Back to the Forge

by | Dec 20, 2023

Diane Burnham works with metal. Not an easy medium. It requires fortitude, patience and the strength to endure. I was interested in how she discovered her passion for this physically demanding art form.

No matter what she is tackling, whether it is a sculpture in her home forge or leading the charge to install new tennis/pickle ball courts in Pugwash, Diane Burnham exudes a certain confidence and grace. It’s not surprising. Her determination to learn throughout her lifetime, and a persistent drive for self-sufficiency, has left her with an admirable skill set and a knack for problem-solving.

Diane’s preferences for making things with her own hands and finding out how things worked was evident growing up in Bethesda, a suburb of Washington DC. She chose Erector sets rather than dolls. By the time she was in middle school, and she had persuaded the school administration to let her take Shop, working with wood and metal, rather than Home Economics with the other girls, her path was set. 

Diane eventually entered the University of New Hampshire in the ceramics program where she found her way into the metal working shop, learning to weld. By the time she was 20 years old, Diane was living on a dairy farm. She wanted to get her hands dirty and be out in nature learning practical skills, a stark contrast to the concrete jungle of Bethesda. Using a junk yard of old farm machinery as a source of material, she rebuilt the old blacksmith shop, including a coal-fuelled forge, experimenting and teaching herself.

In 1976 she hired a post and beam contractor to build her a house, with the condition that she got to work alongside him, learning construction from the outside in. Letting her affinity with metal take the lead, she enrolled in horseshoeing school in California in 1979, learning how to be a farrier and immersing herself in the nature of metal and how to handle it. Diane considers the 25 different types of horseshoes as art forms in their own right.

Back in New Hampshire, Diane set up a gas-fired forge at her home, working with metal as well as wood and fibre. She joined a community art group focussed on members sharing their work and getting feedback, rather than mounting public shows.

Fast forward to 2008, and Diane is living on the Gulf Shore in Northern NS with her partner Rocky Irons, also a farrier/educator. They make collaborative sculptures together, using repurposed metal gleaned from junk yards and farmers’ barns. Many of these creations can be seen scattered throughout their home gardens. Most recently, they have created huge spheres constructed of horse shoes, using the curved forms of harrow discs as a guide. Diane likens it to solving a puzzle, but it is not without its rewards and challenges.

On the positive side, after many years in the forge, Diane still finds working with metal exciting. She is fascinated with the almost magical transformation of hard metal into a molten form. She also likes the idea of making art from repurposed material. She likes that many of her creations can be outside interacting with the environment, rusting through time and the elements or, in the the case of her kinetic pieces, activated by the wind. Diane has at times designed sculptures to make a statement, as with the Ukrainian Egg, gifted to the Thinkers Lodge in Pugwash.

The Ukrainian Egg installation at Thinkers Lodge, Pugwash.

The challenges include decisions regarding protection of the metal from rust and decay. Diane prefers oil, turpentine, wax as protective coatings. She sometimes sandblasts the surface to even out the rusting process. Installing heavy sculptures is often the most difficult challenge, especially for the large pieces, where stability, the weather, theft and public safety need to be considered.

Diane’s creative process is careful and methodical. First she puzzles out how to make the intended shape. She usually sketches out designs and makes a plan on how the construction will proceed in order to turn it into 3-dimensional form. She usually creates a template and model to problem solve, using a trial and error method.. For a sculpture as large and heavy as Athena, construction was particularly challenging. Diane, consulting with Rocky, started with the head and neck and then used a block and tackle to raise it up to do the body. She works for about three hours assembling and clamping pieces together, spot welding to tack it all together. Then she calls in Rocky to finish with arch welding the pieces permanently in place.


Diane is inspired by the work of:

Samuel Yellin, Ukrainian/American – a master blacksmith of wrought iron work

George Sherwood, American – for his kinetic sculptures and use of reflected light

Alexander Calder, American – mobiles

Ruben Irons, Nova Scotia – master blacksmith,

In the next few years Diane hopes she will still be keeping her hand in working in the forge, although downsizing her metal sculptures and doing more intricate projects is a consideration. She would like to work with more colour and perhaps fabric. She would also like to make more time to play her violin and wants to explore sound as an element in her work practice.

For Diane, the driving force to make art has never been with the public in mind. It is more internal, about challenging herself to see if a creation is possible and figuring out how to realize it. She does it because she loves it. Metal is in her blood.