“I feel like I’ll live forever as I keep passing this on to young people,” the 50-year-old said. “Once they get hold of the passion, whether there’s any money in it or not, they won’t stop doing it.”
Burress will be one of the many craft demonstrators on hand at the Appalachian Lifestyle Celebration on Saturday, June 8, in downtown Waynesville. Bringing together an array of artisans, musicians and storytellers, the festival offers a glimpse into the rich heritage of Western North Carolina.
“Every time I build a fire there’s potential for learning something new,” he said. “There’s so much more to this than what I’ve already mastered. It’s about rediscovering the traditions that have been lost to us.”
On a tranquil evening at his farm in the Balsam community of Haywood County, Burress is sitting on his back porch. Gazing across the yard, he smiles watching his honeybees humming and glistening in the sunshine. The blazing rays of the fading sun crash into the mountains, soon disappearing behind the steep hills.
“I’m just tied to the land here, my family has been here since the Civil War,” he said. “It’s about the continuity of living in these mountains, and living off of these mountains.”
Since the late 1980s, Burress has been a blacksmith, making things as large as entrance gates to something as small as a coat hook. At his shop, Calerin Forge Custom Iron and School of Ancient Craft (named after his children Caleb and Erin, who are both accomplished blacksmiths in their own right), each piece is as unique and fascinating as the next, each taking time and precision, not to mention a barrage of blood, sweat and tears.
“If somebody has an idea and they don’t know if it’s possible or not, come talk to us and it’s probably something we can do,” he said.
He also runs a farm with his wife of 32 years, Cecilia, and is the maintenance welder at Western Carolina University.
“Six hours a night is about the only rest I get,” he chuckled.
Growing up on a farm in Cruso, Burress’ father had a welding shop underneath the house and a fabrication business in Candler. Metal was in his blood, but not blacksmithing, not just yet. After graduating from Pisgah High School, he pursued a fine arts degree at WCU, where he wanted to be a children’s book illustrator.
That dream soon faded, while a job as a traveling welder emerged. But all wasn’t lost as he met Cecilia, who was also studying at the university. Burress was now crisscrossing the county, doing boiler and industrial shutdowns alongside his brother. During a chance encounter as a dinner party, Burress was asked by an Atlanta decorator if he ever made any iron furniture.
“She asked if I would be interested in making furniture for one of her clients,” he said. “So, of course I said I was, seeing as I was between jobs and had to do it to put food on the table.”
Together with his brother, Burress did a makeshift forge out of an old brake drum and an air compressor. It wasn’t state of the art, far from it actually, but the hard work paid off with a finished iron table that pleased the decorator.
“We got it done and it looked good,” he laughed. “I told my brother that I thought there was some money in this, but we’re doing something wrong because nobody would do this for a living because it’s too damn hard.”
As with anything in life, Burress became better at his craft with practice. He learned the tricks of the trade to properly running a forge and knowing what to look for when pursuing the perfection he desired for a piece.
“What I really enjoy is making tools,” he said. “When you can take a lump of inanimate metal and turn it into something that feels good in your hands, that’s useable in everyday life, that can be passed down to your grandchildren, that’s what I like.”
These days, Burress offers an eight-week or weekend intensive course for those interested in learning the trade. It may be a strenuous and arduous process, but those who finish the test find themselves filled with pride and a skill set to create metallic magic with their own hands.
“It’s gratifying, all of the ones that come through here and work closely with me,” he said. “These things are real, not created digitally or like a hard drive that can be wiped away. These are real processes, and if we don’t maintain a core of people who know how to do these thing, the worst-case scenario is there’s no hope for us.”
As Burress scans the mountains tucked away in the distance, another smile rolls across his face, another hard day of bountiful work is done.
“When I get into that [zone], while working at the forge, that’s where God can talk to me, it’s where you can get really philosophical,” he said. “I’m proud of my heritage and I think it’s important to keep educating future generations of where they came from.”
Want to learn?
WNC metal artisan David Burress offers an eight-week or weekend intensive course in how to learn to become a blacksmith. For more information, go to www.calerinforge.com or call 828.506.4002.