She’s been creative from an early age. “There’s the really early mud pie phase, but my first efforts at actually making something would be when I was about six or seven and my grandmother taught me to sew on her Singer treadle sewing machine. Not sure how I reached the treadle, but I’ve been sewing ever since. I was hell bent on becoming a fashion designer. Now I’m relieved that never happened and I still enjoy making my own clothes.”
She continued, “I was pushing 40 when I began making and selling my jewellery. Before that, my resume reads like a novella. I worked in clothing retail, was a department store buyer at 19 and assistant manager of a mall store boutique at 21, then moved on to more clerical work, working in offices, then banks and real estate lending. My favourite job title was File Librarian for the Medicaid Billing System for the State of Florida … talk about a paper pusher! I’m a firm believer it’s never too late to discover and follow your bliss.”
Kathy considers herself to be a designer/maker rather than a jeweller. She lives in Gainesville, Florida with her husband. “Dave and I will have been married for 36 years in July 2016. We currently share our home with one senior citizen kitty, 18 year old Miss Zoe. Last year we bought a classic mid-century, concrete block and terrazzo floors ‘atomic ranch’. It’s an east/west orientation and has the most wonderful morning and afternoon light, perfect for leisurely mornings sipping tea and reading the NY Times.”
Her work is so unique, I asked her what her main influences are. “It kind of depends on what I’m making. My more minimal CORE body of work tends to be inspired by patterns in nature and clothing. Repetition of form is a regular theme in my work. How many ways can I use just one element? And in clothing, I’m kind of obsessed with a whole genre of European and Japanese designers whose work is raw and somewhat avant-garde.”
“I get a regular dose of inspirational juice via the designers I follow on Instagram and Pinterest like Jaga Buyan (http://www.jagabuyan.com/), Kapital (http://kapital.jp/, Yohji Yamamoto (http://www.yohjiyamamoto.co.jp/en/), Marc le Bihan (http://www.marc-lebihan.com/), Avant Toi (http://www.avant-toi.it/), Rundholz (http://www.studiorundholz.com/).”
“My Urban Primitive work is inspired by the ornament of ancient cultures of the South Pacific, Oceania and South America as well as Japanese folk potters. And for general visual juice, the NY Times Style magazine and the Wall Street Journal monthly magazine always have at least one little inspiring bit of something.” I asked Kathy which of her pieces she feels reflect these influences best. “My ‘Stacked Cubes’ necklace is an excellent example of the clothing/repetition inspirations and ‘Aegean Muse’ very much speaks to the Oceania/tribal influences.”
Like many of her contemporaries, Kathy first heard about metal clay in the article in Ornament Magazine in the 1990’s. “I can honestly say that article changed my life,” she explained. “It was about the first group of makers with Tim McCreight at the helm, set up for a week or so by Mitsubishi at Haystack School in Maine.
Coming from a clay and pottery background and having no real interest in traditional metalsmithing or fabrication, it was literally a dream come true.” “My clay background was immensely helpful – no fear of kilns! Late ’97, I bought a 100 gram lump of original PMC, hauled out my clay tools and dove in with a tiny clay test kiln with manual controls that I rigged up with a digital pyrometer. I had to watch the temperature and dial down the controls until I could get it to hold at 1650 for the 2 hours. Tedious, but that was long before there were any small, affordable digital kilns. I think the first things I made were some dangly bits for earrings and beaded necklaces.”
“These are what I think of as my fancy, ‘look at what I can do’ show pieces. Each new version of metal clay allowed an expansion of techniques and experiments which led to my jewellery getting more and more elaborate as in my ‘Vertebrae’ collar.” This is PMC3 and white beach glass fumed by the silver, recycled glass beads wrapped with PMC3 strips, and the pendant is beach glass and glass frit. It’s all lashed together with linen.”
The nature of Kathy’s work is pretty organic so I was interested in how much planning goes into each piece. “I sketch a bit, but not much. I’m more likely to write descriptions of ideas with very rough sketches. In addition to bigger focal elements, I like to make a whole bunch of components, lots and lots of the same element. My CORE group of work is all about repetition of form and it’s always a joy to sit at my worktable working out all the ways an element can be used.”
“For the Urban Primitive pieces, I sit down to my worktable, see where my gaze lands and start pulling out gems and artifacts and bits and bobs. It feels very much like composing through improvisation. I assemble my palette and let intuition guide me. The completed piece is always a delightful surprise.”
As such a lover of metal clay, I asked Kathy if she used any other techniques in her work. “I do utilize some silver smithing skills, mostly very simple soldering with a butane torch and easy solder paste,” she explained. “I make all my own findings, ear wires and clasps. My variation on the “S” hook is forged and soldered. And cord, golly do I love making cord. I’ve taught myself how to ply cord into various thicknesses in lengths up to 6’ or 8’ and, via YouTube, how to braid 3 and 5 loop cords. The loop braided cords are time consuming and the length is limited by my arm span, not much as I’m 5’2”, but they are complex and lovely and a nice complement to my more minimal pieces. The cords in combination with hand cut leather and stitching provide a beautiful, earthy element to the work.”
I asked Kathy if she had a particular piece of work that really means something to her. “I remember the first big piece I sold. It was called ‘Le Monde’. It was a statement piece of graduated, highly textured original PMC beads alternating with artisan lampwork glass Basha beads by Barbara Metzger and Rory Ross’ raku beads. I was at a really teeny local craft show and had the piece with me, basically for show. A couple I knew, well known collectors and art patrons, wanted to buy it. I was stunned. ‘How much was it?’ Uhhhh, $800? SOLD! I packaged the piece up, sent the lovely couple on their way and then promptly burst into tears. I felt like I had truly arrived.”
I asked Kathy to tell me a bit more about where she sells her work. “At first, I sold my jewellery at juried craft fairs and wholesale to small galleries and women’s boutiques,” she explained. “In ’06 I designed a lovely little wholesale collection and connected with a team of sales reps. Through what was then the Gift Show circuit, they got my work into museum stores like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Seattle Art Museum and high-end craft galleries like Real Mother Goose in Portland, OR and the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite.
I’m really proud of the fact that at one point I had close to 50 wholesale accounts, all done by me, all fine silver PMC. I supported our family and put my husband through his first librarian certificate degree with my jewellery. These days, I have a couple of galleries that I still work with, but now I sell my work mostly through my own website.”
Images: “Landscape Rings” and “Landscape trio 3” by Kathy Van Kleeck
I asked Kathy what she is currently working on. “Interesting thing, this question and it’s got me quite gummed up. I’ve been developing a new group of jewellery with the working moniker of Bare Bones, looking to the ornament of very primitive cultures for inspiration and how to loosen up my already minimal work, make things less pristine. I’m exploring how I can further deconstruct what I do, make it less refined, almost crude, but still wearable and durable. I thought I was moving right along on this recent track, but deciding on an image to share stopped me dead. I have a feeling there’s going to be a lot of tweaking, more exploration and revisiting some themes of past work.”
“Whatever I do next, it will be the most authentic expression of my aesthetic to date and since it’s all still very much in my head, I don’t have any images to share. As of right this moment, the ideas feel very fresh and exciting, making me want to step immediately away from this keyboard and get to work!”
She went on, “PMC3 remains my favourite metal clay as it allows me to work very dry, folding and layering components till they barely hold together. To a lesser degree, I also use BronzClay and Hadar’s Steel. I’d like to do some larger, focal pieces in combination with other mediums. Right now, concrete is calling to me and maybe fused glass or eco resin or some combination of all of the above mediums and metal clays. A lot of what I do is pretty minimal and rustic. I want to go even further with that, in the vein of “art brut”, create work that is raw, but full of heart and life, work that is stripped to the absolute and essential core, but fully resolved and engaging.”
She finds inspiration in science fiction and fantasy and loves a good story where disbelief can be suspended in favour of wonder. Her practical and ultra-organised side is always vying for attention alongside her creative and messy side. Each is trying hard to learn from the other and live in harmony.