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 BRIEF INTRODUCTION  

I first saw Paolo’s work at Don Fogg’s and was very impressed as I am very interested in experiences on steel more as a voyeur than as an author.

Here are, in his words, a close bio-portrait written by Paolo, who is the grandson of an Italian gentleman from Florence whose surname was Altomonte, hence the name Paolo who talks about him, introducing himself at my request:

I was born and raised in the Philippines, married with 2 children (and a third on the way). Though I had studied graphic arts and started my professional life in that field, I currently work in the field of television content production both for cable and local networks. I feel what little skill I might have in blade smithing is a drop in the ocean compared to the lifetime experience of some of the people who have helped me along the way. I came to the start of this journey as an end user as an avid outdoorsman and a kendo practitioner. My practice of the craft in its many styles continues, as I remain a student of the forge.


I emailed Paolo complimenting him on his work and his reply was of great kindness. Something that I enjoy in correspondence is the human warmth that transpires from it, and I sensed that in Paolo and asked if he would do another piece like that one with some slight modifications. Paolo agreed to it and I sent him the first drawing after receiving two pictures of how he grabbed the other big knife.
Paolo, as an Asian gentlemen is by nature and education, very warm, afable and humble, yet he possesses an incredible capacity of expressing himself, his ideas being very clear, and denoting in him the great conversationist that I so much appreciate.

 THE ART OF CONVERSATION  

For this very reason, I decided to title the way I did, the interview that follows. His fluidity of expression is a pleasure to witness, follow and share:


ACJ: Paolo, what made you start to work with steel and make knives, in a country whose traditional and historical edged weapons have a big demand from collectors, therefore acknowledging its metallurgic tradition?

P.A.: I assume like many smiths my interest in blades started in childhood. As a boy had an unexplainable fascination for all things edged and had an appreciation of the skill and work that went into a fine blade. I suppose we are somehow programmed to have this connection. All blades, swords in particular are charged with all kinds of symbolism that connects on a very visceral level with our most primal instincts of fear, courage, control, power, life and death regardless of culture and background.

We are a blade culture in the Philippines, so much so that its utility as a practical everyday item out in the farms and fields takes it to the most ordinary of levels that we often fail to see what collectors and connoisseurs see; I appreciated well forged blades and felt the need to express this appreciation in the craft as I got older. I come from a very creative family whose involvement in the arts range from writing, painting to acting and theatre…I have had varying degrees of involvement in these fields but find, at the risk of sounding pretentious, it is smithing where I get the most fulfillment. It gives me immense satisfaction to see a finished blade made with my own hands and know that it has been made to the best of my modest abilities.

ACJ: Working in your spare time, you use very traditional implements which are very dear to me as they somehow draw you close to the roots of smithing. Do you find that working this way makes you closer to a less industrial approach?

P.A.: I am mostly self-taught, adopting and adapting techniques and tools learned from practice and exchange with traditional as well as more progressive smiths. So my “traditional” approach was borne out of necessity and has grown to be my preference. I feel it is exactly as you say, closer to the roots of smithing to work this way and it simply makes the work more of a pleasure for me. Not to say that I wouldn’t mind better, more efficient tools to improve on the quality of my blades. I do fire up my gas forge occasionally to do specific things that are done best with a gas forge but the point where I’ll have what I need to work the way I prefer is clear to me… a good grinder and maybe a larger tempering rig to accommodate more sword-length work. Mostly I would like to address efficiency issues, as I don’t have the luxury of time to do everything by hand. But I have made a conscious effort to keep my further development in the craft self-sustaining form this point. It must pay for itself as I refuse to buy my way into better blades with tools and equipment that do the work for you rather than simply aid in the expression of craftsmanship. Not that other ways are not valid, but this is clearly the direction I see myself taking.

ACJ: on the other way, it is interesting that bearing such a fine ethnic tradition, I was impressed by your large Bowie, while the frequency of Don’s Forum makes us both transcultural people. One question comes up promptly: how do you view the Philippines weaponry and how does it impress you?

P.A.: I have a great respect for the traditional weaponry and their methods of production….Enough respect not to have made serious forays into purely traditional forms in the context of “reproductions” without greater study and understanding of their finer points. I feel the same way for the traditional style Japanese style work I also greatly admire. Mediocrity is my greatest fear. The line between pure weapon and blades of utility is blurred in the Philippines. I have a great appreciation for both ends of the spectrum but I am of course happiest when my blades are used. There are many fine examples of traditional steel working in our culture and I am proud to be part with such a fine tradition through my ancestry and heritage as well as my practice of the blade smith’s craft in my own fashion. What saddens me is being remembered for cheap labor working on poorly made cookie-cutter blades, cobbled together for a fast tourist buck and volume sales rather than the few masterpieces that survive today. A greater sadness is to see the immense folk skills going to waste on bad taste, poor design and a lack of understanding of what makes work authentic and genuine. Somewhere along the way many of the practicing pandays (bladesmiths) who are the only direct links to our smithing heritage have been forced to in this direction to make a living often at the expense of traditional techniques and indigenous designs. Sadly, I have the luxury that many of the local smiths don’t have of being able to study my craft, free of the need to produce whatever it is that “sells” in order to live.

The Bowie that caught your attention is a “Bowie” for ease of communication with smiths of a more western orientation. It would simply fall under the category of itak or bolo from my more Asian viewpoint in its intended use as an all around chopper. Most certainly it is a fusion of East and West styles and elements but not as far as one would imagine it might be from something carried at the hip of any farmer working a field or in the hand of an experienced kali or escrima practitioner on my side of the globe.

ACJ: Bearing in mind all that you have said, bringing to the frontline the tradition of the pandays and yet being most certainly the most transcultural smith in the Philippines, set free from the need to be a smith to survive, how do you envision your forthcoming path.

P.A.:  I have recently come to the realization that the blades I make cannot exist in a vacuum. At this point, they cannot just be made to satisfy myself. That’s nothing more than masturbation. They must have value to other people whether from the standpoint of a simple tool of utility or as an art object; I certainly strive to satisfy both criteria when I’m at the forge. It will be nice to come full circle after much more study and work and be at a point where there is nothing to prove, nothing to sell, and the work will simply speak for itself as nothing more than a fine hand-forged blade.

I am at a very early point in my learning and I would like to continue on the path. There is so much to learn in terms of tradition, technique and technology. Even this short interview has given me a most important nudge to move out of my comfort zone to evolve and grow. “Most transcultural smith in the Philippines”? …I’m not sure I could be comfortable being called the “most” of anything.


ACJ: Do you view the future of artistic expression as purely ethnical, nationalistic or transcultural?

P.A.: Nationalistic comes to the fore whether it’s an ethnic work or more fusion and contemporary; Simple as my work may be, I think the fact that it is produced in the Philippines by a Filipino and is noticed speaks volumes already. I’m just a flag bearer and barker for enthusiasts to take a closer look at more talented Filipino bladesmiths than I; along with other metal smiths and carvers who just aren’t as well exposed as myself. The skill level we have here is amazing. It just needs to be harnessed into the right type of applications. But I think the baggage I carry makes it more natural for me to think and create in a “transcultural” way, purely ethnic work is also waiting to be created and I have a great desire to do that and to do it right, it just takes more conscious thought for me to work in those purer designs and traditions.


The conversation could have lasted for several more rounds, for Paolo Altomonte Abrera's replies are leads to more questions, leading to an interminable and most enjoyable dialogue. However, even in cyberspace, length exists, not distance.
The reader will judge the brilliance and intelligence so much in evidence in this man who produces for cable and network television and spends his spare time expressing himself in steel, with the utmost humbleness and, therefore, with the brilliance of the thinker-maker in very close Manila.

by Antonio Cejunior - BLADESIGN 2005

 

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