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  • Writer's pictureMaxwell Benner

John Downham, a Local Sculptor and Sword Craftsman

John holding his recreation of the iconic sword from the 1982 movie Conan the Barbarian.

In your own words how would you describe what you do for a living?

I make things, sword hilts, sculptures. Mostly out of bronze.

What has led you to be an artist?

[Laughs] Would it be out of bounds to say my failure as a businessman? I tried to do the upwardly mobile, make a good living, be a successful thing in business and eventually it became inescapably apparent that that wasn't my thing.

Did you have interest in the arts growing up?

Always. I have always found joy in manipulating physical media. When I was a little kid I used to make my own toy soldiers out of clay. I've always had it in me to do this. Looking back, I wish I had recognized how important it was to me and gone for it right from the start.

Can you explain the process of making a sword step by step?

You have to visualize what it's gonna be. You know, be inspired. Then go through a whole bunch of drawings to kinda funnel it down. Then usually I'll try to make a mockup in clay. It lets you transfer your thoughts and make them three dimensional. Sometimes things turn out differently than you thought they would. So it's important to do that. When I feel real comfortable with what I've made in clay, often I'll switch over to carving wax. It's less easily moved then the clay is. So you can hold tighter details but, still like clay, when you carve something off, you change your mind. Addition and subtraction of the form onto the medium until I get to a point and I really like it. At that point, I'll make a rubber mold of it. From the rubber mold I'll make more wax. Now this is a different wax then the wax I used to carve. This is a wax that the foundry I work with came up with. This formula burns up real good in their furnaces. I pour the wax in and try to make the wax the thickness I want the metal to be. Now, you make another mold - a ceramic or sand mold but it's a form of mold that allows you to pour metal into it. When I was working at the foundry, I was a second man on the pour team. I helped them actually pour the metal. It's actually amazing. This metal is over 2000 degrees of molten bronze. It's orange and it glows like lava. It's amazing when you pour it. It's also amazing when it bubbles up and spits! It really hurts if it gets on you which usually it doesn't. Then it cools off then its metal shaped like what you wanted it to be shaped! The experience is just mind blowing to see something that you made in clay or wax and all of a sudden it's bronze! It's not as hard or strong as steel but i'll tell you what it's pretty indestructible. If you wanna mess with it, you have to hit it really hard with a really big hammer to even dent it.

What types of swords have you made?

I've made a number of medieval swords from different eras, pirate swords, a couple fantasy swords, and viking swords. Made a lot of viking swords. They're my favorites.

What traits make a medieval sword?

HT Bastard Sword

I was gonna say they’re less decorative then the viking swords but in the early history of swords, they were kinda a status item. They were expensive to make. Steel was hard to make and it was hard to come by people that knew how to work it well, like in the viking times, and a little more before the viking times. If you had a sword you were somebody and that's why they were always so decorated. It wasn't just a tool to fight with, it was also something that you showed what an important person you were. But in medieval times they became more of a tool. Steel was more prevalent, lots more people knew how to work it. Swords to this day have held that function as showing what a big deal you are… [Laughs] …cause you carry a fancy sword. Look at generals in our army when they get dressed up to go someplace. They've got a fancy sword on their side. It'll have the eagle heads carved in and stuff. So even now swords serve that function in their earliest periods.

What traits make a viking sword?

Every sword reflects the style of fighting that it was used for. So people say, “What's the best sword in the world?” The thing is, it all depends on context. If you're gonna fight vikings in a viking style, they always had a shield in the other hand, which means that they didn't need a lot of hand protection. They used the shield for their hand protection. They kept their hand behind the shield ‘til they’d hit with it. When they weren’t hitting, they didn't need the protection. So, the guards for viking swords are very short; they don't stick out far from the blade. The thing I like about viking swords is that they didn't really need things on the pommel. The pommel is the end of the handle, metal chunk on the handle. It’s used to balance the sword to some extent and as an offensive weapon or both. If you're up close with the sword and you can't properly defend yourself with it, you can always use the back end to wack with. I like that it gives me a lot of opportunity to be creative.

The Suontaka

What traits make a Pirate sword?

It's always got the knuckle guard; Usually it's cutlass meaning it's a shorter blade than most medieval or viking swords. They used cutlesses because if you were fighting inside a ship there wasn't a lot of room and a three foot long piece of steel would end up getting caught on the roof… [laughs] …when you try to swing it. Most of the time they have what's called a knuckle guard. The guard is the piece that separates the blade from the handle and that's what it does. It guards your hand.

I know you've made a Conan the Barbarian sword. What movies other than Conan have your fantasy swords been based on?

The Hammer

I'm not sure there are any other ones based on movies. The other fantasy ones have been just based on people's ideas.

Like what?

Sorcerer stuff… like DnD. Where in again, swords are more than functional. They show who the person is. They illustrate a personal aspect of who the person wants people to see them to be.

Lonely Wolf Forge's Longclaw

What kind of sculptures have you done?

Mostly representational. I've made a lot of things that could be hung on a wall and have water spouting out of them. I've done a set of green mans. 4 actually.

Did you start doing that because people requested it or you wanted to?

Both. Most of the stuff I've done has been because someone requested it. When I decided I would try to make money doing this stuff, I just started taking commissions. I worked with Garden accents. They sell sculptures for gardens. Most of what I've done sculpturally has been for them. Did a lizard, did a fox, did the green mans, did the big fountain.

Can you tell me a little more about the big fountain project?

I can tell you it was a lot more of a project than I knew it was when I got into it. Took me a year to sculpt it. And that's just the clay. My friends at garden accents came and asked me if I could recreate this fountain. This lady on the main line had seen a picture of one in southern living. Someone in Texas had this fountain and she wanted it. They asked garden accents if they could get 'em one and they said, “No. We can’t. We know where that came from.” It was made in France in the eighteen hundreds - early nineteen hundreds and the foundry that made them no longer exists. So she tried to buy one from everyone she could. Eventually she came back to Garden Accents and they called me. They gave me a couple pictures of the one from France and working from those pictures I sculpted a version of that. It's not exactly the same but it's pretty darn close.

I think that this is something that every artist feels - and I know that it's difficult to explain - but could you try to explain the feelings that come along with fulfilling a creative project? How does that feel for you?

The satisfaction of a project done to me it's like validating. It's validating a big part of why it's while having me on this earth. There's pleasure at having overcome the challenges in realizing the vision that I started with. A big part of it is just – the satisfaction of knowing that in the beginning there was nothing and now there's something that is either useful or hopefully beautiful. But there's something out of nothing. That’s– that's– I don't know. It's kinda a big deal. I've experienced satisfaction of projects I felt were well done and validation of my vision and my skills that I probably wouldn't of gotten anywhere else or any other way.

Thank you so much Poppop for taking the time to speak with me and sharing your art with us! I deeply appreciate it. You sincerely are a true renaissance man. I wish you luck in your next creative adventure(s). Love you!

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