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Madison art community remembers beloved blacksmith, Aaron Howard

Published: Oct. 19, 2021 at 12:45 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 19, 2021 at 7:20 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - The Madison art community is remembering a beloved blacksmith who was known for his big metal art and even bigger heart.

Blacksmith, artist, toolmaker, hot-rod enthusiast, and storyteller Aaron Howard, 43, died on September 20, 2021, of a heart attack while working on a project in Montana.

His wife and business partner Erika Koivunen said even if you never met him, you may have encountered some of his art in southern Wisconsin.

“He took the time that he had here on this Earth, and he used his head and his heart, and his hands and he used them, he used them up,” said Koivunen.

Aaron Howard's wife, Erika, displays photographs of her late husband inside their shared...
Aaron Howard's wife, Erika, displays photographs of her late husband inside their shared workshop.(Erin Sullivan WMTV)

Aaron had been managing a chronic heart failure diagnosis for several years, so Erika said news of his heart attack came as a tragic shock. His unexpected passing fell on the couple’s 13th wedding anniversary. “The last things that we said to each other is I love you honey,” said Koivunen.

Now she wants to focus on remembering him not only for his remarkable artwork, but for all he did for his community. “A lot of people leaned on him for his brilliant and kind nature. Me, especially,” said Koivunen.

Together the burly blacksmith from Stoughton and his welding-obsessed wife formed Acme Ironworks, a custom metal fabrication company based in Madison. Aaron, who started blacksmithing at just 14-years-old, specialized in architectural and ornamental metal artwork.

“Building things for people and having commissioned work just meant a lot to him,” said Koivunen, adding, “There was no stopping him. He didn’t have quit in him.”

Erika Koivunen welds at her bench for the first time since the passing of her husband, Aaron.
Erika Koivunen welds at her bench for the first time since the passing of her husband, Aaron.(Erin Sullivan WMTV)

Aaron Howard’s work includes:

  • Madison Children’s Museum
    • Hodge Podge Mahal: two-story climber
    • Stair Trek Zip, Zap, Zoom: five-story climber
    • Urb garden tree
    • Wonderground spiral staircase
  • Stoughton Veteran’s Memorial: entrance arch
  • CommuniTree on Williamson Street in Marquette Neighborhood
  • Cave of the Mounds
Stoughton Veteran’s Memorial entrance arch (left) and CommuniTree on Williamson Street in...
Stoughton Veteran’s Memorial entrance arch (left) and CommuniTree on Williamson Street in Marquette Neighborhood (right)(Erin Sullivan WMTV)

For more than a decade, the Madison Children’s Museum called on Aaron for numerous custom projects.

“You can see the kids squealing with delight every time they come to the museum and get to interact with one of the pieces that he’s made,” said Brenda Baker, the Director of Exhibits at the Madison Children’s Museum.

Hodge Podge Mahal (left), Zip, Zap, Zoom (middle) and Urb garden tree (right)
Hodge Podge Mahal (left), Zip, Zap, Zoom (middle) and Urb garden tree (right)(Erin Sullivan WMTV)

Baker said it wasn’t just his ability to mold massive pieces of metal into functional art that kept museum officials asking for more.

“Aaron was a giant and very gentle soul. He exuded confidence in everything he did and always, always delivered above and beyond what you could have imagined. Just a joy to work with in every way,” said Baker.

The last piece Aaron made for the museum is a spiral staircase in the outdoor Wonderground, which just recently opened to the public.

“I’m really proud that that was you know the final thing that he made. It feels like a really good ending,” said Koivunen.

Wonderground spiral staircase at the Madison Children's Museum
Wonderground spiral staircase at the Madison Children's Museum(Erin Sullivan WMTV)

Aaron’s staircase is adorned in metal butterflies, welded by Erika. To her, the butterfly design has become symbolic of “good spirit and freeness.”

This same butterfly design is what Erika asked renowned Wisconsin metal artist, Dr. Tom Evermor, to help her make when she was just starting to learn welding. Dr. Evermore, in turn, connected her with Aaron 17 years ago.

And in a beautiful twist of fate, that same butterfly design is what Erika made when she sat back down at the welding bench on Thursday, for the first time since Aaron’s death.

“I am really glad that I got on the welder today. He wouldn’t want me to stop you know,” said Koivunen.

A celebration of life for Aaron Howard will be held from 4-7 p.m. on Wednesday, October 20 at the Madison Children’s Museum. All are welcome to attend.

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