Michael Bell is both alchemist and artist. Using heat, hammers, and 40 years experience, he is a master swordsmith in the Japanese tradition.
In April he welcomed his first batch of students for the 2010 school year to Dragonfly Forge, the dojo, or school, he founded in 1987. The school's studios, outbuildings, and Bell's home are perched high on a coastal hillside between the green valley of Coquille and the Pacific Ocean. There, he offers a formal curriculum in all parts of the Japanese sword -- from basic blade forging through the creation the guard, handle, collar and full mounting.
While some Japanese swords are mass produced -- ground into shape from bars of stock steel -- the traditional Japanese or Samurai sword is a different beast altogether. It is a work of art and bears the cultural imperatives of honor and responsibility.
'The Japanese warrior carried more than a weapon," Bell said. 'The sword carried a whole belief system as well."
Intricate and elegant, antique Japanese swords embodied the highest ideals of beauty and craftsmanship. They were an extension of both the soul of the warrior, and the soul of the smith who created the blade through mastery of metal and fire.
Today, the complex process of heating and working the metals can command a lifetime commitment. According to Bell, when you look into the metal of a well-made blade, you can see it has more than merely shine.
'And," he adds, 'a good sharp knife blade can cut through iron."
He works with local steel, specifically, recycled logging cable. Oregon Pacific Corporation out of North Bend has generously supplied him through the years, and Bell credits the company for being 'real allies for a struggling artist."
His artistry and Coos County logging cable came together in 2005 when he used it to craft a sword, a katana, and was honored by its inclusion in 'Masters of Fire," an international exhibition by contemporary bladesmiths at the Macau Museum of Art. Bell was cited for forging a katana of 'irrefutable elegance... his cable steel blades are especially known for their resilience and devastating cutting ability."
Bell enjoys working the cable because, he claims, it forges and heat-treats similarly to Japanese steel. He'll happily work with wrought iron, too, and claims that the best he's come across is from Eastern Oregon's old iron wagon tires rescued from the past.
Transformations occur during the forging process, when the metal is repeatedly heated, hammered and folded. The steel goes through stages as the back shrinks, the blade begins to curve, and the hamon, or pattern, starts to emerge.
'I have my own style," Bell said, 'taken from the hills and the mists." His Coquille valley homestead informs his work at every stage, contributing to the visible line of the hamon and the school's occupational crest: three dragonflies facing outward, enclosed within a bold circle.
Strolling across the grass from the forge to his studio, Bell talks about how springtime brings an abundance of the ancient insects to his school. 'The Japanese always liked them... They're strong. Nearly impossible to catch."
In Japan, the dragonfly symbolizes courage and strength. Native Americans revered them as creatures of both wind and water, crediting the dragonfly with purity, swiftness, and happiness. Add to these qualities the perseverance and applied intuition of an artist, and you have the measure of Michael Bell's art and vocation: Dragonfly Forge.