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Roosevelt Harris, the blacksmith

March 26, 2011

Thirty -seven years ago, very early in the morning on September 24, 1977, I made my way down the road about 12 miles to the sleepy little town of Sturgis, to an old building where Roosevelt Harris had his blacksmith shop.
I made a left turn off Highway 12, which is the Main Street of Sturgis, and headed to a very old building to spend the day sketching and painting an almost vanishing scene on my canvas. My car was fully packed with all my art supplies, and I slowly and carefully opened the big double doors of this old building.
As I opened the two grey weathered wooden doors I could hear the “ping, ping, ping” sounds of a hammer hitting the metal of an old plow getting it sharpened for a farmer to plow his field — to open the soil to plant a new crop of turnip greens for the winter season since it was September.
“Good Morning, Roosevelt. How are you this fine morning? May I paint your portrait as you work today?”
“Miss Carole, this will be just fine, but in a few hours ‘round lunch time, I have to go to a funeral.”
I thought to myself, I must hurry and unpack all my art supplies, and I will really have to hurry to get it all on my canvas and finished by noon. I glanced at my wrist watch, and knew that I might have just enough time to complete this painting.
As I was getting out my easel, canvas, little table to hold my paints and brushes I began to get the feeling of what it must be like to be a blacksmith who works all day long in iron. I spotted an anvil which is a big block of iron on which the smithy hammers and shapes his iron metal. He fashions metal on an anvil and works for hours doing this over and over again.
This anvil was an odd and heavy looking piece of iron, and it was on top of a big tall white piece of concrete block which reached the height of his hips and waist. “The ping, ping, ping” sounds had a rhythm of very short pulse of high-pitched ultrasonic sounds as emitted by sonar and audible signals by which represented Roosevelt’s using his blacksmithing equipment. The ‘pinging’ was very high pitched and had certain rhythm and musical sound about it as he hit the anvil with his hammer. It was like I had come to hear a concert in a blacksmith’s shop.
I wondered if I were about to experience what rural agricultural Mississippi truly must have been like years ago, but it was 1977. People were still farming with horses and mules, and every small community had a blacksmith shop and a blacksmith who made his living taking care of horseshoes and sharpening plows and other pieces of and farming equipment.
Roosevelt was a very much loved and necessary citizen of Sturgis. I knew from the beginning of the very first pencil mark I placed on my stretched canvas that I would paint a very special memory of a day in September discovered in Oktibbeha County. It was not too long until I had a group of ‘loafers’ just stopping by to visit and chat for the morning. They added to the excitement and fun for the day.
The entire old structure almost began to look more like a barn rather than an over 100-year-old building. The outside was grey weathered old wood, and the inside was large and spacious. I remember it had a dirt floor which reminded me of an old barn. I wondered what use to be housed in this old building? His entire shop was very warm and almost had a feeling of beginning to become very hot. I could tell that this big gentleman would work hard this day, with hard metal, a heavy hammer and heavy clamps too.
Rooosevelt was a tall big man who would use a lot of energy as the early morning sunlight was peeping through the big window over his shoulders and the two double wide front doors. Both the opened double windows and opened double doors gave us a slight cool breeze that would blow in every now and then to help make this shop more pleasant to work and to even exist inside. He had a big fan in the window blowing air as well.
To be able to experience and then to paint what I was seeing right in front of me, I have to be there with my subjects to get to fall in love and truly know what I am sketching and then painting. You might say, “I have to get down and dirty”... and be a blacksmith myself to paint what he is doing. I had to be right there among the equipment, the ‘pinging’ sounds to add the sounds of music to the painting, and smell the smells of the old blacksmith shop, and to really almost be a blacksmith myself to give myself, the artist, and you, ‘my viewer’ the experience of blacksmithing!
From left to right of my canvas now, let’s look at this painting, and repaint it together.
See the reddish/brown opened doors of his shop. They frame the entire painting. You’ll spot the dirt floor, see it beneath my own artist signature and date? See the tall concrete block with the anvil placed on it. There is a horseshoe leaning against the bottom of the anvil. He has just finished shaping this horseshoe, and is resting his big hammer getting ready to bring out his next horseshoe to fashion it perfectly into a certain shape just the way he wants it to be.
By his foot there is an old piece of plow that he is probably going to do next. Roosevelt had big hands, and his hand is holding on to his heavy hammer. He has on blue-jean faded denim overalls and a Big Mac long sleeved blue/dark grey shirt rolled all the way down to his wrists. He is protected from sparks that might fly out and burn his arms. He has an old leather looking cap on his head. And is other hand is tightly holding metal clamps which almost looks like he is roasting a fluffy marshmallow in an opened fire!
By his other foot you’ll see the big wooden whiskey barrel keg filled with water to cool down the metal he is fashioned into the shape he wants it to be. The fire is hot red and orange and the smoke is rising up towards the ceiling and maybe being drawn outside the opened back windows and double front doors.
I remember thinking that the flames and smoke from the fire were reflecting on the cheeks and entire face of Roosevelt. He too, almost looked like he was on fire. His whole face seemed as if an entire halo covered his face and body. The reflection of the fire brought out the beautiful reddish/browns especially in his face, and gave Roosevelt an angelic glow.
His face and body had become a part of the colors and the fire flames themselves. How beautiful all these colors were flowing on my canvas!
See the other reddish/brown opened front door gives the right side of the canvas the other end of the frame for it. Look hard and you will find the one handle on the old door, see it? Let your eyes travel to the opened window with old fan propping up the window which is slanting in the background.
You can see a hint of the outside trees in the window panes. The round piece with the number “8” is something wedged inside the window itself. The dark brown/black wall behind Roosevelt add an interesting contrast to the hot fire, the anvil, the large wooden whiskey barrel and keg of water, and the dark wall with a couple of horseshoes hanging on a rack-like piece that makes you just know you are inside an old building which has become a real sure enough blacksmith shop.
I glanced down at my wrist watch, and the time read, 20 minutes till noon, and my portrait subject had to go to a funeral. I had just about finished the painting. I signed my name, dated it, and began to pack up my easel, carefully handling my still wet finished painting, and all my art supplies for the day, and I ask him the date of his birth.
He said, “Miss Carole, I was born on October 26, 1916, and this blacksmith shop was begun in 1938.”
Suddenly I did not hear the “ping, ping, ping.” The pinging ceased.
He put out the fire, and put down his hammer on his anvil, laid down his clamps, turned off the old fan in the window, we together pulled the big doors together, and locked up his shop.
I said, “Roosevelt, I want to say a great big thank you for sharing this day with me!”
Then I gave him a great big hug! I knew in the bottom of my heart that I had just painted a lasting memory of the past on a simple piece of white canvas to hopefully last for generations, but most of all I had spent a few hours in “heaven on earth” in the laid-laid back easy going sleepy little town of Sturgis, in an old building with a dirt floor hearing the sounds, smelling the smells, feeling the feelings of what it must be like to be a blacksmith, and actually seeing what it is exactly like to be a real smithy working with heavy metal creating a certain perfect shape of a horse shoe and sharpening a plow to open up the soil for a turnip green patch for this winter’s season.
I can almost taste those turnip greens now with a hot piece of corn bread with butter dripping out of the sides of the buttered piece. Now, I have this painting to share with you of that extra special memory.

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