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Modern Renaissance Man
Alex 's profile was a true modern Renaissance man: artist, mechanical engineer, inventor, blacksmith, tool maker, sculptor, wood engraver, author, industrial illustrator, photographer, and teacher. All of these disciplines (and i'm sure I have forgotten a few) he developed to a level of excellence. There truly was much more to the man than just being one of the fathers of modern blacksmithing.
When I first met Alex I was a 15 year old high school art student. After a tour of his house, studio, and rambling shop area quickly discovered that he was a fascinating and profound person. I personally fell in love with his stone sculpture, his studio that contained it, and his environment that revealed fascination and wonder around every corner. His environment (house, studio, and workshops) were all entirely created by himself and his loving wife Marian from recycled materials long before such concepts were part of the common knowledge of today. In fact Alex was a man who was ahead of his time like so many other visionaries throughout history.
He was born and raised in Java, Indonesia in 1901. His father ran a sugar plantation and a small hotel and his mother was a school teacher with a talent for languages and literature. Alex 's father instilled in him an enduring love and fascination for nature as he took him on many excursions through the tropical jungles and mountains of exotic Java. Also his father's long interest in tropical plants I believe influenced Alex in his later years to develop a passion for close-up photography of flowers and plants. Ultimately all of this early experience with nature strongly influenced Alex's keen interest in ecology that he expoused and lived by both in his books and his life.
Alex 's life seemed to be shaped by fortunate and unfortunate circumstances. His childhood was nurturing and idyllic and helped to instill in him a positive and inspirational disposition. At the age of 15 he was sent to Holland for a European education and graduated from the Groningen Politechnicum in mechanical engineering and from the University of Dordrecht in shipbuilding. However after he had finished his schooling, married, and immigrated to America to work as an engineer in Seattle, he was dealt a tragic blow. He lost both his Dutch wife and child in childbirth. After this tragic event at the age of 30 he decided that he would become an artist and thus change the direction of his life.
He became apprenticed to Lorado Taft, of the Chicago Art Institute, in the early 30's to persue his long time fascination with sculpture. After his tenure with Taft,where he studied clay modeling and worked on monumental commission sculptures, he decided to complete his studies in Europe. While in Europe he first studied anatomy and figure drawing at the Academy of Fine Arts in the Hague of Holland and after a year he felt that he had gained complete knowledge of the human figure. He next went to Paris to study end-grain wood engraving under the direction of ;;the famous french engraver Paul Bornet. Even at that time (in the early 30's) wood engraving was becoming a lost art. Ultimately he went on to develop his skills to a high art form few could equal.
In Florence, Italy, he next turned his attention to the study of stone carving and bronze casting from the master craftsmen that he had much admired. He had become familiar with the process and some of the master Italian marble carvers at Taft's studios in Chicago and was eager to polish up his skills under their expert guidance. He chose two projects to challenge his knowledge of the craft: his own hand in white Carara marble and a male torso in rose colored marble that had a grain that was difficult to carve. His results were so striking and his tutors were so impressed that they nicknamed him, "Maestro". His stay in Italy was a time that he looked back on with fondness and nostalgia. After he had completed his studies in Europe he returned to America and set up his studio in Berkeley, California.
About the same time that he lived in Berkley Alex invented an unusual flying craft. That invention was what he called the "discopter", a vertical liftoff aircraft that looked very much like what was to be later termed "flying saucer". He made numerous detailed drawings of the aircraft and other drawings of an American city with many "discopter" ports that looked very futuristic. He sent these detailed plans to all the branches of the U.S.. Military and was eventually told that they were intrigued by the concept and the design of the craft but were not prepared at that time because the war effort superseded its development. However he did indeed patent the design for the "discopter" in 1943 with the U.S. Patent Office and it served as the prototype for other similar aircraft that have been developed up to the present day.
Five years had passed in Berkeley and circumstance forced Alex to be drafted into the U.S. Army in 1941. This proved to be a difficult experience for him since he had to interrupt his great love for sculpture, leave his studio, and put all of his works and equipment in storage. The Army assigned him to the intelligence corps because of his remarkable language skills (Malay, Dutch, Italian, German, and English) and his intimate knowledge of Indonesia and its culture. Good fortune struck Alex while in the service with the gift of some land from a new friend. The plot of land was in Central California in an area called "Carmel Valley", which was at that time was very wild with oak trees and brush. And after he was discharged from the service he and his new wife Marian planned to settle on the property but first had to get themselves and their possessions there. At that time during the war gasoline was in scarce supply so Alex put his inventive mind to work and developed a process whereby he could run their old '27 Chevy coup on kerosene. They were soon on their way from Southern California to the wilds of Carmel Valley.
When they arrived to settle they had nothing but the Chevy, a tent, and some cooking pots and pans. From this beginning they embarked on a mission to construct their house and studio completely out of found materials and whatever existed on the property. They succeeded in constricting one of the most unique and charming houses and studios in the nation. The dwellings were based on curved lines a harking back to Alex 's ship building days and the only thing based on the square were the window panes. The house and studio have been included in a number of books and publications because of their unique charm and beauty. They found windows, sinks, bathtubs, and some lumber from the local dump but the main material that they used were Monterey Pine slabs that were being thrown away or cut up for firewood at a sawmill located a few miles away. So essentially they built their entire house and studio from materials that were salvaged from the waste of the land.
In the ensuing years Alex was to reassert his blacksmithing and tool making skills to a level of excellence. His tools were considered by many to be at a level of fine art and were much sought after by fine wood workers and sculptors for their quality and beauty. He first learned those skills while a student in Holland at high school. Being a mechanical engineer in those days with an emphasis in shipbuilding meant that such a person would be able to make with ones own hands anything that would break down on a ship at sea and that included every working part of the engine. He liked to tell the story of when he was a teenager one of his earliest assignments was to forge from steel a working padlock and key. When he had finished the project after many hours of careful work and after displaying it with much pride his instructor nonchalantly threw it over his shoulder into a pile of hundreds of other locks and keys. From these disciplined beginnings with blacksmithing he often referred to blacksmithing as the "mother craft" of all civilization and felt it should be respected as such. Needless to say blacksmithing and tool making held a powerful significance to him not just because of the history but also because they symbolized freedom, independence, and a refined focusing of the human mind. Those of us who took blacksmithing lessons from him look back and feel that the enthusiasm and focus that he was able to inject into the experience approached something spiritual.
After years of teaching and sharing his knowledge of his skills and insight his legacy lives on in his books and his inspired students. His house and studio used to be an oasis to many other artists and thinkers of his day. Many of us remember wonderful evenings sitting around his unique hand made table in his unique hand made house discussing fascinating subjects dealing with history, the arts, or just trading stories about our own lives and how those experiences related to the human condition. Some of the people that were his peers in his day were from all walks of life and included some who are famous today. Above all Alex never seemed to run out of stories to tell from the comical to the spellbinding and the profound. They spanned from the wild jungles of Java to the streets of Chicago sprinkled with the hypnotic sounds of the gamelan orchestra and the trance dancing that it inspired.
Alex died in 1989 at the age of 88 and I feel personally that he helped reveal to me the voice hidden in the stone, the clarity of thought that one feels from the ring of steel being struck on the face of the anvil, and to test oneself's limitless spirit against the limits of the material with ones own hands.
Peter B. Partch