Advice on Being a Professional Jewelry Artist from Lesley McKeown
While many makers dream of turning their hobby into a career, it isn’t for everyone. Lesley McKeown, owner of Lesley Aine McKeown American Studio Art Jewelry, explains her own experience as a professional jewelry artist and the joys and difficulties associated with being a full-time artist.
Q: Can you please describe yourself and your work?
A: I was fortunate I was born into a family of artists. My earliest memories are of my mother painting, teaching art classes, cooking and gardening. I watched my father make jewelry at a bench in our family room. I remember sunlit afternoons picking beans and tomatoes in my grandmother’s garden, transforming this bounty into food. I was offered the beauty of color, smell, textures and shape. All around were the gestures of creativity.
A word about my work: It is of utmost importance that each piece is created with respect for natural aesthetics and the environment. I look to use recycled metals and fair trade stones. Each piece is created in my studio in the tradition of the American Studio Art Jewelry movement of the 1950 and 60’s which dictates the work is solely created in the artist’s studio. The result is a unique collection of jewelry for the people for who strive to be distinctive and authentic.
Q: Why do you do what you do?
A: I have to, I’m a maker. Whether I’m making jewelry, gardening, cooking, painting or welding I am making something.
Q: What would you consider your specialty as far as your process goes?
A: My designs, I really enjoy the challenge of a complicated design. That for me often means the final product appears simple but the construction was a challenge. I think my customers are drawn to the unique nature of my work.
Q: Can you please describe a real life experience that inspired you?
A: I was blessed to be born to two professional artists and they taught me to see and think. I was given choices and opportunities that opened my mind to the creative process. They are my inspiration.
Q: What is your favorite part of your work and why?
A: Making it! I crave the process of problem solving, the technical aspect. I love conceiving a piece and then working through the design. Also, thinking outside the box to accomplish the form and function and finding new ways to accomplish basic construction elements. I love every aspect of making my jewelry (well maybe not buffing, but who does?) looking for materials, learning new techniques, the aesthetics, the beauty of seeing a design manifest. I am also a rock hound. I really enjoy finding unusual material. Over the years, I have developed friendships with the artists that I buy stones from and I cherish that.
Q: What part of your job as a jewelry artist is your least favorite and why?
A: Selling. I am not an extroverted person, I would rather just stay in the studio and work but over the years, I have taught myself to be a sales person. I only do wholesale so for most of my career I have had a sales Rep but during the past 10 years I have been doing wholesale buyer shows and this gets me more involved in selling my work.
Q: What does failure mean to you?
A: Not creating anymore, that for me would be catastrophic.
Q: Can you please describe what success means to you?
A: Continuing to do what I love and get paid for it. Seeing the light come on when someone sees my work, even if they don’t buy it but simply admire it and are moved by it.
Q: What is something we may not know about you?
A: I am passionate about educating people to the importance of art in society. I believe that it is a responsibility to teach art appreciation. The greatest societies in the world are those that aspire and support art.
Q: What is the best piece of advice someone has ever given you? This does not have to be work related.
A: Be mindful of power tools. I have a healthy respect for my power operated tools.
Q: What career project do you consider your biggest accomplishment to date?
A: After nearly 32 years of making jewelry, I am still in awe that people will buy it. I am humbled. This to me is a true accomplishment. And peer recognition, a good critique from another jeweler is better than anything!
Q: Can you please name one key thing you do every workday that helps you be successful?
A: I work every day. Even if I’m just cruising Pinterest, I am thinking about new designs. Most of the time I am just trying to keep up with orders, but when I do have free time some part of my day is dedicated to making jewelry.
Q: What were some of the unexpected hurdles in your career as a jewelry artist?
A: You know this is probably the hardest question. I am very pragmatic person and I tend to anticipate problems. Mostly because I don’t like surprises! So hurdles even those unexpected are simply opportunities to learn.
Q: What were some of the unexpected benefits in your career as jewelry artist?
A: You can make your own jewelry! Great perk! I have enjoyed a wonderful life of doing what I want and getting paid to do it! It does not get any better that that!
Q: What valuable piece of advice can you give to our readers that are aspiring to make a living off their jewelry making?
A: That’s easy, treat it like a job. Go to work every day. Unlike a regular job, you need to be extra-disciplined. It’s a business so you need to learn all skills you will need to operate a business. Marketing, money management, product development, cost analysis. These skills will make the difference between being a part time jeweler and a professional one. I know it sounds daunting but it’s understanding not only how to make a piece of jewelry but how much it cost to make, who wants to buy it, how are you going to get it to the buyer and all the little steps in between are the most important things you can do to be successful.
Finally, if you are going the wholesale route understand the needs from your buyers stand point. Anticipate their needs, be punctual filling orders, be confident and professional. It takes years to develop good accounts, treat each with the personal attention you would wish to receive.
Q: Is there anything you would like to add?
A: Being a professional artist is not an easy road but with hard work and attention to detail, it can be a very rewarding. Most of all do what makes your heart sing…you can never go wrong.
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