Millarville blacksmith invites front-line workers to release stress while forging community sculpture

James Greisinger, the project lead and blacksmith at Forge and Farm, holds a diagram of what the maple leaf sculpture will look like. (Dominika Lirette/CBC - image credit)
James Greisinger, the project lead and blacksmith at Forge and Farm, holds a diagram of what the maple leaf sculpture will look like. (Dominika Lirette/CBC - image credit)

A group gathers around James Greisinger, the blacksmith at the Forge and Farm in Millarville, Alta., about 30 kilometres southwest of Calgary. They listen as he explains the proper way to swing a hammer when striking a hot piece of steel.

Anvils should be at the appropriate height, he says, so backs don't become sore.

Strike hard, he adds, because the material will boss you around if you don't.

"You've gotta lean over top of it, strike it and tell the steel that you're in control," he said. "And have fun."

It's a message that's resonated with the participants of these blacksmith classes. They're all front-line workers, from firefighters to police officers to nurses.

Greisinger, along with his wife and business partner, Cheryl Greisinger, are hosting a series of free workshops for them. The idea formed over the past few years as he saw first responders sign up for the classes.

"I was getting hugs from six-foot-six firefighters at the end of the day going, 'Wow, I really needed that,'' he said.

"They're so hyper focused on helping us as a community that they don't have that outlet, and signing up for a class, whether it was a significant other that saw them needing to do something … and bringing them into the shop. At the end of the day, there was this emotional release."

The free workshops are running through March. In the classes, workers are helping to hammer out the veins of a massive maple leaf sculpture, which will eventually be donated to the Diamond Valley community.

Part of the funding for the workshops came from the federal government's celebration and commemoration program, which, in part, supported community projects marking Canada's emergence from the pandemic.

LISTEN | Participants explain why they wanted to take part in the blacksmith workshops:

Greisinger said both the veins and the sculpture's material, old railway spikes, are symbolic.

"That spike held that railroad, those ties and that rail together, and without them, the whole railroad system would collapse," he said.

"Each railroad spike is going to be an individual vein that I will then weld together to make a seven-foot maple leaf."

The initials of each first responder — about 100 in the end, the Gresingers hope — will be stamped on the vein they forged.

'They need an outlet'

Kerri Boisjoli, a rural public health nurse in Okotoks, said she was nominated to participate in the workshops.

"It was stressful times during COVID. And this is a great way to learn a new skill and to have time to reflect over the last couple of years," she said.

"Hammering down on my piece of metal, getting out those feelings and that energy. It's been wonderful knowing that I am gonna contribute to a sculpture that's gonna be in the community, and it's built by first responders and nurses like myself."

Dominika Lirette/CBC
Dominika Lirette/CBC

For Keegan Thomas, a firefighter in Okotoks, it's been nice to speak with the other members of the class.

"A lot of us are alike in terms of our trade and how we're so similar as well in terms of having family life and the struggles of work-life balance," he said.

"Being able to come here and do something new and just enjoy the conversation … share some of our stories and reflect on our mental health."

The sculpture is expected to be completed in the next few months.

Dominika Lirette/CBC
Dominika Lirette/CBC

Barry Crane, mayor of Diamond Valley, which is just southeast of Millarville, said he's hopeful the sculpture will land in front of the Oilfields General Hospital in town.

"I think it's fantastic," he said. "So those talks need to happen with the hospital.… But we'll fully support from a council perspective any area that we can provide for that art."

So far, a few of the veins of the sculpture are complete.

Greisinger said he knows the first responders have busy lives, but he's happy to be able to provide a space where they can come in, hammer some steel and turn it into a public sculpture for everyone to enjoy.

"What I discovered watching these firefighters, police officers, nurses, doctors [is] that no one's watching out for them and their mental health," he said. "And they need an outlet."