Hanging Out with Kate McKinnon, Part 1: Sculptural Metal Clay Ingenuity

Kate McKinnon

Did I tell you about the time I met Kate McKinnon? No? Well then . . .

I was walking the aisles of one of the smaller bead shows in Tucson last February when I saw a booth with books, art, and jewelry that looked familiar. Just about the time I realized what it was–work by one of my favorite metal clay and jewelry artists and authors, Kate McKinnon–I looked up and saw . . . Kate McKinnon!

Yes, right there, at a bead show . . . in a tent . . . in the desert . . .  I was star struck.

Bird on a Branch Necklace
by Kate McKinnon

I got to talk to Kate for a few minutes before good manners dictated that I move on and not hog her time. But since then, every time I see a piece of her brilliant metal clay work or flip through the pages of one of her books to remind myself of a metal clay technique that she has perfected, I find myself wishing we could chat. Just hang out, you know, maybe have a cup of tea.

I love learning more about the people behind work that attracts me, don’t you? And my fascination for Kate’s metal clay jewelry designs (her rings especially, swoon!) and architectural feats with my favorite medium is no secret. I asked her if she’d be willing to do a little interview for me and you guys, and she graciously agreed. So grab your tea and let’s pretend we’re hanging out with Kate McKinnon.

1.       Do you remember when and where you first discovered metal clay? Did you have that same kind of “Eureka!” feeling that I did about this magical new medium?

I was really excited to find metal clay because I had a ceramics background and a very limited studio. I was just to the point in my bead and jewelry work that I wanted to make my own components and closures, and I was just learning traditional metalsmithing. The metal clay was something I could dive into immediately and create functional pieces with.

2.       Do you recall why you first thought to use such a soft, pliable “metal” to create such angular, architectural shapes, instead of sheet metal and traditional metal-fabrication methods? Were you using metal clay before you started creating that sort of design, or did you have the sculptural designs in mind and seek out the right medium for them?

I didn’t have the idea of making soaring angular things when I picked up metal clay. I’d say it was more a natural evolution of my study–I wanted to see what the stuff really could do. I wanted to see if I could make all of the things that could be traditionally done at the bench. And if I could make them, could they compare in durability? What WAS this stuff–was it really just fine silver, or was it somehow less than that because it was in micron-sized particles?

Sea Prong Necklace by Kate McKinnon

3.       Has there been a shape or design that you’ve tried to create in metal clay that just wouldn’t come together?

I can only speak to fine silver here–I don’t use the mixed-metal clays. I’ve never been satisfied with metal clay hinges. If they are thin enough, they aren’t strong enough to withstand crushing. And ring shanks, hmm. They have to really be done right, and even then, they will never be as long-wearing as solid shanks cut of sheet metal. And I never really felt comfortable about using metal clay for anything that should really be done with wire, like loops, bails, or hooks. I mean, why do that, when it’s so easy to imbed actual wire into the clay and just fire it in place?

4.       I loved reading about your friend Scott’s dream and the resulting Skyscraper Ring in Sculptural Metal Clay Jewelry. Many of your rings and pendants are whimsical and ethereal; do designs come to you in dreams?

a hammered rivet ring by Kate

Yes, often, if they are important, like Scott’s Dream. Mostly I think with my hands, so I have to make to know what I am thinking.

5.       Did you trick-or-treat when you were a little girl? What were some of your favorite costumes?

I loved to trick-or-treat, and as soon as I was old enough to choose my own costume, I always chose gypsy girl, so that I could wear makeup, which wasn’t something that was really an option as a kid. Oddly, now that I am an adult and could wear all of the makeup I want, I really only have a lipstick.


Isn’t she fun? And oh-so-talented.

If you haven’t gotten a copy of Kate’s Sculptural Metal Clay Jewelry (with bonus DVD), you’re missing out on some of the most fascinating and unique metal clay jewelry designs in the industry–plus top-notch techniques and smart tips for creating them. In Sculptural Metal Clay Jewelry, Kate shows how to make ring bands and shanks, prongs, hammered and ball-end rivets, box designs, charms, bails, clasps, and even chain–all out of metal clay. It’s a must-have for any new or experienced metal clay jewlery maker.

And you can read on for more of my Q&A with Kate McKinnon.


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