Ivan Bailey, 68: Blacksmith chose metal over monks

Instead of a metal worker, Ivan Bailey was almost a monk.

Raised in a devout Catholic family, he was plagued by serious illness as an infant and spent the first five months of his newborn life in a hospital. After the Portland, Ore., native graduated from high school, he spent two years at a California monastery.

“My mother offered my life to God if I lived,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2000. He paused and added, “Fortunately, these monks encouraged art.”

Leaving monastic life, he began a long path that would deliver him to iron work. After earning a degree in the humanities at Portland State University in 1969, his studies took him to the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina and then to the University of Georgia for a masters’ degree in fine arts in 1971.

Bailey also traveled to Germany, where he mastered the blacksmithing skills of fire-welding and steel-carving. Among the tools Bailey used was an air hammer, which he once described as a “300-pound helper standing next to you with a sledgehammer.”

Bailey, who weighed around 150 pounds on a good day, hardly looked like your stereotypical blacksmith, said woodworker and furniture designer Michael Gilmartin.

“When you think of a blacksmith, you thing of a much bigger man,” Gilmartin said. “But that someone that small was wrestling with such a difficult material, yet producing these lyrical, flowing forms, was something.”

Bailey, who semi-retired in 2006 but continued to work until a couple of months ago, died Monday at his farm in Monticello from complications of cancer. He was 68.

A memorial gathering is planned for 2 p.m. Sunday at Stationside in the King Plow Arts Center. The Cremation Society of Georgia was in charge of arrangements.

Bailey came to Atlanta in 1981 from Savannah, where he had worked on the famed Forsyth Fountain in the ‘70s and created the “Sunflower Gates” in Troop Square. In Atlanta, Bailey’s work can be seen in private homes and public spaces. Among his pieces: the “Phoenix Rising” sculpture in John Howell Park, the gates of the former Lakewood Amphitheater, and countless gates, crosses and chalice sets for churches all over.

“He was a gentle and generous spirit,” said his son, Ollie Bailey, of Decatur. “He put a lot of love into each piece he made.”

As a child, the elder Bailey was naturally creative. Before settling on blacksmithing, he experimented with several art forms, including jewelry making, his sons said.

“He wanted to get into bigger, sturdier things,” Ollie said.

“But everything he did before, he’d use in his blacksmithing,” added son Warren Bailey of Brooklyn, N.Y. “He would draw a sketch and then draw it out life-sized before he began to make each piece.”

The process was tedious, but that was perhaps what Bailey enjoyed about the work, Gilmartin said.

“He could get away with certain poetic constructs in metal that I couldn’t in wood,” he said. “And he could do it because people knew how hard it was to manipulate the material.”

Blacksmithing never ceased to amaze Bailey. His techniques were numerous, but he did have a favorite part of the process: red-hot iron.

“I’ve always wished the metal would stay the color it is when you’re working it for eternity,” he said in a 1991 AJC interview. “If it could stay that way, that would be just super. It’s like playing with the sun.”

In addition to his sons, Bailey is survived by his sister, Linda Lisac, of Portland, Ore., two brothers, and two grandchildren.

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