Not too long ago, Richard Zago was the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction for the Rutherford County School District. There he forged content and competency requirements into lessons to inspire the minds of 44,707 children, but now he uses a forge to bend metals into beautiful designs that inspire their owner’s design dreams.
“It’s fun to do for me,” said Zago. “I have a great time working with steel. And the people in the Rutherford County Blacksmiths Association that I work with are artists and makers who enjoy creating functional pieces that are also beautiful.”
Under the name Ol’ School Forge, Zago builds just about anything out of iron and/or copper. He has made gates, knives, swords, and irons for the fireplace, and he has repaired family heirlooms. He likes to twist and turn the metal shaping it into tree limbs, vines, and other natural elements to form everything from railings to end tables.
“It is amazing that people want an heirloom,” says Zago, “or a functional piece of art for their home. I have worked with designers. I do commissions.”
He loves to make functional art. One of his favorite pieces was made from salvaged farm equipment and remains of mule carts from the 1800s. He loves to work with vintage pieces and giving them a new purpose.
“Old fragments provide a lot of line and texture in a piece,” added Zago. “Working antique pieces into a design draws the eye over and over again, because each time you see something new.”
Zago can work from a drawing or email sent by a client, or he can meet and help a client form their ideas into a one of a kind objet d’art. He creates lots of decorative pieces like tables and lamps made from early 1900 antiques, as well as kitchen ladles and spatulas. He also sells his own designs at craft fairs, like the one held annually in Murfreesboro at the Agricultural Center.
But Zago has not totally stepped away from academia, as he also teaches his craft every Tuesday night at the smithy in Cannonsburgh Village, sharing what he learned under master smith Steve Marshall 32 years ago. He has also done demonstrations for groups, like the Chamber of Commerce.
“I played with it off and on for years,” said Zago. “I’ve made some 16th and 17th-century reproductions. Done a few other things. But I became serious about it about a year and a half ago.”
He enjoys the fellowship among the members of the association, and he is inspired by their talents. There are 100 master smiths in the guild. This is what he has done since he left the school district, and it is what he intends to continue doing.
Or as he said in closing, “Makers are going to make.”