from iron age to modern day, cleveland's metalworkers labor in form and function

Hanging from the ceiling of a blacksmith shop on E. 43rd Street sits one of Cleveland’s great artistic treasures: a hand-hammered, 80-foot-long metal frieze depicting the evolution of metalwork from the Iron Age to modern times.  

The sculpture, wrought by a master ironworker during the Great Depression, is just a small portion of the world-class collection at Rose Iron Works. Also adorning the shop are Art Deco lamps from the ‘20s and giant, ponderous locks that founder Martin Rose carried home from European castles until someone stopped him. The 110-year-old shop is among the world’s most renowned metalworking studios, though it’s hidden in plain sight.

“My grandfather paid an artist in the 1930s himself so that he’d be able to survive,” says Bob Rose of that impressive History of Metalworking sculpture. Appropriately, the frieze hangs above the furnaces where modern-day workers still ply the ancient craft of shaping metal.

Rose Iron Works is just one aspect of a vast body of metalworking talent in Cleveland. Literally hundreds of metalworking shops are scattered about Northeast Ohio, from fabricators to tool and die makers. Although they’ve been battered by the recession, they still house a repository of metalworking knowledge and highly-skilled craftsmen.  

The newest vanguard of this age-old tradition is represented by a handful of artists in St. Clair Superior. Modern metalworkers like Mike Moritz and Steve Manka use metal as their go-to material, fashioning everything from high-end, privately commissioned chandeliers to sculptures gracing some of Cleveland’s newest streetscapes.

“Steel and metal are great materials because they speak to Cleveland’s heritage,” says Manka, an artist who designs large-scale public art, including the provocative Chorus Line sculptures that arc 30 feet into the air at Euclid and E. 14th. “Cleveland is a place that makes stuff; we still have lots of fabricators here.”

Manka’s office in the ArtCraft building on Superior might best be described as the point where Cleveland’s new school maker community meets its old school industrial base. St. Clair Superior is a mixed-use neighborhood that has attracted a cadre of artists. Among Manka’s neighbors are Asian cafes and mom-and-pop sheet metal shops.

That diversity is what attracted Moritz, another modern metalworker who keeps a cavernous studio at Tyler Village, an old elevator factory that has in recent years been converted into work space for artists and tech startups.

“There’s a wealth of manufacturing-related suppliers here, from machinists to grinding to welding,” he says. “If I was in a 12th-ring suburb, I’d be driving to Cleveland all the time.”

Moritz literally grew up around the metalworking industry; his father was a millwright for General Tire and other companies in Akron. Growing up with a tinkerer who had a shop in his basement, Moritz learned to fix everything from the family car to bike brakes. When his dad was laid off by General Tire in the 1980s, Moritz soured on industry.

Galvanized by his dad’s experiences and watching jobs migrate to Mexico during the Reagan era, Moritz opened his own small workshop in his parents’ garage in 1992. Gradually, by word of mouth, he’s built up a reputation as an artist who is design-oriented, practical and skilled across disciplines -- “a bridge maker,” he puts it. 

“This is a real skill, a tradition that’s been handed down from the Bronze Age. I come from that,” Moritz says proudly. “I hold that knowledge along with other metalworkers.”

Some of Moritz’s other projects include a fence at Collinwood Recreation Center built from old shipping containers in a nod to the area’s history as a rail yard, and the striking shafts of metal in the By Hand mural in Ohio City’s Market Square Park. Moritz also has built everything from chandeliers for private homeowners to small industrial parts for manufacturers.

While those works by Cleveland's modern-day metalworkers are impressive, the best is yet to come. A new sculpture will debut on Mall B downtown with the arrival of the Senior Games on July 19. The piece, called The City of Light Monument, was commissioned by the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission to be used as an iconic torch. The sculpture boasts 18-foot-tall curving pieces of steel that rise from the base like flames. The piece will be illuminated from below so it will be visible at night.

 “The whole concept is about changing the narrative of the burning river,” says Mark Benton, an architect with Rafael Vinoly Architects who worked with Manka on the project along with Ron Payto of Panzica Construction. “The river caught fire, but it jumpstarted the environmental movement.”

“The design hinges on a modern flame,” adds Manka, noting that the twisting tongues of flames will vary in color dramatically when struck by sunlight or lit by LED lights. “The lights simulate fire, but we’re presenting it in a more ecological way.”

The sculpture is made possible with funding from the Cleveland Sports Commission and donations from Olympic Steel, GE Lighting and Precision Welding. It was created in Cleveland metalworking shops, including Rol-Fab in Garfield Heights, where pieces of pre-cut steel from Olympic were shaped by giant rollers into the twisting flames.

Each of the sculpture’s five steel flames weighs in at 3,600 pounds. “The Mall has been engineered to take a fire truck,” says Manka, who will oversee installation in the coming weeks. “Well, we’ve pretty much made a fire truck.”

When the Senior Games are over, Manka and his team will move the sculpture to a site along the Cuyahoga River, and they are currently pursuing several locations. Ultimately, their hope is to make it a permanent part of Cleveland’s landscape, offering visitors to the Towpath Trail an opportunity to reflect on the Cuyahoga’s storied history. 

The success of artists like Manka and Moritz -- modern-day metalworkers -- is a trend that excites Bob Rose. Although Rose Iron Works has been hurt by the recession, the company proudly continues to churn out artistic work and industrial parts from three facilities in St. Clair Superior. He sees a future here -- one that’s built on the past.

A few years ago, Rose hired Steve Yusko, a contemporary metalworking artist, to serve as the company’s artist-in-residence. This continues a tradition begun in the 1920s when Martin Rose recruited renowned artist Paul Feher to move from Paris to Cleveland. Together, Rose and Feher designed some of the company’s most exquisite work.

Today, customers can still purchase some of the iconic Art Deco pieces designed 80 years ago. Bob Rose intends to expand those limited production offerings in the future, including some of the hundreds of designs that Feher devised but never produced in the ‘20s and ‘30s because of the faltering economy. 

After more than a century in the St. Clair Superior community, Rose intends to build on the studio’s time-honored tradition alongside the newer artists finding opportunity here. 

“My grandfather grew up here and added onto his house to create the shop. My dad used to tell stories of knocking mortar off bricks to build the building in the back,” says Rose with a wry laugh. “It’s very rewarding now to see substantial growth of artists in the neighborhood. I’m very proud of this community. There’s incredible talent here.”

Photos Bob Perkoski except where noted

Read more articles by Lee Chilcote.

Lee Chilcote is a journalist, essayist and poet whose work has appeared in many regional and national publications. He is Managing Editor of Fresh Water Cleveland and Editorial Director of Issue Media Group. He has earned Master's degrees in English/Creative Writing and Public Administration from Cleveland State University. Originally from Cleveland Heights, he lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood with his family.
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