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Chris A. Weber

Stephen Shepherd (Tom Altany photo)

Forging a Path

Exchanging a suit and tie for a hammer and anvil

Standing at a pay phone outside the headquarters of the Washington, D.C., nonprofit where he works, Stephen Shepherd (CAS ’92) decides he’s had enough.

A government lobbyist and fundraiser, Shepherd, barely 30, works the rooms at Senate hearings and embassy parties and writes speeches for Capitol insiders. But as he calls to inform his wife, Cathy, of his decision, none of that matters. On this frigid November afternoon, Shepherd has taken inventory of his life and knows it’s time to take a risk.

The next day, Shepherd discussed his unconventional career idea with his family. “When I told them I wanted to be a blacksmith, I was amazed at how well they took it,” he says now, six years later.

Bolstered by their support and his burgeoning desire to “move metal,” Shepherd launched Gilgamesh Forge, a Pittsburgh-based business specializing in custom metalcraft. His interest in blacksmithing emerged from his frustration with the tools of another trade. While working in Washington, D.C., Shepherd spent time on the weekends carving wood in his garage. Unable to find quality chisels for his hobby, he decided to learn how to make his own. He eventually discovered the Blacksmiths’ Guild of the Potomac and began spending his weekends at the guild’s forge in Arlington, Va. Shepherd quickly discovered that metal, not wood, stoked his creative fires.

“I swear, this is what I was built to do,” says Shepherd, his arms thickened by years of pounding his imagination into iron and steel. Pausing with hammer in hand over the 170-year-old anvil he’s now using to shape a grapevine stair rail, he adds, “There aren’t many people this fortunate.”

Since first opening his forge, Shepherd has migrated from his father’s garage in Fairfax, Va., to his own 3,000-square-foot smithy in a refurbished warehouse in Sharpsburg, Pa., just across the Allegheny River from Pitt’s own collection of ironwork, courtesy of the legendary iron artisan Samuel Yellin.

“He’s one of the greatest of all time,” says Shepherd. “As an undergrad, I was oblivious to the masterpieces right there in the Cathedral of Learning, the Stephen Foster Memorial, and Heinz Chapel. Now, I drive there often to study his work. It’s like being a stone sculptor working 15 minutes away from Michelangelo’s David.”

For Shepherd, whose creations have graced Georgetown neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., as well as Pittsburgh’s Mexican War Streets and the Gulf Tower downtown, gone are the suits and ties, replaced by overalls, safety goggles, and, on this day, a faded black concert T-shirt featuring Roger Daltrey (a former sheet metal worker) and The Who.

“Who are you?” sings Daltrey in the chorus of one of the British rock band’s best-known songs.

For Shepherd, hammer ringing on glowing iron, the answer is clear.

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