Betsy Lehndorff, Jewelry Artist, Interviews Herself — and You
As a journalist, I have interviewed thousands of people during my career. And when it comes to jewelry artists and other people in the jewelry industry, one question I often ask is how they got to where they got to.
However, there is one person out of these thousands that I have never interviewed. And that person is me. Since I am indulging myself here, I’ve also left blanks where you can answer the same questions – especially if you are in the middle of a repetitive jewelry project and would like to daydream a bit about where you are as a jewelry artist, how you got there, and where you want to be. Then send me your answers or share in the comments below.
Question to Self (QTS): How did you get to where you are?
Me: Gosh. That’s a broad question. Can you narrow it down a little?
Your answer here: ___________________________ (take all the space you need.)
QTS: OK. When did you know you had it made?
Me: I’ve never had it made. Every day is a new challenge. Every day I want to challenge myself all over again, learn a new technique, push myself harder. Or take a nap.
QTS: Gosh, you’re hard to interview.
Me: Well. Ask better questions.
QTS: (remember this means Question to Self) OK. There must have been a point at which you wanted to quit.
Me: Yeah. In the summer of 2014, I was responsible for filling six cases of jewelry and I had 75 days to build 50 pieces. At the time, I cut and fabricated everything by hand and I found myself working 12 hours days in 85-degree heat in my studio. When I divided my hours by the amount of money I was pricing my jewelry at, I discovered I was making a whopping 28 cents an hour.
QTS: Did you learn something from that?
Me: Yeah. Two things. That I had to stop judging my work under this kind of pressure. Everything I made was good enough. And by suspending that self-criticism, my creativity went into overdrive. It really produced for me as if it was its own creature.
QTS: How long have you been making jewelry?
Me: Around 2007, 2008.The newspaper I was working for transferred me from the home and garden beat to the homicide beat, and I lasted about six months. Then my mother died and left me some money. It was a perfect time to quit a horrible job and learn a new skill during the recession.
QTS: What was the first project that you made as a jewelry artist?
Me: I don’t remember. I did a lot of beading and went to gem shows, waiting for a silversmithing class to start at a local school. I think I made a ring. But after completing that six-week class, I still didn’t know how to silversmith and didn’t have enough money to continue. The classes were very expensive and I was also going through a divorce at the time.
QTS: I sense you got a break somewhere in here.
Me: Yeah. I found very cheap classes as a local recreation center and the director, Bill Whitehead, took me on as a teaching assistant, even though I had little experience. (God bless him.) I also got a job at a bead shop for $10 an hour. So, two lucky breaks. I also practiced silversmithing in the kitchen of my apartment, using the hood of the stove to vent fumes. I practiced 8 hours a day. Soon I got ahold of some silversmithing DVDs from my local rock club that had been done by a high school silversmithing teacher. The key thing was that he kept dropping everything on the floor – tools, metal, solder. So that made me feel I was on the right track.
QTS: What is the best . . .
Me: Oh wait. There were some other terrific breaks. Writing for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist. And winning two professional development grants from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. Grants take a lot of time to write, and the follow up reports are challenging. But I received somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,000 to pay for air travel and classes with Kate Wolf and Don Friedlich, and really developed a grasp of high-tech methods of jewelry making.
QTS: What is the best piece you’ve made so far?
Me: It’s a necklace of creepy crawly spiders on leaves of grass, studded with pearls. Some of the pearls also dangle, so the necklace moves when you wear it. Using high-tech scanning and printing, I also made a pendant of nine cats in nine different sizes from a wax model I carved in Kate Wolf’s class.
QTS: Yuck! Who would want to wear spiders?
Me: Me. Besides, it was fun. It’s sort of an exhibition piece. I showed it at the Muskegon Museum and at the Ann Arbor Art Fair. The wife of a Detroit pawn shop TV celebrity tried it on and loved it, until she realized it was spiders. I’ve since revised it and it is now for sale in a wildlife gallery in Grayling. MI.
QTS: How do you sell your work?
Me: I am in two art galleries on consignment. I don’t want to spend the time buying all the stuff you need to do outdoor art shows, then schlepping it all around and having a storm come up and blow it all to smithereens. I really would rather run my business than have it run me. Especially since I write a lot. I also do occasional custom work through my website.
QTS: What’s next for you?
Me: Luckily, it’s so easy for me to think up ideas. I can always edit them down, but for example, I’d like to do five necklaces demonstrating a high-tech process each. Maybe I will do that and then try to find a gallery willing to show them. One involves making creepy crawlies and then concealing them with really black paint so you can’t see them. Another necklace involves ants, including some of my sterling silver ants photographed and reproduced on tiny lenticular screens to look like they are marching in a line.
QTS: How much do you make?
Me: I always ask people that question and they don’t like to answer. So it’s only fair that you ask. Here’s the truth: I get social security as a widow, and a small pension, and reside in an area where the cost of living is very low. I then earn an extra $10,000 to $12,000 a year making jewelry, teaching, and writing. BUT – I net only about $5,000 of this, because my revenues as a jewelry artist go toward paying for supplies, travel, and other expenses of running a small business. That’s an awful profit margin. But it gives me a worthwhile career, something to think about. People to talk to. And making jewelry for people is a service. I get the chance to delight them with something beautiful or quirky.
QTS: Any advice?
Me: Make what you love, as little or as much as you want. But develop a cohesive style if you want to seriously sell your work. Otherwise, have fun.
Betsy Lehndorff has been writing for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 2010. You can reach her at email@example.com.