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A weekly look at creativity, arts, and culture in southwest Michigan, hosted by Zinta Aistars.Fridays in Morning Edition at 7:50am and at 4:20pm during All Things Considered.

Art Beat: On the edge

A knife created by blacksmith Gabriel Paavola
Courtesy of the artist
A knife created by blacksmith Gabriel Paavola

In this day of fast and easy, how do you become a blacksmith? And why spend hours and hours making a knife blade when you can skip down to the nearest supermarket and pick up a set of stainless-steel knives?

For Gabriel Paavola, buying a $20 knife at the store is a travesty. He grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula of Finnish and Greek heritage and gained respect for knives as a young boy by wandering the woods, learning the value of a quality blade honed in fire.

A conversation with Gabriel Paavola

“I found a lot of comfort and joy out in the woods,” Paavola says. “My father had these puukkos that I would covet. Puukko is a traditional Finnish knife. You can think of it as a multi-functional knife before there ever was such a thing as a multi-functional knife. Men and women would carry them, and they are still a very prestigious thing in Finland now. So being of Finnish heritage and having that experience of being out in the woods and carrying a puukko—I guess you could say I was always bullied as a kid, and for me, to be able to go out into the wild and feel empowered with a good knife on my hip was really important.”

Blacksmith Gabriel Paavola holds one of his knives
Courtesy of the artist
Blacksmith Gabriel Paavola holds one of his knives

Paavola sees knives as tools, not as weapons. With the right skills and knowledge, he says you can survive in the wild with nothing more than a good knife, from building a shelter to providing food. And what makes a knife an heirloom isn’t the actual knife but the memories it’s associated with.

“The person who purchases the knife from you, they’re the ones who make it an heirloom,” Paavola says. “Every time your grandmother was in the kitchen chopping away at food, she was cooking with love. That love was being transmuted into the blade, and that’s what we want to keep. That’s what we want to remember.”

Paavola also argues for sustainability. While you pay much more for a knife like those he fashions, it’s a knife that can last through many generations.

“It’s not so much about eliminating all our gross, extractive, and destructive ways of producing and manufacturing,” he says. “It’s about doing them in a sustainable frame of mind. If we can keep in mind that we don’t need a new knife just because the old one is dull. We have this blade that we will cherish and take care of.”

Paavola lives in Richland, Michigan. He has taught classes at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts and given blacksmithing demonstrations at the Kalamazoo Nature Center. Paavola attended Northern Michigan University and earned his bachelor’s degree in sculpture at Eastern Michigan University. He often donates his knives to indigenous and anti-domestic violence groups for them to sell and support their causes.

Listen to WMUK's Art Beat every Friday at 7:50 a.m. and 4:20 p.m.

Zinta Aistars is our resident book expert. She started interviewing authors and artists for our Arts & More program in 2011.
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