Local Blacksmith Leslie Tharp Turns Metal Into Art
In a metal shop in Gainesville, Leslie Tharp heats up a sheet of metal in a gas forge and shapes it on top of an anvil. The melodies of bluegrass music flowing through her earbuds tune out the clanking of her hammer as she assembles pieces for her sculptures.
While she works, she snacks on about 10 different things simultaneously, from granola bars to peanut butter, blocks of cheese, chips and salsa, olives, Gatorade, coffee, kombucha and leftovers from last night’s dinner. Pieces of raw, cut and scrap metal lie piled up on the floor, and handmade metallic tools rest at arm’s length on a table. Drawn with chalk on the walls are to-do lists and sketches of her sculpture ideas.
“It’s this particular kind of dirtiness that I really enjoy.”
Tharp spends her days showcasing her pieces at temporary art exhibitions in cities like DeLand and Atlanta, selling her art and conducting blacksmithing workshops in Gainesville. She says she finds in metalwork the same relaxation others achieve through yoga or meditation.
“Even though it can be hard on the body, I think it’s good for the soul,” she says. “Through repetitive physical movement, your brain quiets, and you relax.”
She got exposed to metalwork at the University of Florida, where she graduated in 2008 as a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a focus on sculpture.
“I remember walking into the metal shop at UF and really loving the smell,” she says. “It’s this particular kind of dirtiness that I really enjoy.”
The shop became her sanctuary not only for bonding with the community and learning how to safely use welding tools but also for napping and writing papers for unrelated courses, which often got her in trouble.
“They couldn’t get rid of me,” she says. “I’d show up so early. No one was there yet. They’d just unlocked the shop, and I would sit there, drink coffee and figure out, ‘What am I going to make today?’”
But when she got bored with her first welding job after graduation, she searched for a more creative approach to metalwork. She found it through summer workshops at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, where she decided to become a blacksmith.
“I get quite a thrill out of trying to figure out how to make something.”
“I think everyone had a running joke for a little bit like, ‘Jesus, Leslie, you keep jumping back hundreds of years in your interests!’” she says about her family and friends.
However, her parents, who have been self-employed for the majority of their careers, and her sister, a ceramic artist, supported her choice.
Tharp says her stubbornness prevented her from considering giving up blacksmithing despite the burns – literal and figurative – she endured while learning and perfecting the technique. From burning her hand on aluminum railing to struggling to demand respect from some traditional blacksmithing communities that refuse to admit women or take their careers in the field seriously, she found determination to persist.
“Even though it can be hard on the body, I think it’s good for the soul,” Tharp says.
“I was fine with getting it wrong 100 times before I got it right,” she says. “Nothing really ever turned me off.”
Tharp moved back to Gainesville to establish herself as an artist, but even though art school had showed her how to make interesting work, it did not teach her how to run her own business.
So she and her friend Erin Curry created “Art Lab,” a nonprofit collective for emerging artists in the area that remained active for about four years. Members of the group met regularly to share knowledge, techniques and professional development skills with one another.
Since then, she has put her sculptures around the city at locations like Shands, the Senior Recreation Center, UF’s Veterinary Hospitals, Blackadder Brewing Company, Blue Gills Quality Foods and some local nature trails. She finds inspiration for her art in wildlife and in her peers’ work.
“When I see another artist do something I hadn’t thought of, it eats at me,” Tharp says, and it inspires her to find innovative ways to manipulate metal. “I get quite a thrill out of trying to figure out how to make something.”
Tharp welcomes local enthusiasts ages 12 and up at her shop for lessons on how to make objects such as knives, bottle openers, barbecue sets and flower ornaments. Previous blacksmithing experience is not required to attend. Upcoming workshops are scheduled for May 13, 21, 27 and June 10.