In countless movies portraying past centuries, from the Medieval Ages all the way through to the Renaissance, American Colonial period, the Gold Rush, Civil War and even to Westerns set in the late 1800s, there is a familiar scene: as the camera pans up to a village or settlement, we hear the rhythmic "ting! ting! ting!" of a steel hammer pounding hot iron on an anvil, and we're treated to the brief sight of a blacksmith beating a piece of glowing metal as a forge fire smolders in the background.
These glimpses of an ancient trade serve as ambiance to help transport the viewer back in time. The view is immediately compelling, but it's just for looks and the camera quickly moves on, with no useful item actually produced. Chema the Blacksmith, on the other hand, is a Tehachapi resident and an experienced blacksmith who has handcrafted thousands of real items.
From Chema's skilled hands, coupled with a sturdy anvil, a glowing forge, some tools and a piece of hot metal, an amazing array of items has been brought to life: decorative hooks and hardware of all kinds, tools, utensils, gear. He uses his imagination to create things that are useful or decorative or whimsical, or some combination of all three qualities.
Chema (pronounced as "chemma" with the "ch" sound like church) was raised in Southern California and worked for 14 years as a horseshoer, specializing in corrective shoeing for horses with foot problems. I first met him about 30 years ago when he lived in Tehachapi. He later moved from the area, but he says "I came back to die" when he was discovered to have cancer on a vocal chord in his throat. Doctors removed a large tumor, quieting much of his voice, and told him he was terminal. That was about 12 years ago and he's still going strong.
Chema can be found demonstrating the blacksmithing craft at several annual venues, including Whiskey Flat Days in Kernville over Presidents Day weekend in February, the Hart Canyon Rendezvous near Twin Oaks in April, and the Renaissance Fair in California City in October.
This is a man of wide experience and many talents: Chema has made more than a dozen muzzle-loading rifles and won shooting competitions with them. He has handcrafted items in many different materials: wooden, leather, bone and horn. His ancestry is Spanish-Mexican and American Indian, and he is skilled at beadwork, having honed his skills with the incredibly gifted late Tehachapi artist Gail Shilling Jenkins, one of my best friends.
It is common to hear people talk of blacksmithing as a "dying art, one that no one does anymore" — even as you stand there in front of a hot forge making something. But there are at least a few people in Tehachapi who practice the craft, including Leroy Rice and Eugene Kuntzman. I have a blacksmith shop on our old farm, and Chema and I are considering offering classes, and possibly starting a very informal club to meet once a month for a group smithing session. We're gauging local interest, so anyone who is interested can email me at the address included on this page.
Chema makes many different items for sale, and he does a wonderful job. It usually takes hundreds of hammer strikes to make even the simplest item, but there is satisfaction in knowing that you've made something durable that may last for literally hundreds of years.
"I am addicted to blacksmithing," Chema explains. "I find it challenging and irresistible. I make mistakes while working, but I try to solve the problem and move on." He is truly a talented man of skill, toughness and creativity.
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.