Why Estebana abandoned science to become a blacksmith

Entertainment

On a dreary Melbourne riverfront near a rattling rail bridge, the warmth of a forge and the sound of hammering steel beckons shivering passersby inside a blacksmith's workshop.

Steve Phillips - who goes by Estebana in the art world - is blasting a steel and enamel mushroom with fire, the very element that pulled him towards the old world craft.

A hydrogeologist, he traded in his decades-long environmental science career for the allure of the flame - one of multiple obsessions, including fungi, which sees him hunkered down in his Footscray studio for up to 70 hours a week.

"I've always loved playing with fire," Phillips tells AAP.

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"I learnt to juggle because I wanted to juggle fire like the clowns and performers do in the circus.

"I love camping and one of the big things about camping that's so magical is fire.

"It follows one of the big drawcards for me about blacksmithing (is) you've got to use fire as a tool, and that's pretty exciting."

Darting around Waterside Metal Art - the studio he set up in 2008 - Phillips points out hulking machines: a power hammer he calls Hans, and a fly press called Gretel. Only one of them is German-made.

Out back, there's an upstairs "sky deck" where Phillips can have a beer in summer, along with an old fuel tank he turned into a shower.

"When I was an environmental scientist I ripped this out of the ground from a school," he says.

His "forge hound" dog Harry - often curled up on a bed, undisturbed by the commotion of the studio - trots alongside him.

The idea for the studio was conceived after the company Phillips owned shares in was bought out, prompting him to head to Belgium at age 40 on sabbatical in 2007.

He was already interested in blacksmithing, having belted together a steel dragonfly out of a hot water tank before he left, and ended up learning the craft at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp.

"I've become a little bit cynical about where the planet's going and I realised all the things that I've done for the environment ... was making minuscule difference," he says.

"What I really wanted to do was transfer my focus to something which was my hobby for a while and actually work with my hands."

He forges the occasional "sharp pointy thing" but is more passionate about steel's broader creative potential, with people in his public workshops crafting objects like snails and decorative keys.

A "druidess" and storyteller helps him host one workshop wherein students forge a healing pendant under a full moon, while a newer class is dedicated to forging metal magic mushrooms.

Phillips says he doesn't do blacksmithing for the money - he barely makes enough to get by - but the workshops and the Waterside Blacksmithing and Metal Art Festival are his way of giving back to the community.

He is grateful for the backing of his local council, Maribyrnong, which leases him the studio at a reduced rate, but fears Melbourne is losing its broader arts scene to business ventures.

"There's so many people who would love to make a cafe out of this, or a bar," Phillips says.

"These sort of little places, they're the soul of a city."

It's crucial that Melbourne retains its artistic spaces, Phillips says.

For his part, the blacksmith plans to maintain his place as the "last man standing" for as long as possible.

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