Every year, the Arkansas Arts Council accepts nominations for the title of Arkansas Living Treasure — those who have
elevated their traditional crafts to the level of art. I visited with some winners and nominees to get their stories.
Jerry Fisk, knife maker
Though Jerry Fisk’s knives are often meticulously engraved, accented with silver or gold, and fitted with handles of rare wood, tusk, horn or bone, it’s the blades that first catch your eye. On even the plainest of Fisk’s knives, his blades are as graceful and shapely as licks of fire. On his finest works, those fluid shapes are accentuated by Fisk’s mastery of Damascus: layers of metal hammered together and then folded hundreds or thousands of times, creating patterns that can swirl, skip or arch across the steel. Though he said he wants all his knives to work as well as they can, to compare some of the things Fisk makes to anything found in a kitchen drawer is an insult.
Fisk got on the road to becoming one of the best knife makers in the world when he was 10 years old and his school took a field trip to Old Washington State Park. Then, as now, the park features a working blacksmith shop. That day, the metalworker inside was forging knives.
“It just rang my bell,” he said. “I promptly went home and made a knife out of wood and stabbed my brother. Momma whupped me, and I thought, ‘I’m onto something now!’ ”
Though he eventually worked as everything from a machinist to a bootlegger, Fisk’s love of the forge never left him. For the past 20 years, he has been slowly hammering out a name for himself in the world of bladesmithing. In those years, he has made knives and swords out of everything from meteorite iron (a crusty black chunk the size of a basketball still squats in the corner of his shop) to a hank of barbed wire from a man’s family homestead.
His dedication to craft has paid off. Named a National Living Treasure in 1998 by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington’s Museum of World Cultures, Fisk has seen his knives steadily climb in price, both for him and on the secondary market. Twenty-five years ago, Fisk sold some of his first knives for $8 each. Now, they start at $1,000 and go up from there, with a seven-year delivery time (except for active-duty soldiers, cops and firefighters, who get their knives in eight weeks — something he’s done throughout his career). The most elaborate and ornate knives he makes go for well over $5,000 each, with the collector’s market often causing the price to double within 24 hours of sale. His most expensive knife to date was a $36,000 dagger, using more than a pound of gold encrusted with jewels.
Such prices and quality make for an exclusive club of buyers. Though Fisk said that one client he knows mows yards all summer so he can buy one Fisk knife per year, he also counts star musicians, Hollywood actors, corporate giants and heads of state as buyers and friends. He has three patrons who literally send him signed, blank checks every year, telling him to fill in the amount the day he finishes their knife. If he wants to learn a new skill from a master in another country, he contacts one of his clients and the trip is arranged at no cost to him. In exchange, Fisk turns over his notes, drawings and the first knife he makes with his newly acquired skill.
“I’m a pretty good barometer of the world economy,” he said. “I can always tell where the economy is doing well. As sales slow down here, the economy gets good in China, I’m picking up more and more clients in China.”
Such a devoted following doesn’t come easy, however. Fisk often spends more than 100 hours on various versions of a knife blade until he gets what he’s looking for. In his modest shop, he points out that there’s no calendar or clock. “It doesn’t matter how long it takes,” Fisk said. “This is what I want, and when it’s done I know what it will sell for.” Still, he admits that when you figure up the nearly uncountable hours he spends forging, hand filing, polishing, engraving and finishing each knife, “I made a lot more money working for the man than I do working for myself.”
While he almost never forges a blade that suits him on the first try, Fisk refuses to sell any knife he feels isn’t up to snuff. The day I visited in late summer, Fisk had just spent five full days working at the forge in his un-air-conditioned shop, trying to get an 8-inch-long Damascus blade just right. After three versions — all equally spectacular to my eye — he finally got one that he liked, only to see it crack when he stamped his name on the hilt. Like every other knife that has failed to meet his exacting standards over the years, there’s only one fate for that blade and its disappointing cousins: “I take a hammer and I go out here on the hillside and I drive it down into the ground after I grind my name off of it,” Fisk said. “It won’t be seen until archeologists find it.”
Asked why he buries his mistakes when it’s obvious that someone, somewhere would pay good money for his castoffs, Fisk’s reply has a Zen-like quality to it — though it’s really the only answer you might expect from him.
“I can go up here at the Historic Arkansas Museum, and I can see knives that are 200 years old,” Fisk said. “Some of those may be the only knife that survived from a particular maker. If only one knife I make survives, what’s it going to look like? I don’t want to be known for a mistake.”