Katie Ventress likes to get her hands dirty.
As a blacksmith it comes with the territory. “When you start sweating it gets everywhere,” she says of the grime. “Your work clothes don’t last five minutes when you’re working around fire.”
The 29 year-old is standing in her blackened work overalls with flames licking the forge behind her. We’re in the middle of her workshop in Hinderwell, which lies within the North York Moors National Park.
It’s a quiet, unassuming village that people are most likely to pass through on their way to more recognisable places such as Whitby or Staithes. But if it’s gone under the radar the same can’t be said for Katie, who’s been making a name for herself since moving into her workshop just over a year ago.
She’s one of a new breed of blacksmiths in this country and having been featured on BBC’s Countryfile earlier this year was commissioned to create an artwork for next weekend’s Staithes Festival where her sculpture – a large metal stingray – will take pride of place by the harbour.
She’s been a blacksmith for seven-and-a-half years now and says her desire to make things was forged during her childhood growing up in West Barnby and Sandsend. “At school I was always making things, it was the only thing I was really interested in,” she says.
Her mother’s influence rubbed off on her, too. “She’s an artist and turns her hand to everything from fine art to jewellery. She taught me different things so I was always having a go at everything when I was growing up.”
She studied art and design at A-level and then 3D contemporary craft at York College. “I’ve always preferred physically making things to fine art so when I left I just wanted to find any kind of job where I could make things.”
It was after finishing at university that she heard about an apprenticeship at a local blacksmiths in Egton, under the tutelage of James Godbold. “That’s where I learned all the basic things. I learned how to weld, grind and forge. But I also learned about the artistic side because if I hadn’t done that I wouldn’t have wanted to take it any further.”
She spent four years learning the craft of modern fabrication here, as well as a couple of years at Hereford Agricultural College, where she learnt more traditional skills.
She then took the plunge and set up her own business – KV Artist Blacksmith.
“When I was looking for a work space I got quite a few old blokes saying ‘what you need is a little shed so you can tinker around.’ And I was thinking ‘I’m not tinkering, this is my business,’” she says, with a shake of the head. “You need a surprising amount of space around machinery because you’re working with long pieces of steel.”
Eventually she found a workshop that matched her needs. “I did worry when I set up that there wouldn’t be enough work coming in but it quite quickly took off and now I have jobs up until September next year,” she says.
She’s clearly in her element working with metal. “It’s such a satisfying material. When I was a student I’d work on bits of scrap metal, anything I could get my hands on. There’s something incredibly satisfying about being able to take something that looks so unforgiving and rigid and cold and then breathing life into it.”
The general perception of smithing is that it’s a dying art and certainly an old-fashioned one, though Katie bristles at the suggestion. “There are more blacksmiths around than you might think,” she says.
And while it’s traditionally thought of as a male domain Katie reckons that’s changing. “There are quite a few female blacksmiths. Nowadays with modern machinery to aid you it doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female, as long as you have hands you can do it.”
Her workshop is a blend of the old and the new – there’s a forge and a power hammer, as well as an anvil and a swage block – all part and parcel of smithing. “What I love about being a modern-day blacksmith is there’s no limit to what you can make, you can even make your own tools. I’ve got a few antique tools that I’ve altered and there’s also ones I’ve made myself,” she says, pointing to a row of rusty appliances that wouldn’t look out of place in a dungeon.
Her customers come from far and wide. “It’s a mixture of locals and people who have holiday homes over this way. But I’ve done little pieces for someone in Australia and France.”
She enjoys the variety that smithing offers, making everything from a £25 poker to sculptures costing several thousand pounds.
Being commissioned to create something for the Staithes Festival is another string to her bow. “That’s been great because it’s given me an opportunity to show that I can do bigger pieces. I think sometimes people assume I get help but I don’t, it’s all my own work.”
Her diminutive stature doesn’t prevent her doing work that many men would struggle with. “I know I’m fairly small but I just adapt my working methods to suit me. It’s more about perseverance, so some things might take me a little bit longer but it doesn’t mean I can’t do them just as well.”
In addition to doing commissioned jobs she also tries to find time to work on her own projects. “It’s important to have those days when you play around,” she says.
So, too, is a desire to learn. “There’s no way I’m ever going to learn everything about blacksmithing, especially traditional blacksmithing which is a field all of its own – there even the best are still learning.
“The traditional blacksmith who would make everything around the house perhaps aren’t around these days so much, but people adapt and move with the times and we’re lucky around here to have quite a thriving arts and crafts community.
“It’s like another coming for the arts and crafts era, people don’t just want bought-in things for their house they want something that’s going to last and something that tells a story.”
Demand for skills like Katie’s is increasing. “I think it’s definitely growing, people are more aware that blacksmiths are out there and just what we’re able to do. You can make garden furniture, you can make a bed, you can make a water fountain, the list is endless.
“And although my work doesn’t really do anything and I’m not making a difference, it is nice to know that it does mean something to other people.
“I have had little girls inspired by what I do and I’ve had parents come back to me and say things like ‘my daughter wants to be an artist now, or my daughter wants to be a blacksmith,’ and that gives me a feeling of happiness inside.
“It’s great that they clock what I’m doing and think that they could do something like this if they wanted. Perhaps I could have my own little group of female blacksmiths,” she says, with a smile.
To find out more about Katie’s work visit www.kvblacksmith.com
The Staithes Festival of Arts & Heritage runs on September 8 and 9.