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Trial by Fire

Blacksmith Preston Farabow Focuses on Transformation

Metal is the most malleable of all materials. The hotter it gets, the more pressure you can apply. Then, change is inevitable. The process of blacksmithing in itself is therapeutic – the scorching hot metal, the slamming and pounding of the hammer, all your strength and focus, the sweat on your brow, the clank and bang echoes around you. 

“Fire is formative,” says Preston Farabow, “and failure is inevitable, but learning from it is what matters.” 

This is part of the creative life. Try, fail, try again, maybe fail again. Hammer in hand, try again. 

Preston has called Knoxville home since 1987. He started his creative work at the College of Design at North Carolina State University with intentions to go into architecture, then product design. However, by 1985, Preston was in rehab.

“It took a few years to get my life together. I found a group of people in recovery here who really supported and embraced me, but it was also the landscape, the mountains,” he says. “I went back to school at UT and enrolled in the College Scholars Program, which is where you get to design your own curriculum. I studied sculpture, creative writing, anatomy, and philosophy. I taught myself how to weld, and the metal offered the right resistance. It felt right.” 

It must have felt right because Preston eventually became the go-to guy for custom pieces in private homes, large-scale pieces for businesses such as Altar’d State, and artistic pieces created for Red Bull. 

“I’d travel with [Red Bull’s] NASCAR team and build sculptures out of wreckage in front of a crowd,” says Preston. “I love what I do for a living, and I love sharing it.”

By the late 90s, he knew he wasn’t a “design for the masses” maker. Preston wanted to create one-of-a-kind pieces, not one of many. He spent a decade moving his studio from one spot to another until finding the ideal permanent spot at 119 Jennings Avenue with woodworker John ​​McGilvray. Together, the pair share Ironwood Studios. Though they primarily work independently of one another, they’ve occasionally collaborated on pieces where both metal and wood were required, such as on staircases and doors.

“Our best work is achieved through collaboration,” says Preston. “I actually started First Fridays in Knoxville. When I started my business and had employees, I’d cook for them on Fridays. Then they started inviting friends and family, and I was losing a day a week cooking for everyone. So, I moved it to the First Friday of the month, and then I was also cooking for artists and graduates, homeless folks, and even the mayor, Victor Ashe. It started on the loading dock of the McClung warehouses. I carried it on for three or four years, and then the city decided to take it. Mine was more about the massive potluck, but it became a marketing tool for Knoxville, which is awesome. I was thrilled they wanted to embrace it.” 

Preston has continued to open his doors to people, though now it’s less about potlucks and more about instruction and second chances. He is passionate about cultivating creativity in others, providing room for folks who want to learn a new skill and build a better life. That’s the energy he poured into building his business, and it’s the same energy he’s now pouring into his nonprofit, Ferre Beau School of Thought.  

“Creativity is not an exclusive language to be spoken only by artists. I think any career benefits from a creative mindset,” he says. “I’ve always understood the potential for metal work as a mechanism for change in myself, for transformation. At its roots, it’s about changing the shape of things. I’ve always had an incredible safety net with great parents, so I know I come from a place of privilege. I feel a need to give back and provide a safety net for others.” 

The Ferre Beau School of Thought – a nod to the French spelling of his surname – is in its early stages of official development. Though the idea has been building in Preston’s mind for eight or nine years now, it’s about a month away from achieving its 501c3 status, and the ideal location for the school is yet to be found. He’s always looking though.

“I don’t know what the school will end up looking like, but I’ve never been more certain about anything in my life that this is what I’m supposed to do. It does take a village, and I’ve spent years identifying the village chiefs,” he says. “I’ve looked at abandoned buildings, even churches, which feels appropriate – a holy ground where people could come and be transformed. I have no shortage of support from the community. Getting the 501c3 will be significant, then finding a space.”

The initial project for the school – a large-scale outdoor piece – is already designed and somewhat underway. Preston has been collecting scrap metal from around Knoxville for years, and it’s these pieces he wants to use to construct the structure, complete with a legend on-lookers can use to identify where each scrap came from. Though the details of this project are currently under lock and key, Preston is confident that the right stop for this sculpture will present itself.

“Our ideal spot is Krutch Park, and we’ve discussed that with the city,” he says. “Finding the movers and shakers to make that happen would be awesome.” 

For Preston, his namesake School of Thought is just around the bend. He can visualize all of it – the people, the work, the impact. It would be a place for at-risk teens, those out of prison and in need of learning a trade, people in some measure of recovery. He sees them on the anvil, at the forge, crafting and creating something that will eventually bend itself into a transformed life. Fire is crucial to the process, and once the school is underway, he wants to add more trades that use fire for transformation – ceramics, glass blowing, foundry work. 

“I named it the School of Thought because it’s a mindset. In those times of difficulty, in that fire, you’re given choices, and you can make destructive choices or creative choices. I’ve done both, and my desire now is to teach creative decision making,” says Preston. “Nothing is irreconcilable in metal work.”

View Preston’s work at Aespyre.com. 

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