Jeff Fetty grinds away at steel in his studio. Fetty's new studio is part of the budding arts colony in Spencer. Photo courtesy of Sarah Moore and Jon Offredo.
SPENCER, W.Va. -- Jeff Fetty can't sit down. The
blacksmith bops around his new studio, slogging away at hot metal, sculpting a
wrought-iron leaf, gently brushing down a spiraled banister.
Each day, Fetty juggles multiple, unrelated projects -- that's the way he works, he says.
His unorthodox work ethic has paid off over his 30-year career. Fetty has built a reputation as one of the best blacksmiths in the world. He has attracted media attention and done commissions for Tom Clancy, Bill Clinton, Jon Bon Jovi and other high-profile personalities. His work is featured around the globe, from the First Methodist Church in Clarksburg and Women and Children's Hospital in Charleston, to commissions in London and Paris.
Despite being internationally renowned, he's kept his roots in Roane County. It's the place where he grew up, met his wife and opened his first studio.
His career began the first time he went on a date with his wife, whose father was a blacksmith. He remembers coming to her house and intently watching her father work the flames. Over the next few dates, Fetty kept returning to watch her father work. Then, he married his daughter.
At first, making a living was hard.
"A lot of people thought, including some of my family, that I had totally lost my mind," he said. "There were definitely a lot of naysayers, but that didn't discourage me in the least because I just loved blacksmithing. I have this passion and I am going to succeed or I am going to die."
Nowadays, Fetty is one of Spencer's most popular citizens. He recently won citizen of the year and is a man about town.
Spencer Mayor Terry Williams has known Fetty since they were kids in Spencer.
"Jeff's not the kind of guy who wants to sit in an office downtown and be on a phone and write grants like I do," Williams said. "Jeff is a dreamer. He sees things that I can't see sometimes on his side of the coin and it opens my eyes up, too."
Fetty's love for Spencer has inspired him to team with the city to draw other artists to the area.
In 2007 Fetty, Spencer's mayor and the Spencer Development
Authority established the Artists Colony on Chestnut Ridge. The aim is to slowly
transition Spencer's economy from a once industrial center to a blossoming hub
of artistry by offering reasonable plots of land for studios.
The 200-acre plot of land sits atop a ridge overlooking downtown Spencer.
"This is an absolutely gorgeous piece of property that has always surprised me. I've ridden my mountain bike here hundreds of times. I look through and think, 'Holy moly, why hasn't anyone ever done anything with this,'" Fetty said.
One of the reasons, he said, is because the drive to the colony is challenging and the neighborhood has a reputation for being rough.
Rather than it bothering him, Fetty embraces it. Since he's moved in, Fetty has made friends with all of his neighbors, offering up his studio for their use, repairing their farm equipment and having Thanksgiving dinner with them one year.
Throughout his career, Fetty has traveled the world, maintaining an affinity for the functional work of blacksmiths. He's been to France, the Czech Republic, Italy, Egypt and Mexico to visit rural areas where blacksmiths are vital to the community's survival.
At the back of his studio, Fetty has a large map of Mexico stretched out across the wall. Dozens of pinpoints dot the Mexican topography and the places Fetty has been. For 10 years, Fetty has made trips to Mexico. He is going again in January. One small town in particular, San Miguel Aquasuelos, has stayed in his heart. For the past few years he's brought used clothes and established a clothing bank there.
"I have a little more of a connection with this village because its a village filled with craftspeople trying to make a living with their hands, and I can relate to how difficult that is," he said.
Now, Fetty is working on putting together a documentary and a book about Mexican blacksmithing. As an avid photographer, Fetty has documented many of the blacksmithing styles of the region. Once they start talking shop, he said many of them ask to see his work.
"They always say 'Oh, wow, you're way better than we are, and your work is more important than ours,'" he said. "I say, 'No it's not. Your skill level is the same, and, in fact, your work is more important than my work. You're making tools that sustain your community -- basically, I'm making eye candy for rich people.'"
The more he travels, Fetty said, the more he feels a connection to the blacksmiths across the world as "brothers of the iron."
As he gets older, Fetty is determined to pass on what he's learned to anyone who is willing to work hard and has an interest. He routinely hosts students from all over the world in his studio to learn. To him, doing what he loves is essential.
Though he makes up to six-figure fees on certain commissions, it's not totally about the money.
"I don't work for money necessarily -- I work for freedom," Fetty said. "I would rather work really hard 80 hours week doing what I love, than working 40 hours a week doing a job I absolutely hate."