Timeless Trade: A Tennessee metal smith brings new life to an age-old craft

Published January 2015 in Southern Lady magazine

Viewing Ben Caldwell’s artwork is like looking at something  that has been preserved in Southern amber. Small hammer marks etched into serving bowls and utensils let you know that each piece was created by hand in his Nashville studio behind the restored Victorian farmhouse he calls home with his wife and two children.

First drafting designs on sheet metal, then sculpting the medium into a 3-D piece, Ben makes all of his artwork traditionally in a process that was established centuries ago.

Growing up surrounded by his father’s collections of antique silverware and furniture, Ben has always appreciated handcrafted items that endure. However, not until later in life did this artist discover his true calling for creating one- of-a-kind serving pieces. When nationally known artist and family friend Terry Tally offered Ben the opportunity to learn an age-old trade, Ben left his job building custom guitars for Gibson and began traveling to Terry’s Murfreesboro studio each day to practice the art of molding copper and silver into durable housewares.

“After those long days, I would come home and deliver Domino’s Pizza at night to bring in money,” Ben recalls with a laugh.

It didn’t take the budding artist long to master the trade. Requests poured in for his distinctive work, which gives a reverent nod to 19th-century craftsmanship and features botanical themes. Each piece, whether inspired by the curve of a grapevine or the subtle blossom of a lotus flower, is carefully crafted with functionality in mind.

“When some- thing is beautiful and also works well, I think that adds something positive to a person’s home,” Ben says. “These pieces are meant to be something you can hand down from generation to generation.”

And because Ben’s wife, Lael, encouraged him to pursue the trade, he named the business Ben & Lael. “If it weren’t for her, I never would have started this,” Ben admits.

Although he is one of the few remaining metal smiths in the South, Ben intends for his trade to live on through teaching workshops and by educating others about the unique craft.

“In a way, I feel like I was handed this smoldering torch that was about to go out, and I’ve been trying to fan it into a flame,” the artist confesses. “One of my goals in life is to continue this trade and pass it on so it stays alive as an art form.” 

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