Todd “Fox” Hansen looks like a guy you’d see hiking up a mountain, followed by his loyal dog pack, maybe carrying a whittled, wooden staff and helping out lost, less fortunate hikers.
In reality, he only recently started climbing mountains, taking his dogs with him when it’s allowed. Sometimes things are exactly what they seem.
For Hansen, that last statement couldn’t be more true. He has a kind smile and a soft chuckle that comes easily. He would readily fit in one of those old-timey museum settings, hammering away as a fire blazed in front of him.
Since the age of 16 he’s been creating, learning the age-old trades of black- and silversmithing and later moving on to experiment with more intricate metalworking practices.
Sitting in a booth sipping on a stout at the Crescent Moon Ale House, (where he also works on the package side, Beertopia) he picks up a coaster from the table as he explains what he does.
“There’s a distinction between making, like knife making, where you can take a bar or something like that and cut your shape out of it and just grind it to form,” he says. “But there’s not many people where you could give them something like that,” indicating the salt shaker in front of him, “and they can form that into a different shape.”
Hansen has been working on that second practice for years, though he started with simpler stuff at the age of 16, when he attended a class on silversmithing with his mom at Pipal Park Community Center. Tom McDowell, a member of the local group Prairie Blacksmiths Association, was the instructor.
“They were doing some casting and ring making, so I started to play around with that a little bit,” he says. McDowell invited him to one of their ‘hammer-ins’ they had once a month. “I was the youngest one there by about 40 years, at that point…I got to pick their brains.”
Hansen says he “putzed” around on his own for a couple years before attending college at the Kansas City Art Institute, where he majored in sculpture and minored in philosophy, literature, and science.
But he was still kind of on his own.
“There wasn’t really anyone there [at the time] who knew what I was doing,” he says, adding that while there were some good professors who pushed him to work on the conceptual side of the work, there were others who didn’t really consider what he was doing art.
A look at the pieces Hansen is doing now would probably change their minds. He is working in the Japanese styles of Mokume-Gane, a process where you alternate fusing different metals, such as copper and silver. He also started learning Uchi Dashi, which is the process of manipulating a thin piece of metal into the artist’s desired shape.
The results are intriguing. He brought an emblem and a small copper frog he’s been practicing on as examples. At first glance, they may not seem that impressive. But once he’s explained the process that goes into making them, it’s clear that there is an artistry that goes into their making.
However, there is certainly a more practical side to metalworking. Chris Kemp, owner of CK Fabrications, says he got his start working at a fencing company that did ornamental ironwork. He really enjoyed what he was doing, and when he left, over “creative differences,” he started his own business out of Hot Shops Art Center.
“I’m basically a prostitute,” Kemp says. “I pretty much do whatever people pay me to do.”
But there is still an artistic aspect to his work. He says while he rarely gets to do his own thing, he does collaborate with other designers. Though Kemp hasn’t had a chance to work with Hansen in that aspect, they have talked about it. “It’d be nice,” Kemp says. “I could really use the (experienced) help.” A part of the problem is that mistakes are expensive in this line of work, and not just monetarily. “It’s the kind of equipment where it’s a life-changing accident, not just a ‘Whoops, I screwed up.’”
For Hansen, this is especially true.
In January of 2017, he found out he has the vascular form of Ehlers Danlos syndrome, a rare, inherited disorder that affects connective tissues—primarily skin, joints, and blood vessel walls. Symptoms include bruising easily and overly flexible joints. While that may sound innocuous, there can be life-threatening complications, including aneurysms.
“One day I’ll probably just be like, ‘Oh gosh, I’ve got a really bad headache’ and I’m just gonna lie down and someone will find me in a couple days,” he says, in the most good-humored way possible.
Hansen believes the disorder may not be as rare as it seems, but possibly underdiagnosed, as it requires genetic testing to determine whether or not you have it.
Despite warnings that he should stop his work because of the potential dangers, Hansen doesn’t intend to give up on his life’s passion just yet. The 35-year-old Hansen says he is currently apprenticing with the American Bladesmith Society, always working on his smithing education.
“I enjoy all of it,” he says. “It’s nice to have a broader palette to draw from and then I can combine those into things that are suited to each other.”
To learn more about Hansen’s work, visit facebook.com/Empyrean-Metalworks.
This article appears in the May/June 2018 edition of Encounter.