I didn’t plan on becoming an artist. In fact- I avoided it like the plague! Partly because I’m stubborn, but mostly because I hated art school.
I’ve always been creative- drawing, play-doh, you name it. But for the longest time, I thought I was going to be an author, like my mother, and write short stories. Not that I ever told her that! See above on being stubborn… *ahem*
But because I knew you didn’t just land a writing contract, I was going to do special effects for movies while I wrote my novel(s). And I figured if you were going to do special effects, you should know how to build sets and know quite a bit about chemistry. So I signed up to learn machining.
Despite years of drawing lessons, it was as simple as peering through a welding hood at the molten pool of a MIG welder to change my life forever. The glow of molten steel looks like the golden gleam of a dragon’s hoard. I was hooked. But I knew I didn’t want to weld I-beams and trailer hitches… Somehow art had to come into it. I needed a creative spark.
A quick search on Ask Jeeves told me that the North West Blacksmith’s Association Spring conference was being held the next weekend. I watched in awe as all the amazing smiths used power hammers, and turned ramrod straight lengths of steel into the most gorgeous pieces of sculpture I’d ever seen.
I was 15, and I was in love.
My mother listened to me ramble incoherently, looked at my notebook of sketches, and signed me up for a beginner’s smithing class.
I should note that at this point, I was also a complete and utter wuss. With a very low pain threshold. Whomever said we suffer for our art was absolutely right. I wound up with 27 blisters the first day, and my mother was convinced that I would throw in the towel.
… But the forging of steel is like discovering you have super powers. There’s an intoxicating adrenaline rush that overwhelms you as you watch the steel glow cherry red, and flow easily under your hammers, while the rhythmic ringing of steel echoes in your ears, and vibrates in the marrow of your bones.
It is quite literally one of the best experiences on earth.
Special effects were thrown out the window, and writing was completely forgotten, as I succumbed to the power of forging. My blisters turned in to calluses, and I worked on getting into a metalsmithing program at college, while teaching myself to forge copper and steel roses.
I had visions of fellow artists who dreamed in metal, and revealed the secrets of the craft in the haze of forge. Who shared in the joy of the ringing of the hammers, and who also couldn’t resist the siren song of steel.
I was sadly mistaken.
In amongst learning how to run a coal forge and to raise copper vessels, I listened to lectures on What Art Is. Along with impromptu discourses entitled “Your Work is Inferior because You Haven’t Spent Thirty Years Perfecting Your Craft”. There were also endless discussions on the deep meaning behind every hammer stroke. Which there are- don’t get me wrong. But when a sweet and joyous forged vessel sparks a discussion on the obvious self-loathing of the artist… I knew I was definitely in the wrong place.
So I left. And for many years, I rejected the title “artist” altogether. Becoming an Artist was anathema to me- I was a metalsmith, thank you very much. I got married, had children, and moved a few times. But I never lost my love of metal.
I actually fell into jewelry somewhat on accident. Running a large forge takes quite a bit of time to setup, warm up, and run, unfortunately. And at that point, I relegated my forging to nap time… which at 75 minutes just wasn’t long enough. The end result? I was rather desperate to forge anything out of metal.
I had taken a single jewelry class in college, and had hated every minute of it. The finicky precision was so far removed from the smooth and easy seduction of forging steel, that I could not for the life of me figure out why people made jewelry at all! Obviously, if every jeweler had tried forging, they’d never have made all those finicky rules in the first place.
But I had the basic tools… And they didn’t take up much space… So I forged silver instead. And I completely ignored all the rules they’d drilled into my head in that one jewelry class. Like “Thou must always forge silver when it is cold.” Rebel that I was, I blithely heated my silver with a torch, and forged it hot when it glowed cherry red. And it was soooo smooth, and beautiful, and I fell in love all over again.
I wasn’t working for anyone but me. So I decided I could forge silver any way that I wanted. The results were incredible- though I did burn the silver a few times. I used my massive blacksmithing tools on the silver, and taught myself what did and didn’t work…
I’d flip through the jewelry supply catalogs wondering why they needed so very many files… trying very hard to ignore the sparkly pages of gemstones. Because that would definitely need all those finicky rules. But my label for myself has somehow become metalsmith-jeweler.
Somehow I started making up setting designs. Just because, you know, I could. It was a ton of fun! I learned how to securely hold a stone, and how to incorporate a setting into an overall design… Then I started getting stopped in the street by random people asking about my jewelry…
But I didn’t tell anyone the real story of my jewelry. Because in my head, it wasn’t really jewelry. It looked like it- necklaces, pendants, sure. But in my head, each one was a tiny sculpture. Displayed on a living model, they had a secret mission to beautify the lives of the owner. But I still wasn’t calling myself an artist. Because Artists were snooty, and I didn’t want to be snooty.
But after awhile, people started asking about the names I used for my pieces. “Surely there’s a story behind that, Kaelin…” Well yes. There is. But no one knew the stories but me, and it was a little scary to tell other people.
But the goodwill of the people who buy my work is important to me, so I started sharing the stories… And I started getting messages from collectors telling me how much my work meant to them. It was an extremely humbling experience! And every single one of them said I was an Artist.
I resisted for awhile- most of a year, actually. By this point, I’d been forging metal for 17 years. I’d learned quite a few things about art that they neglected to mention in college.
Art is anything that evokes a response from the one who experiences it.
That’s it. The materials can be anything you want. Wood, socks, silver- anything. If it provokes a response, it is art.
As that is exactly what I’m trying to do with every piece I make… I am an Artist.
It’s taken me a very long time to admit that. Mostly because of my own stubbornness, mind you. But these days, I’m an artist. My media is metal accented with unique and unusual gemstones. And with every piece I make, I am working to make someone’s life more beautiful.