Jacob Powning is forging a unique path | NEXUS Magazine | Alumni | Faculty of Law | UNB

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Faculty of Law

Artistry to advocacy: Jacob Powning is forging a unique path

A renowned swordsmith, accomplished illustrator, and Beaverbrook scholar, Jacob Powning’s life has been a captivating blend of artistry and academic pursuit. He recently sat down with Nexus to share his remarkable journey as a professional artist and the intriguing path that led him to UNB Law.

Can you begin by telling us a bit about your background? Where did your interest in becoming an artist come from?

I grew up in a little village in rural New Brunswick. Both of my parents are artists, my father a sculptor and my mother a writer, so it was kind of the family business. I went to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design for a couple semesters and then just went straight into working as a professional artist. This work led me increasingly into academic work—writing and research. Eventually, I went to university and did a Philosophy degree and Master of Interdisciplinary Studies in Philosophy and History and then law school, where I am now.

What are the various artforms or media that you work in?

I've worked extensively in bronze casting, from very small pieces up to architectural size archways. I've also worked extensively in bas-relief wood carving and reconstructing ancient insular and Northern European wood carving styles. I've done significant work as a professional swordsmith—reconstructing swords from the Iron Age using traditional forging techniques. More recently, I've done quite a bit of illustration, watercolour and digital illustration including concept design for a video game.

I understand that most of your time as a professional artist was spent creating swords. What drew you to swordsmithing?

I guess it seemed like a good idea when I was a kid. I went to school in Vermont, and there was a forge there. It just seemed like the coolest thing—to heat up steel and hit it with a hammer. It just made sense [laughs].

Was there already an established community of swordsmiths? Or was it difficult to find other artists specializing in this craft?

I was fascinated and passionate about mythology and storytelling, and I ended up connecting with a fantastic community online, people that were trying to figure out how to reconstruct ancient European swords. I was kind of at the beginning of the movement. There were only three or four other people who were contemporary professional swordsmiths in the European tradition before me. I also met people in the American bladesmithing community who were doing knife making and trying to figure out how to reverse engineer some of the techniques involved in making Viking and Celtic swords. From there, I started to develop my body of work. I travelled to Scandinavia, Germany, Alaska, California, presenting my work at bladesmithing and blacksmithing conferences.

Can you walk me through your creative process of designing and building a sword?

It starts out with extensive research—going to museums and documenting swords. Using calipers, a pencil, and vellum, I would trace the exact outline of the blade, taking a series of measurements all along the blade to the hilt. It involves a lot of drafting—doing very detailed drawings and taking photographs.

What about the physical forging process?

For a couple projects, we smelted the steel from iron ore, which was what they did in the Iron Age. But mostly, I would take bars of prefabricated steel, stack them, heat them in a forge and hammer them together so they fuse. Then, fold it a bunch of times until you have 500 layers of steel and forge that into a blade. You are left with this beautiful wood grain pattern in the steel, which you can manipulate by adding extra bars. Then, you make the handle, which is called a hilt. I would usually cast the parts of the hilt in metal. I would carve them out of wax, make a mold, melt the wax out, and pour liquid bronze into the mold. When it hardens, you have this metal piece that might be very intricately carved. I would make a scabbard—a kind of sheath—out of wood and leather, and that would be carved and have metal fittings.

How long is this entire process?

Often, these pieces would take more than 700 hours of work to produce.

Incredible. Were you mostly making recreations of ancient swords, or were you also designing original works?

It was a mixture of the two. I did create a lot of my own work that was closely inspired by historical pieces, but what I was trying to do was create objects that people from a particular time period would have recognized as part of their material culture. As if the sword came from one of their dreams or it was a mythical object but from that time period. I did a lot of playing with the craft as a storytelling device to create a little artistic world.

Were the swords that you were creating specifically for clients?

Mostly, I didn't do commissions, but I did sell all of my work. I sold them all over the world. They went to China, Cyprus, and all over the United States, Europe, Britain and Canada.

Did you have any of your swords displayed in exhibitions?

Early in my career I had a piece displayed in a museum exhibition of international bladesmiths in Macao, China. At the very end of my career, I made a sword for an exhibition at The Deutsches Klingenmuseum, which is a sword Museum in Solingen, Germany. They purchased it, so it's in their permanent collection.

Are there any accomplishments that stick out most from your time as a professional artist?

I made some really amazing lifelong friends—other swordsmiths with really similar interests. Being so fascinated with ancient culture, probably just the opportunity of getting to go and actually handle an original artifact. I had the opportunity to document swords at the British Museum in London. I got to go and take 2,000-year-old artifacts out of the storeroom, hold them, measure them, trace them, and then go home and make a reconstruction of the swords. That was definitely one of the high points of my swordsmithing career.

Are your days of hammering steel over?

I did what I had set out to do. I spent a good chunk of time exploring and mastering the craft, and then I was ready to try something new. One of the interesting things about the work is it became more and more about doing research, which eventually led to university. A lot of this work is tedious—like sanding a piece of steel for 90 hours. I was doing this and listening to podcasts on philosophy, audio books of Oxford lectures on philosophy. I was ready to do something that was just more intellectual.

So, you were off to UNB for your Philosophy degree?

Well, actually, what happened first was I had gotten quite a large web following. I was well known within that little world of bladesmiths—well known enough that I had companies trying to copy my work and then use my name to sell knockoffs. I had to hire a lawyer to write a cease and desist to a Canadian company that was selling swords that were substantially similar to my work. I was doing a lot of writing at the time because writing was a big part of how I marketed myself. When I read the cease-and-desist letter, I thought, “this is an incredible piece of writing.”

So, the law school seed was planted?

It was just a little hint of something that I thought I might be able to do. Becoming a lawyer seemed like a fascinating job, and it kind of became the plan. I looked at what would be a good degree that would not only be interesting, but that would also be helpful with law. Philosophy, they often say, is good for doing the LSAT. It was a subject that I already found very interesting.

While your swordsmithing days may be over, I understand you are still involved in illustration?

Yes, it's something that I continue to do and enjoy. I've been drawing since I was a little kid, I never stopped. There's something really pleasurable about distilling what you see into a picture. I've been doing a lot of watercolor illustrations because I just love the combination of watercolor and ink. There's this kind of moody character that you can get.

Where do you find the inspiration for your illustration work?

For much of my illustrative work I find going for walks in the woods and seeing trees and the landscape really inspiring—just going outside. I enjoy other illustrators work, and I'm inspired by that. Allen Lee, for example, he's a one of the illustrators that was involved in the Lord of the Rings concept art for the films. He does these really beautiful pencil drawings and watercolor illustrations that I've always been really inspired by.

What is it that you find so interesting about studying the law?

I think law is just a really fascinating profession. You don't ever get to the end of it. There are always new things to learn; it's constantly evolving and changing. I'm really fascinated with how society reacts to changing circumstances, and the law is one of the fundamental ways that society regulates change.

You are currently a research assistant working with Dr. Argyri Panezi in the Legal Innovation Lab. Can you tell me a bit about this work?

We've been working on a report for the CIAJ Access to Justice Summit that Dr. Panezi’s Legal Innovation Lab co-hosted at the end of the summer. That’s a lot of writing and editing. I'm currently researching AI and copyright law and liability. I find that very interesting; it intersects with art. AI is now autonomously producing art where you can input a prompt, and it spits out a very human-like image in 30 seconds. It’s fascinating, and it has significant implications for copyright law.

You certainly bring a unique perspective to the AI debate. What do you see as the biggest issues as it relates to AI and art?

It's just not clear what happens when AI autonomously creates a substantially similar copy of an artist's work because it's not clear that AI can infringe. AI can't create original works because it's not a person, so there are a number of issues around how you assign liability in the case of an infringement. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an amazing tool that has the capacity to increase human creativity, provided that we develop a smart way of dealing with situations where AI might harm people. For example, infringing an original work and artists losing economic value. I don't know the answers, but I'm enjoying studying this emerging field of the law. I’m paying close attention.

I am wondering if there is a particular area of the law you find most interesting?

I'm interested in different areas of law, particularly private law. I find contract law really interesting because a contract is like a simulacrum of a human interaction. It's almost like a contract is its own little piece of art, where it imitates a human relationship. So, I find that really interesting, and I also find copyright law fascinating.

Do you see yourself specializing in an area of the law linked closely to artists and their work?

The process of litigating and writing arguments and interviewing witnesses in the context of having a theory of the case, I find all of that is a fascinating creative process in itself. So, I'm not necessarily going in the direction of art law. It's more that law is its own kind of art and craft that I'd like to master.