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Iron Man: Blacksmith carries on a tradition of art and preservation
By Jason Lesley
Charleston’s most recognized blacksmith, the late Phillip Simmons, saw some of himself in Walter Hill of Plantersville.
Hill could mold an iron bar to his will by age 12. Simmons had traveled a similar path, learning the craft from blacksmith Peter Simmons, who ran a busy shop at the foot of Calhoun Street. By 1938 Phillip Simmons moved into the specialized field of ornamental iron and fashioned more than 500 decorative pieces, including gates, fences, balconies and window grills. John Paul Huguley, founder of the School of the Building Arts, now the American College of the Building Arts, called Simmons “a poet of ironwork.” In 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him its National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor that the United States can bestow on a traditional artist. The state of South Carolina honored him many times, including its highest award, the Order of the Palmetto, in 1998.
Hill’s father, Bob, is a gunmaker, so his son naturally grew up around metalwork. “What little boy doesn’t want to make something red hot and beat on it?” Walter Hill asked. It wasn’t long before he was heating and bending and pounding iron bars into useful implements. His father called him “a quick study.” Walter shrugged off the label of prodigy, more comfortable with the explanation that he had a rare opportunity to learn from a master like Phillip Simmons and the ability to first follow his sketches and later forge ahead on his own.
“Phillip Simmons started when he was a kid,” Bob Hill said. “That’s one reason he loved Walter to death.”
Walter Hill said he learned about the art and integrity of the craft and about life from Simmons. “I learned some really neat tricks from him, learned a lot of humility from him” he said. “He did it for a living his entire life, but there was a role he had as preserving and continuing not just the tradition of blacksmithing, not just an art form and traditional craft but also preserving the history of Charleston’s ironwork and Charleston’s African-American artists. He started as repairing that stuff and then began recreating it. He became a conservationist. There’s a part of Charleston’s history, if it hadn’t been for Phillip Simmons, that would have been lost. When your ironwork rusted off the house, you wouldn’t have replaced it because there was nobody to replace it. He was the guy that made that link between the old ones leaving and the new ones coming who kept that ironwork on the house. He kept it alive. I took a lot of that from him.”
Walter Hill began taking a forge to living history events as a teenager and discovered he enjoyed studying the past. He enrolled at Coastal Carolina University to major in history and was so determined to get his degree he turned down the opportunity to work at Colonial Williamsburg, according to his father. That proved to be a wise decision. Walter went to work for the Horry County Museum and moved up to director.
He helped found the South Carolina Artists Blacksmith Guild in the mid-1990s as an effort to keep his craft alive. Members voted to change the name to the Phillips Simmons Artists Blacksmith Guild of South Carolina to honor the man while he was still living.
The goal of the chapter, Walter said, was to become an organization to demonstrate ironwork and pass along knowledge. The group’s annual meeting was held this month at the L.W. Paul Living History Farm near Conway. Walter demonstrated how to make a long fork for turning logs in a fire pit.
There are examples of his intricate work in public. Years ago, John Sands hired him to make gates for Brookgreen Gardens from a Phillip Simmons sketch. Walter and his son, Robert, just finished another gate for Brookgreen. It hangs at the entrance to the Bob and Toni Jewell Garden.
A piece of ironwork as art, a sheaf of rice, hangs over a fireplace at the Bunnelle Foundation. “It’s miraculous,” director Geales Sands said.
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