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Mountain Home Magazine

Knives Out

Apr 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By Ken Law

Across the bridge over the Susquehanna, and about a mile up a long hill in East Athens, Pennsylvania, a sculptor works in stone. The stone is not Carrera marble, but chalcedonies like agate, gemstones and volcanic glasses like jasper and obsidian in their many colors and hues, flint, agatized coral, even handmade glass. Stone and bone. Bone and antler. Horn, burl wood, dyed and stabilized hardwood, wild turkey legs, even deer jaws. His studio is not a spacious loft with abundant light, but a modest living room. His workbench a coffee table, his work seat a well-worn sofa. But put any one stone and any one organic together on that coffee table and in the hands and mind’s eye of a master, in time what will be produced will be a knife, a knife that’s durable, permanent, and sharp, a knife that’s elegant, cool, and, weirdly, kind of sexy.

The master is sixty-year-old Kevin Sorensen, and the work, the process, is called flintknapping, which has been around for a thousand years or more, and is what Native Americans used to make arrowheads, knives, and other tools. Kevin remains faithful and true to the spirit of the tradition, using the few basic tools Native Americans used through the ages and which would no doubt be recognizable to them today, though flintknappers now have the advantage of modern materials which keep tips sharper longer, and breakage to a minimum. The primary tool is the Ishi stick (of which Kevin uses three different lengths—it applies pressure to flake the material), as well and to lesser extents a notching tool, a grinding stone, and not much else. The agate, the jasper, the obsidian, the stone is slowly chinked and chiseled with the Ishi stick and notching tool in a process called pressure flaking, which looks simple but is deceptively complicated, involving varying amounts of precise pressure and angling, involving, at base, a touch that requires a lot of practice, a lot of mistakes, and a lot of time to achieve. The work is painstaking and slow, and not at all for one who suffers from impatience or is given easily to bouts of exasperation: chink, chisel, flick; chink, chisel, flick, little bits and chips at a time until eventually the blade reveals itself in the stone, or, to paraphrase Michelangelo, until all that’s not art is taken away.

As much time (and often more) is spent on the handles. This is sometimes dependent on the availability of extraneous materials like turquoise or scrimshaw (as well the receptivity of the material being worked), carefully inlaying the handles with the turquoise or scrimshaw, dressing them up so to speak, giving them a splash of panache, making them, well, sexy.

Kevin’s source for most bones and antlers is from local hunters, though on occasion when the need (or whim, or vision) arises he will order what might be termed “exotics” from elsewhere: antlers, bones, or horns from as far away as Alaska. His sources for stone are from rock and gem purveyors nationwide. He is a shrewd and thrifty shopper as the stuff is certainly not given away, and some of it is prohibitively expensive. Kevin buys moderately and wisely in order to keep his prices down and within reason—this for his customers, both the new ones and the repeat regulars. (Prices range from $80 to $100.)

Kevin has recently expanded his repertoire to include arrowhead necklaces, all made with the same care and craftsmanship, all elegant, cool, and, not weirdly, kind of sexy.

A lifer here in what’s called The Valley—Athens, Sayre, Waverly—Kevin has long had a fascination and interest in Native American culture, history, and life (discovering that his blood is 16 percent Native American might account for some of that), and owns a wealth of knowledge about such. He was first introduced to flintknapping at a powwow down in Trout Run some thirteen years ago where he became a bit mesmerized watching a flintknapper at work, and finally got up the nerve to ask if he could try his hand at it. And that was pretty much that: he was hooked. And hooked rightly and well, though it took three more years of practice and work to feel accomplished enough to try to peddle his wares. Which he does now, this at local shows (like this month’s Maple Fest in Troy), and powwows region-wide like the popular one in Forksville in June. Kevin qualifies the term “powwow,” saying that the term gaining preference now is Gathering, much as the term “tribe” has been mostly replaced by Nation, as in the aptly named big event in Coopers Plains, New York, each summer known as The Gathering of Nations. These Gatherings are free, and the public is welcomed, in fact encouraged, to come and learn more about local Native American culture, history, and lives once lived.

In the past ten years, Kevin has sold over 5,000 knives, and has knives now in the UK, Russia, Australia, and Canada. His extensive catalogue of knives and necklaces can be seen on his Facebook page, Stronghorse Flintknapping, and is worth a look if only to have the mind boggled a bit. Perhaps you’ll conclude, as this writer did driving home after first seeing him and his work: the guy is nuts. Nuts or not, the finished work is real and it’s there and probably for a long, long time, which is exactly what Kevin wants. He wants a legacy to leave his children, something tangible to remember their knife-making father by, and then a nod, a salute, to Native Americans, of lives once lived that not only endured but prevailed—quietly, peaceably, purposefully, sanely for centuries, a perpetuation.

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