Artist Profile-Kathy Van Kleeck by Julia Rai

Kathy Van Kleeck“I was born and raised in Florida, a very suburban, milquetoast, upbringing,” Kathy says. “Considering that upbringing, I find my aesthetic a miraculous transformation and am deeply grateful that I somehow managed to transcend suburbia,” she smiles. “I call my style of jewellery Urban Primitive. It took years to get that dialed in, but I think it perfectly describes my work.”

6, moon goddess kathy van kleeckImage: “Moon Goddess” by Kathy Van Kleeck. Fine silver PMC3 and BronzClay, hand-hewn lapis lazuli nuggets, artisan lampwork glass by Barbara Metzger on leather cord. Metal clays were oxidized straight out of the kiln and not polished or tumbled.

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.”

3,stacked cubes kathy van kleeckImage: “Stacked Cubes” by Kathy Van Kleeck. Hadar’s low shrinkage steel and BronzClay on hand-plied linen cord with fossilized bone fragments.
4, aegean muse kathy van kleeck
Image: “Aegean Muse” by Kathy Van Kleeck. Fine silver PMC3 with assorted gems and artifacts.

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.”

1, first metal clay earrings kathy van kleeck 2,mixed beaded necklace kathy van kleeckImages: First metal clay earrings and mixed beaded necklace by Kathy Van Kleeck.
She went on, “I was a founding member of the PMC Guild, got my PMC Certification soon after it began and used to teach quite a bit. I was the first person to teach metal clay workshops at the John C Campbell Folk School in NC as well as the long running ArtFest retreat in WA.”

“I loved sharing the excitement of my beloved metal clay. It was like being a wizard and sharing alchemical secrets. My interest in teaching waned once all the different types of certification started happening and metal clay began to catch on. It was becoming too competitive and I turned to the quiet of my studio and being a maker. I’m often asked if I teach and still think about diving back in. I’m just not sure what I could share that would be new or inspiring. I’d love to hear any feedback or ideas your readers might have.”

She continued, “My way of working with metal clay is decidedly different from most of what I see online in the forums and in publications. In the earliest days, I dove into testing the limits of metal clay using the techniques of my handbuilding clay background. I created elaborate constructs, like the ‘Scabbard Pendant’ made from fine silver PMC+ and 24k gold; holes in the lid are the result of diamonds burning up in the kiln. I found out about a week later that diamonds start to burn up around 1250F. What I initially perceived as a disaster worked out nicely as it allows a peep into the locket!”

8a, scabbard pendant kathy van kleeck 8b, scabbard pendant detail kathy van kleeckImage “Scabbard Pendant” by Kathy Van Kleeck
“A few years later I made my ‘Fairy Box’ made using PMC3 with a white beach glass knob and glass frit accents. The silver fumes the white glass, turning it amber in the firing.”

9, fairy box kathy van kleeckImage: “Fairy Box” by Kathy Van Kleeck

“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.”

10, glass vertebrae kathy van kleeckImage: “Glass Vertebrae” by Kathy Van Kleeck
“Then I reached what felt like maximum capacity in my work. I had begun to see things that I wanted to translate into my jewellery, especially difficult since a great source of inspiration was world music videos. I mean really, how would I go about translating the feeling I got from those videos into jewellery? But those videos had a look and feel that I wanted in my work. Two in particular, Juno Reactor’s ‘God is God’ (https://youtu.be/v8LY2VgiikE) and Gjallarhorn’s ‘Suvetar’ (https://youtu.be/-e_7C99bOgU) were pivotal in helping me identify the style I was aiming for.”

“In August of ’05, with family visiting, I was out of the studio for several weeks. When I went back to work, something clicked and everything changed. Layers of complexity were peeled back and I started making components that were as minimal as possible, which led to my signature piece, ‘Coin Necklace’ using PMC3 and silk cord.”

11, coin necklace  kathy van kleeckImage: “Coin Necklace” by Kathy Van Kleeck
12, rustic portal kathy van kleeck“I wanted to celebrate the clay, not hide it. I wanted someone to look at a piece and see my fingerprints, the edges that had been nudged and smushed, the smeared openings where the clay had been pierced. I wanted them to look at the piece and know it was different, created in the magical, alchemical way of metal clay. This ‘rustic portal’ component sums up everything I love about metal clay. “

I asked Kathy about her creative space. “My studio is in my home,” she began. “I work at all hours and whenever inspiration strikes which would make having an outside studio less than ideal. I tend to be a neat freak when I’m not working. But in the midst of creating a new piece or series my worktable can look like an explosion went off. I’m in my studio most week days. I start off with my mondo mug of PG Tips, getting caught up on emails and a bit of social media and then try to be working by 10. I’ll work until it’s time to start dinner, usually around 5. I try to take weekends off with my husband, but if I’ve got a big order or a show in the queue, I’ve been known to work 12 or 14 hours a day for the duration until I’m done.”

5, worktable kathy van kleeckImage: My 8’ long worktable, scavenged from an old elementary school where I rented studio space in 1994

13, thoughts made real kathy van kleeck

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.”

7, le monde kathy van kleeckImage: “Le Monde” by Kathy Van Kleeck

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.”
landscape rings kathy van kleeck
landscape trio 3 kathy van kleeckImages: “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.”

ruby landscape ring kathy van kleeckImage: “Ruby Landscape Ring” by Kathy Van Kleeck. Sterling PMC, patina is straight out of the kiln and a result of how it was situated in the charcoal. The intention is for the ring to develop a “personal patina” as the ring is worn over time, polishing is not encouraged.
Finally I asked her where she sees her work going in the next five years or so. “I’ve gotten to the point where I no longer set long range goals. Through my 20 + years of making jewellery, lots of goals and aspirations have come and gone, many have been met, others have lost their significance or priority. An example, for years I was a huge fan of Ornament Magazine and had visions of being on the cover. But a few years ago that shifted, I gave away my huge magazine archive, dropped my subscription and now rarely buy the magazine.”

“Ultimately, I will always be a maker, working with my hands and creating, staying open to new things and new avenues of expression. I hope that whatever I make, along with the intentions of love and respect I put into everything I do, will be well received. I’m enormously grateful that my maker’s journey continues, no end in sight.”

To see more of Kathy’s work, visit her website http://www.kathyvankleeck.com/

12347681_10154340055124045_4667653997826735386_nInterview Author: JULIA RAI is a teacher, writer and artist working in a variety of media. She is the director of the Metal Clay Academy and runs the Cornwall School of Art, Craft and Jewellery.

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.

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