Forging a life in “Paradise”

Father and son team up to create art through fire and forge

As soon as you drive up to the gates at Foggy Mountain Forge you know what you will see beyond them may be a little intense. The gates are both weird and welcoming. Weird in that they encompass surreal almost medieval imagery and welcoming in that curiosity takes over and you want to drive up further and see what you are in for.

Foggy Mountain Forge along West Coast Road in Shirley is a family enterprise. Marty Gilbertson and his son Justin are blacksmiths, welders and metal recyclers.

They do things the old fashioned way with coal, fire and brute strength. They are used to hard work and making use of what is around them — they were prairie farmers and oil patch workers.

Marty is a third generation rancher from Wainwright, southeast of Edmonton. He learned to weld when he was 12, nothing uncommon among the ranchers who made their own way and built or fixed what they needed.

The forge is much the same as it would have been hundreds of years ago, and it uses coal from Vancouver Island. At one time there were up to 200 coal mines on the Island, now there is only one. This is distressing to Gilbertson as most of the best coal, the good metal working coal is shipped to China. What used to cost $75 per truckload is now $175 when you add on the carbon tax.

“We use greenhouse coal,” he said.

But they use what they can get and they are real mongers for scrap.

“We’re recyclers of whatever and use left over metal for art or functional tools,” said Marty.

Marty and his wife Ava moved to Shirley seven years ago after spending 30 cold years in the oil patch. He had his own fabrication shop and business catering to the oil industry.

“When it’s -50 and you are working in it day after day, it got to be too much, we got out and moved to paradise,” said Marty. “Rain is nothing compared to -50.”

Marty was kind of an artistic guy but life didn’t afford him that luxury until he moved west.

“I had a really cool art teacher, I always had an artistic side but never had a chance to do anything,” he said.

So he came to Shirley and built a beautiful house and shop overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca and his wife went back to work. They also run a B&B from their home.

They were joined by Justin after he had finished traveling around the world exploring for seven years.

“I came home and wanted to try blacksmithing and I fell in love with it. I had a good teacher and all the tools were here — it sure beats the office,” said Justin.

“Most people think our stuff is odd, creepy, weird,” he said referring to the dragons,  spiders, snakes and tools that look like medieval weapons and the strange animals fashioned from metal.

We do more traditional stuff as well,” said Marty.

The dragons and snakes seem to come from the age of the blacksmith, those days when castles and knights in shining armour were prevalent.

“Blacksmiths were the most revered people in the community,” Marty pointed out.

Justin said his thing is weapons, science fiction, dungeons and wagons and fantasy and he used that imagery in much of the work he does on his creative side.

The gates with the spiders webs, dragons and snakes took Marty two years and 550 hours on and off.

Vancouver Island has a strong  community of blacksmith and they share what they know. There’s the Vancouver Island Blacksmith Association with 86-year-old Frank Clayton who is more than happy to pass on his knowledge.

“The information is still the same, it hasn’t changed,” said Marty. “On the Island there’s quite a following for blacksmiths.”

Marty learned from well-known blacksmith Jake James and Justin learned from Marty.

Foggy Mountain Forge is becoming a regular fixture on the market scene around Southern Vancouver Island. Last year they did 14 markets a month, which proved a bit onerous and this year they do eight or nine. The commissions and on-line sales help the bottom line and that’s the way the family want it.

All of them — father, mother and son are volunteers with the Shirley Volunteer Fire Department and Marty is the fire chief. Ava is involved in the medical end of things (she is also a silversmith) and Justin is a volunteer firefighter.

Marty had to take off for a fire call so Justin summed it all up.

“I worked a whole variety of jobs since I was 14 and to not work for anyone is fantastic, it’s pure creativity. I get to tie my obsessions together and make money from it,” he said. “I  wouldn’t trade it for anything at the moment.”

Foggy Mountain Forge: www.foggymountainforge.com