I am a blacksmith.
That is to say: I place metal into a furnace that is over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. I wait for that metal to turn bright yellow, so it will spread under my hammer like wet clay. To retrieve the metal from the forge, I reach in with short tongs—often getting close enough to the heat that my forearm hairs remain permanently singed down to a mere two millimeters long. I assume you’ve done the following before: put a lighter to a frayed end of nylon rope, and watched the individual strands melt in the heat before they harden as a rough circle of plastic. Running your hand down my forearm, I’ve sometimes thought, must feel like that. Like stroking a series of hardened, prickly rope fibers.
Once, I spent hours manually threading pipe. You know what I’m talking about, the fat metal pipe that juts out the backs of old brick buildings into dirty city alleyways. It drains water or sewage or something-or-other from the restaurant kitchen. The pipes always have those threads on them, like screws, so you could attach a cap on the end if you needed to, or maybe join two pipes together. It’s tempting to believe that those threads got put there by a machine. I can assure you, they almost certainly did not. I can assure you there was a person, with an impeccably sharp tool, who carved those threads into the pipe with sheer human willpower.
When I did it, it took all of my bodyweight. I would position the threader onto the pipe, place the lever at a 50 degree angle up into the air, and hang on it until my feet touched the floor. I pulled that lever the rest of the way with all the muscles in my upper arms and back. Over the course of four hours, I threaded maybe thirty pipes. It was one of the most exhausting activities I have ever done.
But before I did that, I had never noticed pipes in the world before. I had seen them without seeing them.
Let me explain. I have a poem that goes:
the blacksmith extracts the iron from the ore/the blacksmith understands the lineage of the smiths who came before her; she knows them back to the days of wrought iron, the days before steel
Once you start working with metal, you see it everywhere. You encounter the pipes sticking out of the wall, and you know—a person did that. You know, if you needed to, you could do that too, with your own, calloused hands.
the blacksmith uses her body as a lever/the blacksmith bashes the body of metal/the blacksmith does not bend the metal in order to break
When your bathroom towel rack breaks, you have a powerful realization—that you don’t need to buy a new one. You could make one. You could make anything you wanted. Scissors. Knives. Shelves. You could make everything that you needed to survive.
the blacksmith changes form/the blacksmith will have whatever form she desires from the metal
The next morning, you walk past the metal gates in front of every San Francisco doorway and you immediately recognize how many of them were done by hand. You see those objects not for what purpose they serve, but rather for the collection of individual hammer strikes that made them. They begin to represent entire generations of people who have shared the same work you do. You know how much practice it took; you know which techniques they used, whether it was difficult or easy.
Walking down the street becomes so moving, that you feel cold inside when you stumble upon an object that was obviously mass-produced. You feel so cold that you don’t want to touch it. You know that it has no humanity. That’s what art is for me: something fundamentally human. It is the act of a person pouring their body into an expression, and leaving behind the evidence for you to uncover. You may not know the metalworkers whose pieces you encounter in the world, but you can see parts of their lives in the objects they made.
the blacksmith grinds the metal; it deposits a grey-black particulate into her shoes which she will choose to carry instead of clean
“But Andrea, if you believe art isn’t about words, then why are you a writer?” you ask.
It’s a fair question. The thing is, no matter what you decide to make out of metal, you start with a hunk, and you hit it, again and again, until a form starts to emerge. In the same way, I use words to shape. I write about moments and minutiae more so than plots, draw out time like falling tree sap. I strive to overwhelm the senses and explain nothing. Just put you there, and let you find your own way.
the blacksmith never hits without probable cause/the blacksmith hits without probable cause
Perhaps it’s informative that one of my favorite works of literature is An Attempt At Exhausting a Place in Paris, by Georges Perec. The entire book is a series of observations that Perec made while sitting at the same fountain in Paris for three days in a row. He writes in exhaustive detail which busses come by, what the people are wearing, notes each cigarette he saw a passerby smoke, and by the time you read to page fifteen you have been charmed into a trance from the comings and goings of daily life. The smallest and most insignificant occurrences become starkly emotional.
For instance, he says, “a little girl goes by wearing a long red hat with a pom-pom (I already saw her yesterday, but yesterday there were two of them).” At that, such a small thing, I was overcome with a sense of foreboding. Where did the other girl go? Did she leave school later than her friend? Is she sick? Is she alive?
I guess what I’m really trying to say is, I’ve heard that art is about Truth, which makes me think it’s supposed to be about Answers. But maybe I am a bad artist, because I don’t have any answers to give. What I do have are disparate pieces of the human experience. I’ve been collecting them. I have them, right here, in my hands, some already fading. And while I could never begin to understand them all, or attempt to tell you what the lives of others should mean to you, I can hand over every shred of evidence I have gathered, bit by bit.
Inside, maybe you will find your own answers.
Andrea Passwater is a writer and experimental narrative artist based in San Francisco. Her work leans into exploring a wide range of perspectives on single moments in time. She is a member of the Action Format art collective and If I Told Napoleon Writers. Her latest project is Moments in Index (MiN), for which she has filled thousands of index cards with the items present around people in their moment of loss. She really should have a website, but she doesn’t, so instead you can follow her on Instagram (@andreapasswater).