Time-honored crafts are kept alive by local blacksmith, quilter and caricature artist
Jason Keller, blacksmith, bladesmith, author
Blacksmith, bladesmith and author Jason Keller calls himself a “hillbilly turned mountain man.” He left his Appalachian farm 21 years ago to ski Utah’s slopes and eventually made Draper’s foothills his new home. Despite the change in locale, he draws much of his creativity from childhood experiences.
“I treasure my upbringing,” he says of growing up in rural Ohio where his days were spent catching catfish and camping by the river. Large family get-togethers afforded him the opportunity to listen to his great-uncles tell World War II stories, join in impromptu fiddle pickin’ and enjoy his granny’s best dish—green beans cooked in pork fat.
Old-school craftsmanship, like knife making, wasn’t an art growing up, he says. It was a way of life. Out in the country, Home Depot wasn’t around the corner and most household items were handcrafted, repaired or jury-rigged. His dad, who worked at a steel mill, made knives, sparking Keller’s interest. “You had to improvise,” he says. “And I am sure that shaped me into the artist I am today.”
He continues his dad’s knifesmith work in his own smithy (blacksmith’s workshop) complete with a steel anvil, hammer, post vice, grinder, and a furnace that cranks out heat at 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. He harvests high carbon, durable metals from junkyard-found coil springs and axles, heating and pounding them into finished work, be it a knife or an ornamental lantern holder.
He calls manipulating metal—using a balance of strength, control and focus—a primeval experience. “Mankind has been doing this for four or five thousand years,” he says. “Besides the propane, this is exactly how they did it back then. The principles are the same.”
Despite the heat and the furnace’s hiss, Keller says blacksmith work is serene. “There is something very satisfying about it,” he says. “I get downright filthy, but I enjoy the process.” He displays his knives and artwork at Draper’s Craft Fair, and has five nephews on the waiting list for a handcrafted knife.
Keller’s creativity also extends to the written page. His recently published book, “The Ballad of Edison Bestwell,” is written in Appalachian folklore style with characters and a storyline based on his hometown’s characters and his childhood experiences.
“Art provides a window into the past,” he says. “I’ve always liked that aspect of it, how things were like back then.”
Newborns, new brides and anyone who might need comfort in Sue Morris’ extensive family can always count on a handmade quilt from her.
Morris has made and gifted more than 500 quilts, oftentimes accompanied by a loaf of bread and homemade soup. With three of her own children, her five siblings, her husband’s four siblings and all their family members, she quips, “That’s a lot of quilts.”
But, it’s a fun tradition, she says, and one that “keeps me off the street and in the quilt stores.”
In her sewing room she keeps 14 large binders. Her husband of 54 years, Fred, has meticulously documented each quilt she’s given away. There’s photos of babies asleep on her quilts, teenagers seated on quilted bedspreads and handwritten letters of thanks.
“These are more important to me than any quilt,” she says of the binders. “It’s the history. I know when everyone got married, when they had their children.”
Quilting has always been central to Sue’s life. She was raised under a quilting frame, during an era when women got together and made quilts. Her mother, grandmother and aunts worked above on the quilt frame while she played below, trying to stay out of trouble.
Her mother was a utilitarian quilter, but her aunt, Lajean Larsen, was the artist, making beautiful quilts with exacting techniques. As her mentor, Lajean took Sue to quilt guilds and classes. Decades later, Lajean called Sue in a panic one night, worried that all her unfinished quilts would be sent to Deseret Industries by her non-quilting sons when she was gone.
The next morning, Sue collected them all and found herself quite busy. One by one, she finished her aunt’s quilts and gave them to her aunt’s children.
Some of Sue’s quilt recipients don’t have it that easy. For newlyweds in the family, she holds a wheelbarrow party. The gifted quilt is used as cushioning for the bride who sits in a wheelbarrow as the groom pushes her down and then back up the Morris’ long, steep driveway. Then they get the quilt.
“We’ve had some that haven’t shown up,” she says notably, her recently married grandson and his bride. “They’re balking.”
When she’s not making quilts or matrimonial mischief, Sue attends events with the Utah State Quilting Guild and Draper’s Piece of Heaven Quilters Guild. And, in order to keep age-old quilting traditions alive, once a week, she hosts women at her home to hand-stitch a quilt, often working outside on an enormous frame.
Sue claims not to be as precise as some her fellow guild members, whom she calls true artists. “But I can crank out a quilt,” she says. “I get enthused about it so it gets done fairly fast.”
Most brothers would give their little sister a high-five when she gets a blue belt in Tae Kwon Do. But Steele Smith has a flair for the artistic. He immortalized his little sister’s achievement in a caricature drawing.
Seven-year-old Ziva is all smiles in the quirky, colorful framed portrait. It’s classic caricature with her small body in a white martial arts uniform, one leg in kick position. Her out-of-proportion, oversized head is the focus—notably, a big smile filled with lopsided teeth.
“She liked it,” says the 14-year-old Draper artist, “but maybe in a few years she won’t.”
Smith has been drawing for a long time, but found traditional portraiture drawing boring. “Sticking to the model wasn’t fun,” he says. So, he took up caricature drawing, an art form that allows him to ignore classic facial proportion and play with features and expressions that intrigue him.
“It might be…a funny-shaped nose or crooked teeth or something. I try to make that the focus…build everything else around it,” he says.
From photographs, he’s drawn celebrities, presidents, and members of the U.S. Olympic Water Polo Team. While seated in history class, he drew his teacher. In the Draper Park Middle School art contest, he won first place two years in a row for his caricatures of Einstein and Abraham Lincoln, respectively. Followers of his Instagram page, spinkick6_art, can see a time-lapse video of Steele creating those pieces.
His mom, Jennifer, says she enjoys seeing him with colored pencil in hand.
“He’s a science, math and athletics kind of person, so it’s nice to see him enjoy art. It’s good for his brain,” she says of her first-born child, who plays competitive water polo and has a second-degree blackbelt in Tae Kwon Do. She adds, “He’s out to conquer everything. Anything he does, he does his best.”
Right now, for Steele, drawing is an amusement, not a career ambition.
“When I get home from water polo practice, this is something fun and relaxing to do. It’s just a chill thing to do.”