Above: Blacksmith Jim Keith crafts traditional horseshoes in his Tucumcari studio. Photograph by Stefan Wachs.
UNDER THE SHARP POINT of a single light hanging from the wall of a Quonset hut filled with metalworking contraptions spanning generations of the craft, blacksmith Jim Keith swings a three-and-a-half-pound hammer in a perfect arc. The motion begins in the clinched sinew of his forearm, then springs forward with keen momentum, every action directed and purposeful, to strike in a narrow trajectory honed from years of dedication and sweat.
“Pull up with the wrist,” Keith says. “As it comes down, the wrist snaps it, like popping a whip.” As the hammerhead connects to the broad, hard face of the anvil, it nicks a tiny, near-imperceptible divot in the anvil’s iron with a sharp clink that echoes through the dense space.
Around us lie mountains of archaic tools under shadows of hulking machinery. Various works in progress pile up against the walls like books and paintings in a university lecture hall.
The son of a state trapper, Keith grew up in Grants, Albuquerque, and the Jemez Mountains. He camped at ranches where his father trapped and became familiar with the cowboys who worked there. After graduating from high school in 1959, he worked at the legendary Bell Ranch, 30 miles north of Tucumcari, where he became entrenched in the life of a farrier. “Horseshoeing was something I enjoyed,” Keith says. “But my goal at the time was to be a world champion bronc rider.”
In his workshop, though, horseshoes are everywhere. Keith turns to a table, knocks away a few stray shreds of iron, and holds up a sturdy specimen. “Whether you’re shoeing a horse or making art, it has to be well forged,” he says. “There’s strength where it needs it, and no excessive weight where it doesn’t need it.”
Blacksmithing is about timing, he notes, knowing instinctively when the metals have cooled to the right temperature to be malleable without breaking from the stress of the heat. “Blacksmiths have a little metal alarm clock in their heads,” he says. “They know when that steel is ready even when they can’t see it.”
After a few years on the rodeo circuit, Keith hung up his bronc saddle and returned to the Bell Ranch, where he raised horses and moved further into farriering and blacksmithing. By 1985 he was regularly placing in international farrier competitions.
Facing off against world-class horseshoers gave Keith the edge to refine his craft to a point where he moved into fine art. These days, he sticks close to his home and workshop in Tucumcari. Aside from his previous tools business, Jim Keith Tools, he has become known for fine metalwork like baroque spurs, life-size statues, metal gates with small scenes from cowboy life tucked between the steel bars, and a few dragons.
“Each one has its own identity,” he says of the mythical beasts. “I warn people that when you make a dragon, you wanna make sure your mind’s in good order, because it feeds off your mind. If you’re an old grouch, it’s gonna be an old grouchy dragon. The piece fits the personality of the maker.”