When in his studio, metalworker and blacksmith Jon Reeves usually wears an almost floor-length black apron over his jeans and T-shirt. His arms, covered with colorful tattoos, are bare. Oh, and he’s standing next to a hot-as-hell metal forge. At first glance, Reeves might seem like kind of a tough guy.
Not so, says apprentice Katie Anderson, a Kalamazoo College student who is one among many who have studied metalworking with Reeves. “Jon is one of those people who seems really rough to begin with, but he’s actually really nice, a real softie. He’s incredibly patient, willing to guide us and answer questions. He’s as much a friend as he is a leader.”
Reeves may be a softie, but the 3,000-degree-Fahrenheit metal forge? Not so much.
“Fire can be intimidating to people, for sure,” Reeves says. “The work in this studio is hands-on and very physical.”
That’s obvious from a quick glance around Combat Ready Art, Reeves’ studio in the Park Trades Center. A large metalworking table holds vases of steel and copper roses, the walls are adorned with metalworking and blacksmithing tools, and hanging from the ceiling are stage weapons such as knives, swords and axes. Handwritten in chalk on the hood of the forge are warnings — “Don’t touch the hot end,” “Everything is hot” — and a table of temperatures, from white flame, 2,552 degrees, to black surfaces, a mere 932 degrees. Creations by Reeves, such as refrigerator magnets and larger-scale sailfish, which he sells during studio hours and Art Hops, hang on the wall by the door.
Reeves has been a resident of Kalamazoo since 1989. Outside his studio, he teaches combat workshops and stage and theater design at Kalamazoo College and works as a technical director for the Kalamazoo Civic and Kalamazoo College theaters. A technical director supervises rigging and lighting, oversees building the stage set and ensures the safety of everyone working on the production. “Sometimes it’s easy,” he says, “and sometimes it’s not.”
But it’s his blacksmithing that draws the most attention. Reeves demonstrates blacksmithing live during Art Hops, offers classes to the public in metal sculpture and blacksmithing, and takes on students from Kalamazoo College as apprentices.
“We may never, as a species, get over our love of fire,” he says on a freezing-cold day in January. “Especially when it’s like this outside, I’m really popular.”
There’s no set schedule for the classes he teaches in his studio — some people sign up for only one class and some for a series — allowing Reeves to maintain flexibility. Both the metal sculpture and blacksmithing classes are $25 an hour, with all materials included. Reeves says he’s had students as young as 9 take his classes, which are offered in a two-hour block.
“That’s just enough time to make a snake,” he says, “which is one of the first things we make together at the classes because it’s one of the most accessible beginner sculptures. I’m not big on lectures. I show you how to do it and then you do it.”
That hands-on approach is the same teaching style he uses with his apprentices, who are looking to gain skills in specific metalworking techniques. For every two hours worked for Reeves, students get an hour of instruction from him for free.
“They like to call themselves my minions,” Reeves says. “I make them grind wells and work with me all over the place, at local productions, and then they get to learn welding, metal cutting — skills they need for stage design and building but aren’t offered in conventional classes.”
Anderson has been a student of Reeves since 2011. She wants a career working in technical theater and has set her sights on the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre or the Milwaukee Theatre, among others. Reeves has been an important part of that inspiration, she says.
“My biggest breakthrough moment was when he taught me lighting,” she says. “I took a lighting class with him, and he taught me how to hang and focus theatrical lights. He told me how to hang a light and I got it. I did it right the first time. It felt great. Also, I remember after my very first project, Jon gave me a thumbs-up, like I did well, and I knew, ‘Yeah, I really want to do this.’”
The rewards go both ways — Reeves says working with students is fulfilling for him. “I like their energy and creativity and their curiosity,” he says.
“I want to keep doing exactly what I’m doing. I bet you I complain a lot less than people who work behind a desk. I think they even gave me a desk at Kalamazoo College, in fact, and I never use it.”