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In a saturated art scene, Lafayette artist Sam Riehl stands out as a blacksmith
Sam Riehl is a throwback. Way, way back to an era when catching diphtheria was prevalent. The soon-to-be-graduating product design major at University of Louisiana at Lafayette is a blacksmith.
At 21, Riehl has been a blacksmith longer than he hasn’t been a blacksmith, and at the time of his entry was the youngest member of the Louisiana Metalsmiths Association. While his peers were out doing whatever the heck teenagers do these days, Riehl spent much of his adolescence in a musty Carencro metal shop owned by friend and mentor Richard de la Houssaye, working on commissioned pieces and passion projects.
“I usually slowly build up to the word blacksmith, you know?” Riehl says. “It’s not the kind of word you can just drop on a bunch of individuals without a weird look. And it’s stupid. I should just say it. But yeah, it goes, ‘Hey yeah, so I’m an artist. I work with metal. I do metal work.’ And then at some point you drop, ‘I’m a blacksmith.’
“It’s definitely been the defining feature throughout all the introductions in my life,” he says. “I had a friend in high school, that when he’d introduce me, it was part of my name — ‘SamTheBlacksmith.’ Which was funny, and it was cool. And it was true, too. Because that’s so much of my identity.”
The roots of that identity sprouted at a young age, which makes sense considering Riehl’s mother is a jewelry maker and a regular at Southwest Louisiana art shows and craft markets. In fact, it was at a now-defunct Lafayette festival — the old Pyromania Festival — where Riehl’s new passion for an old trade ignited. Of course, like any other active kid, Riehl was already into a slew of other activities — soccer, playing musical instruments, theater — but working with metal is the only one, for whatever reason, that still has a shelf life to this day.
“The idea that you could create something that was beautiful in shape, that was organic, that had a form out of something so rugged and so straight-edged…that mesmerized me from the beginning,” Riehl says. “To think I could create a perfect curve, or a leaf, or a dainty piece of jewelry out of something so industrial was what drew me in.”
While other kids were messing around with lemonade stands on the corner or hawking Thin Mints outside a supermarket, Riehl was blacksmithing in his backyard. In time, his aforementioned mentor, the accomplished Carencro metal worker de la Houssaye, took note of Riehl’s sincere passion for the art and progression in his work and invited the young man to use space in his shop and learn as his apprentice. When asked about de la Houssaye, Riehl doesn’t blink before heaping praise and thanks upon his mentor, saying among other things, “I’ll never be able to thank him enough.”
To this day, Riehl and de la Houssaye work under the same roof, though recently that has become more of a rarity since Riehl is focusing on finishing his college studies. With good spirits, de la Houssaye gives Riehl grief about his long absences and during meetings of the Louisiana Metalsmiths Association (which Riehl always attends) members will facetiously introduce themselves, as if Riehl is a newbie.
“I get the itch to work, all the time,” Riehl says of his reduced role as a blacksmith because of a busy class schedule. “Just being able to sit and be in the presence of a metal shop is comforting for me.”
“The shop is organized chaos,” he says. “We definitely know where everything is, but to anyone else it would be impossible to find. But it is getting to a point where I’m occasionally spending more time looking for my tools compared to using my tools, so that’s when it’s time to deep-clean and restart.
That’s been the process for years.”
And despite this recent hiatus, it will be the process for years to come.
“A lot of times, you’re on autopilot throughout the day. I think we all are. And that’s what’s different about [the metal shop] — you’re aware and you’re engaged fully,” Riehl says. “All the senses are awake. It’s a time where I can just create to create.”