Crafts magazine meets blacksmith Leszek Sikon
The first task when interviewing the contemporary blacksmith Leszek Sikon is finding his workshop. I’m driving somewhere in the Suffolk countryside. Piles of dirty grey snow on the side of the road provide evidence of the recent cold snap but, rather more importantly, my sat nav appears only to possess the vaguest idea of the 34 year-old’s location. The fact that the mobile signal has all but vanished is hardly helping my mood.
It has all been a bit frustrating. However, when I arrive I realise rapidly that it was definitely worth the trip. Housed in one of those vaguely anonymous, pre-fabricated agricultural barns, this is a trove of extraordinary tools. The maker has been here since October, joining some friends – Paul Stoddart and Elliot Harrison – from his days at Herefordshire and Ludlow College. ‘They decided to start their own workshop a couple of years back instead of continuing their education,’ he explains. ‘I dropped them an email asking if they had space for one more.’I’m instantly given a quick tour of the equipment. ‘Most of the things here are super-old,’ he says, pointing at the venerable-looking forges and a metal-bender, before alighting upon a mechanical power hammer that, he says, is over a century in age. ‘My mates basically dragged this out of a field.
It had been there for 20 years slowly rusting.’ The tool has obviously been lovingly restored. ‘There were no plans for the whole thing so if they needed a part they had to make it from beginning to end.’ While his colleagues concentrate on larger-scale, architectural work such as railings and gates, Sikon in his own words is ‘more of a knife or an artwork kind of guy’. Crafts first stumbled across him at last year’s New Designers where he picked up the New Designer of the Year runners-up prize, and saw him again at the Goldsmiths’ Centre’s Getting Started showcase in January. The recognition since leaving college isn’t really surprising – there is beauty, a hint of brutality and sometimes a dash of poetic thinking in his pieces that separate them from the herd.
In his series ‘Shell Tools’, first shown at the Ypres Peace Monument’s International Blacksmithing Event in 2016, for instance, he took old ammunition from the First and Second World Wars and re-forged it into new equipment – including a spade, a scythe and a sickle – designed to ‘take back’ the land that had been decimated and return it to the farmers. He is currently making another set, which will remember the role of women during the conflict. ‘Everybody concentrates on the soldiers for obvious reasons, but the machine needed to be supplied. It needed food, ammunition, weapons.
There was a whole industry,’ he explains.The Polish maker originally came to the UK 12 years ago, looking for work after the EU borders opened up. Previously he had been studying IT but dropped out: ‘It just wasn’t for me. My mind couldn’t comprehend all the maths.’ A job in retail was quickly procured, and he worked his way up to become manager before becoming bored. It was time to give further education another whirl. But why blacksmithing? ‘Google? God’s will? Fate? I don’t know how you want to call it.’ Sikon was certain though that he wanted to get his hands dirty. He had grown up on a small farm in Poland where day-to-day repair was a way of life. ‘The farm taught a lot of work discipline,’ he remembers. ‘You don’t really have days off. I hated it when I was a kid, but now I really appreciate it.’
He freely admits his knives, made out of high carbon tool steel, are ‘a bit of commercial thing. If you asked which tool everybody has, it’s a knife. You do need to maintain them a bit more than you do a normal knife, you need to look after them, but I think this kind of creates a bond with your tool.’ As does his exquisite pattern welding, a traditional process where a stack of different grades of steel are welded together and then forged out until they become solid, the finished result showing the different layers of the material.
Coming up Sikon will be featuring in the One Year In section of New Designers in June, but before that he has a film in Real to Reel, the craft film festival held at Picturehouse Central during London Craft Week in May. Film, he says, is important because ‘making a movie shows how much work is put into each knife’. The awards and exhibitions may have come easily enough but they don’t pay the bills, as he’s well aware. ‘If you cannot maintain a workshop then you’re gone,’ he says matter-of-factly. So he’s started doing workshops: ‘Under my supervision you’ll make yourself a knife. If I can get the bread-and-butter business out of the way, hopefully I can get back to the more artistic, adventurous part of making as well.’