The Observer made it out to the Arkansas Times Festival of Ideas over the weekend, our salute to smart, talented and interesting Arkansans, a real-world event that grew out of our recent "Influential Arkansans" cover. Featured last weekend were talks by folks ranging from tech start-up gurus to archivists to tiny house builders to quilters to college profs talking about how to make hi-test pusholine from pond scum. Quite a time was had by all.
Rushing over from another event, we dropped into the middle of the talk by clothing designer Korto Momolu. We'd only meant to stop in for a sec to see how it was going, but Korto — resplendent in a pair of pants that would have rivaled Joseph's dreamcoat — turned out to be so dang interesting that we stayed to hear the Famous Lady from Little Rock spinning tales of growing up in Liberia, her family forced into often-destitute exile in Canada by civil war, learning to love art and design, meeting her husband — a soldier from Arkansas who brought her back home when his soldiering was done — and her time on "Project Runway." To hear her talk about coming to love this city we love ("I always throw up two L's," she said, "one for Liberia, one for Little Rock") made us appreciate both how strange it is who winds up here and how blessed we are that they stay.
The other highlights of the weekend for The Observer were the two sessions with Arkansas bladesmith Jerry Fisk, maybe the best knifemaker in the world. Heating and hammering on a blade in the blacksmith shop at the Historic Arkansas Museum, Jerry talked to packed houses in his backwater drawl about how a poor boy from the sticks came to be the houseguest of European royalty and Amazonian chieftains, all thanks to his painstaking, body-wrenching 25-year quest to master the art of the cutting edge.
Jerry's wisdom stretched from the practical (his knives are so sharp that he said when he drops something — be it a $16,000 bowie knife or a wooden pencil — he has trained himself to snatch his hands back and let it fall, lest he lose a few of his valuable digits), to the amazing (if a client asks him to, he can forge a clear and perfect replica of anything into the living steel of the blade, from a name to "a dog chasing a mailman." We're not talking etched: we're talking forged in, extending through and through the steel. He said he's currently readying to start work on a knife for a maker of train cars that will feature a linked series of inch-long boxcars, each bearing the corporate logo, hammered into the blade).
At the end of one of Fisk's sessions, a knifemaker maybe 25 years old came forward and withdrew a zippered case from his pocket. Inside was a lovely, foot-long Bowie the young smith had made: ironwood hilt, the steel as graceful as a blade of silver grass. Asked for a critique, Fisk sat on one of the benches, took the knife in his learned hands, and looked it over minutely, pointing out where the maker had done right and where he'd gone a bit wrong, pronouncing one of the pins securing the handle microscopically proud and pointing out a dip in the polished hilt that anybody but Jerry Fisk, National Living Treasure, would probably need a set of engineer's calipers to detect. The members of the audience who hadn't trickled out by then crowded around. They watched Fisk test the sharpness of the blade millimeter by millimeter against the side of his callused thumb, watched him play the sunlight from the door over the steel, looking for speck, wave or flaw. And so it was a perfect moment, one of those The Observer has learned to wait for: the dim shop, the smell of the burning forge, the teacher in frowned consideration, the spectators silent and Observing, the student an inch from chewing his thumbnail and seeming to hold his breath, suffering through that eternity before the final pronouncement of the master.