Enamels, Found Objects, Stones & More: Anything Goes in Kirsten Denbow’s Jewelry

Like so many of us, jewelry artist Kirsten Denbow at first thought she would become something else. Then she discovered her true calling. “I was enrolled at the University of Michigan School of Art and Design’s Industrial Design program because I thought I wanted to make furniture,” she tells us. “It turned out that the ID program wasn’t the best fit for me. I was simultaneously taking Metalwork and Jewelry Design and found that making jewelry spoke to me, so I switched concentrations. I’ve never looked back.”

ABOVE: Framed art — Kirsten Denbow created this Asian-inspired pendant with graphite drawing on enamel on copper, and fused Argentium Sterling Silver. It now appears in the collection 10 Sensational Silver Jewelry Making Projects, and appeared in the special publication How to Enamel Jewelry; photo: Jim Lawson

She continued learning about making jewelry, receiving “my BFA in 1997 and my MA in 2001. After that my education continued with various workshops and self-discovery,” she told me. I wanted to learn more about her journey into jewelry and self-discovery, and asked her to elaborate. Here are my questions and her answers to them.

How long have you been making jewelry, and what else have you been doing in between?
Kirsten Denbow

Kirsten Denbow, wearing one of her enameled neckpieces; photo courtesy of the artist

Kirsten Denbow: My first jewelry class at U of M was in 1993. I’ve been making jewelry fairly consistently since then, except for a few years here and there when I did not have a studio. In those years, I drew, painted, sewed, crafted . . . whatever I could get my hands on and had space to do. I’ve also been an art educator since 2002. I spent four years in museum education and seven in public schools.

That’s a lot of teaching. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned from a student?

KD: I love teaching and the balance it gives my life and studio work. The most interesting thing I’ve learned from a student is that you are never too old or experienced to learn something new. It just requires an open mind.

What are your favorite materials and techniques, and what about them attracts you?
Lucky Bird pin, with enamel, copper, found bird and horseshoe, copper, enamel; photo: Randy Parietti

Lucky Bird pin, with enamel, copper, found bird and horseshoe, copper, enamel; photo: Randy Parietti

KD: My favorite materials and techniques right now are found objects and enamel. I have always adored found objects. They tell a story of a life outside of objects that I can make. I embrace Americana, nostalgia, and kitsch, and look for items that reflect this. Enamel is a fabulous material because of its amazing ability and flexibility. I can use a wide variety of techniques — decals, paints, etching, champlevé, cloisonné, liquids, and sgraffito — to achieve the look I desire for any given project.

Which do you prefer to avoid and why?
When Kirsten does use a pricey material like gold, it’s often just a splash. Pendant/brooch, enamel on copper with 24K gold leaf, set in silver with labradorite and black onyx, flower casting and 14K gold ball accents; sterling for the setting and Argentium sterling for the chain and balled wires (affiliate link). Photo: Cole Rodger

When Kirsten does use a pricey material like gold, it’s often just a splash. Pendant/brooch, enamel on copper with 24K gold leaf, set in silver with labradorite and black onyx, flower casting and 14K gold ball accents; sterling for the setting and Argentium sterling for the chain and balled wires. Photo: Cole Rodger

KD: I tend to avoid materials that have a high market value, such as gold and diamonds. I prefer to tell my stories with inexpensive materials and let the value come from the process, concept, and artistic value.

What themes interest you? I see a lot of planes and winged insects in your work. What’s behind the focus on flight?

KD: There are a variety of themes that interest me. Remembering/honoring the past is an overarching theme in my work as is celebrating juxtapositions. Homage to the Disappearing Bee and Amelia are both pieces that pay homage to a particular being.

Disappearing Bee necklace, enamel on copper, Argentium sterling silver; photo: Randy Parietti

Disappearing Bee necklace, enamel on copper, Argentium sterling silver; photo: Randy Parietti

The bee piece was in response to the documentary Vanishing of the Bees. It was made to start discussions on the environment and draw attention to our declining bee populations. I created “Amelia” in honor of Amelia Earhart and her accomplishments. I wanted to celebrate historic women and their contributions to modern society. The Amelia piece is just the first in a series.

Amelia necklace, Argentium sterling silver, traditional sterling silver, enamel; photo: Randy Parietti

Amelia necklace, Argentium sterling silver, traditional sterling silver, enamel; photo: Randy Parietti

The fact that these pieces are connected by flight imagery is purely coincidental. But, who isn’t drawn to the idea of taking flight? Maybe it is a subconscious interest!

What about the starting gun pin?
Bang! pin, cloissoné enamel on copper, nickel; photo: Randy Parietti

Bang! pin, cloissoné enamel on copper, nickel; photo: Randy Parietti

KD: A novelty toy gun with the classic flag, “Bang!” is a celebration of juxtapositions and my love of kitsch, and a humorous look at the past. The best part about being a kid in the ‘70s and ‘80s was the Saturday morning cartoons, where the gag pistol was a common comedic device. This piece time-consumingly re-creates a silly toy in [labor-intensive] cloisonné enamel in a hand-sawn scalloped setting.

What other craftwork do you do, and how does it relate to your jewelry making?
Two Yucca pendant, enamel on copper, sterling silver, chalcedony, jade, 14K gold; photo: Randy Parietti

Two Yucca pendant, enamel on copper, sterling silver, chalcedony, jade, 14K gold; photo: Randy Parietti

KD: I am an encaustic painter. I love to sew and knit. I’ve done woodworking, glass blowing, ceramics, printmaking, welding . . . if there is a material out there, I’ve probably tried it. I frequently bring my other experiences into my jewelry work. I have never thought that jewelry needed to be strictly metal or any other traditional media. I have a short attention span, so using a huge vocabulary of materials keeps me inspired.

What or who most influences your jewelry?
found objects

Found objects await Kirsten for a current project: vintage souvenir plates, wallpaper, neckties, and magazines; photo courtesy of the artist

KD: I am currently finding my environment to be the most influential factor in my work. I recently moved from the suburbs to a farm with a vineyard and a mid-century stone house. The change has been inspiring and challenging. I’m working on drawing from what is around me every day. I only go to town about once every three weeks or so, and I always hit the thrift and antique stores for treasures I can use in my work.

What’s the best lesson you’ve learned from something that went wrong?
Temptation, pin, enamel on copper, set in copper, silver accents inside. The black edges and pitting are classic examples of overfiring enamels. Photo: Randy Parietti

Temptation, pin, enamel on copper, set in copper, silver accents inside. The black edges and pitting are classic examples of overfiring enamels. Photo: Randy Parietti

KD: When I started enameling, I had a few pieces that I accidentally overfired. It turned out that I love the look! So now, I intentionally overfire much of my work to achieve that same feel. The lesson I learned was that there is never one right way to make jewelry. Experimenting and forging your own way are just as important as learning the traditional ways of creating.

What jewelry-related accomplishment are you most proud of?
Kirsten’s Torch Fired Enamel Floral Necklace project appeared in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist April 2016; photo: Jim Lawson

Kirsten’s Torch Fired Enamel Floral Necklace project appeared in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist April 2016; photo: Jim Lawson

KD: Being published by Lapidary Journal is a great source of pride for me! I am honored and humbled to be included in the publication. I am also very proud of some of the top notch shows that I have done, including the American Craft Council shows. As a young jeweler I would walk the ACC show and aspire to be there some day. The fact I was able to do so still amazes me!

What advice would you give aspiring jewelry makers?
Sugar Skull necklace, enamel on copper, Argentium sterling silver neck chain; photo: Randy Parietti

Sugar Skull necklace, enamel on copper, Argentium sterling silver neck chain; photo: Randy Parietti

KD:
1. Be you. It is so hard with social media and all of the images we see every day to not be influenced. Find your voice, it’s an important one and it’s there!

2.Take workshops from skilled artists. Every bit of knowledge is important. Workshops are a fantastic way to improve your skills, get inspired, and get tips one-on-one from professionals. And, they get you out of your studio to spend time with other artists! I think social time with like minds is very important.

3. Put yourself out there. It isn’t easy. There is rejection and creative stumbling blocks. There is a lot of competition. Don’t be afraid to take chances.

4. Create work with integrity. Have high standards for craftsmanship. Make work that is uniquely you.

Where can people learn more about you and your jewelry?

KD: I post most of my new work on Instagram and Facebook. My website, Kirsten Denbow Designs, shows some of my other work as well.

Merle White is Editor-in-Chief of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist.

Why Argentium Sterling?

Unlike traditional sterling silver, Argentium Sterling Silver readily fuses, making it ideal for joining wire links or creating balled ends, even doing granulation! And that’s the icing on the cake, because its most loved attribute is a resistance to fire scale and tarnish. Learn to solder, fuse, granulate, and much more with Argentium expert Cynthia Eid in this trio of technique and jewelry-making project videos.

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Find Kirsten Denbow’s projects and similar techniques in the shop!

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