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A Sharp Mind


By Wendy Soderburg '82

Published Jul 1, 2016 8:00 AM

This UCLA psychiatrist refines more than academic skills in his free time.

Psychiatrist Joseph Pierre in Tengu Forge. Photo by Elijah Hurwitz.

In the garage of Joseph Pierre M.D. ’96 is a forge. That’s right, a forge.

Pierre, a psychiatrist who specializes in treating psychosis at the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center, uses his garage as a workshop — for making Japanese knives.

Named “Tengu Forge” after the mythical Japanese creatures that are half-bird, half-human, Pierre’s workshop is where he creates unique, handcrafted knives of high-carbon steel, wood and water buffalo horn. It takes him from one to several months to complete a knife, depending on the amount of precious spare time he has. Friends — and strangers who contact him through his Facebook page — commission him to make knives for them.

“I have more knives than I know what to do with,” says Pierre, who collects both knives and swords. “My family likes to joke that there’s at least one knife in every room of the house.”

The doctor’s self-described obsession with knives and swords comes from his background in the martial arts, particularly Shinkendo, the study and practice of Japanese swordsmanship. He is the sole instructor for UCLA’s Shinkendo Club, whose members learn the traditional and spiritual aspects of swordsmanship.

“We don’t use live swords at UCLA because we’re not allowed to, so we use wooden swords in practice,” Pierre says. “But outside of UCLA, anyone who practices Shinkendo uses shinken, or live swords. Those are usually used for forms, or kata, but also to do tameshigiri, the cutting of straw mats. Tameshigiri is a way of testing whether or not your form is proper.”

Stephen Lai, a fourth-year microbiology major and a member of the UCLA Shinkendo Club, says, “What I like best about Dr. Pierre’s class is that he is able to analyze a technique, pick it apart and not only point out areas that could be improved, but also give suggestions for how to do so.”

Yet although Pierre enjoys teaching, it is knife-making that centers him and helps him focus. “People ask me, why do you care about knives?” the psychiatrist says. “Well, to me, knives are interesting because they’re literally one of the oldest tools of man. I like that, as an art object, they’re the ultimate blend of form and function.”