Ladies’ Forging Night.
Pratt, Briggs said, “is one of the most inspirational places I’ve ever been,” where woodworkers, metalworkers and glassblowers can collaborate under one roof — woodworkers make custom holders for glassblowers, or forge their own tools — and newcomers work side-by-side with professionals.
“There’s no place quite like it,” she said. “This afternoon, I made some hinges for a chest I just built.”
Her project is to replace every piece of furniture in her home with furniture she’s made.
Geertsen agreed that Pratt is a special place, but also thinks there’s something special about Seattle culture that crumbles the walls between men and women in traditionally male-dominated professions. Geertsen, who studied metal sculpture at West Virginia University, said she was initially intimidated by men in the blacksmithing world.
“Then I met five or six other lady blacksmiths” in Seattle, she said. Then she grinned. “And I was like: ‘Okay!’ ”
Back in the metal shop, Geertsen and instructor Carla Grahn talked to the students about sanding down sharp burrs once they’ve cut a steel bar. “Keep your blood in your body!” Geertsen told them. “You need it more than the bar does.”
Hot metal, Grahn said, “is very taffy like.” But even when the orange glow fades, she advised, “it’s still hot!”
“Yes,” Geertsen agreed. “That’s one of the hardest lessons to learn.” If glove starts to feel hot, she said, cool down the metal bar in a drum of water. “It’s no fun to burn a hole in your glove.”
Geertsen kept putting the steel in the forge and pulling it back out for various manipulations: hammering one end into a point on an anvil, quickly twisting it in a vise (a process she described as “instant gratification”), pounding a twisted end into a curlicue shape with a more delicate rawhide mallet.
By the end of the demonstration, the students gathered around to see what she’d made: a gorgeously twisty, black curlicue hook, like a flourish you’d see at the end of a banister in a medieval castle — or maybe a lamp holder in a dungeon.
The students nodded admiringly and started picking up their tools, ready to get to work.