Metalsmithing, Fine Artistry and Training with a Master Goldsmith in Dakar, Senegal
There is a real sense of drama about the work of Karen Smith and her jewelry designs. Formerly Sundarimani Jewelry, these days her brand is simply Karen Smith, Metal Artist. Her metal work aesthetic conveys individuality and confidence to the wearers and her bold works of art enhance their own naturally-diverse style.
Recently Karen traveled to Dakar, Senegal, to be mentored under a master goldsmith for a month. The intention was to immerse herself in metal work, traditional craftsmanship, and the culture of Dakar.
In this artist interview, we learn more about Karen’s personal journey of discovery and invention, her study of metal work and design, plus her experience studying abroad in Dakar.
Tell us about your design style. What makes your designs stand out in the industry?
I really try to make my designs reflect my sensibility, my culture and my own artist's eye. When I first started hand-fabricating jewelry, I tried to make things that I thought people would like. I would say that I had no definitive style. I have always liked circles, for instance, but I was making things with hearts because they're popular. And I was making necklaces with small circles because the places I sought to sell in seemed to like it. I wasn't particularly enamored or challenged. Periodically, some pieces (or design choices like the use of texture, like you see in my big statement rings), would represent my aesthetic. But if you were to look at my work from a couple of years ago, it's all over the place. Now I'd say that my work is recognizable as mine: it's bold without being huge; it's got texture and loves the light; it's feminine and black and beautiful. All the things that I like to think I am.
What do you think makes your designs so appealing to the people who buy them?
I think that my work appeals to people because of it's authenticity. I create things that I would want to wear myself; I create wearable art and you can see, for instance, how I've been inspired by the time I spent in West Africa. I think people recognize that I create from my mind's eye and my heart; I don't try to follow trends. And the people who love my work appreciate that.
How do you want people to feel while wearing your jewelry?
I'm now creating what I call "wearable art"; my work is always evolving artistically and I'm happy to say that it gets better all the time. I want people to feel beautiful and proud that they're adorned with art that has touched them in some way.
What are some challenges you have faced as an entrepreneur and artist so far?
My biggest challenge as an entrepreneur and as an artist is capital [lack of it, challenges raising it, etc.]. Someone told me recently that the only people who make a living as artists are people who come from wealth and/or have amassed wealth that allows them to do such. Even if that's true, I see myself working against that every day. Art changes lives socially, historically, spiritually; in every way you can imagine, art can make a difference in a society. Those of us without capital are always in the position of trying to raise funds to keep the lights on so we can produce one more thing. That one thing might change the way someone thinks about themselves or another person. It's why I have supported EVERY SINGLE ONE of the projects that I see online; I have even supported folks that I don't know personally but who are also a part of the SF Etsy Street Team. Even if I can only offer $25, I know it can help an entrepreneur or artist move closer to their dream . And with my friends? I show up at every single book signing, restaurant opening, dance project, performance, and so on. I HAVE to show support to other artists, especially to women and most especially to women of color; I consider us a community.
Do you come from an entrepreneurial and artistic background?
I don't. I'm the first person in my family to be considered an entrepreneur and certainly the first [and only] to pursue a life as an artist. I would like to point out, though, that my grandmother was a domestic; as such, she was absolutely an entrepreneur though she didn't have the autonomy that I have to choose who I contract with and the terms. I learned a lot about resilience, determination and the importance of finding solace in spiritual practice so you can keep going when it's most difficult. I tell anyone who will listen that my grandmother was my very first dharma teacher. She was also the most significant. I hope I make her proud.
Who have been your biggest mentors and what is the best advice they have shared with you that continues to spark your creativity and spirit?
I am happy to say that I have had few real mentors over the course of what is still a burgeoning career. I continue to be blessed with a community of other artists who hold me up, offer support and encouragement and an earful when I feel like quitting. In terms of my metalsmithing journey, my friend Ed Lay, who recently died, was a mentor and cheerleader. The people who I go to for guidance few. And what they tell me that informs and inspires me is simple: you can do this, Karen. And they lead by example. Some teach, like Ed did. Some always have a list of resources at the ready. My mentors help me remember that I can do this.
Tell us about your mentor / teacher in Dakar and how you came to study with him?
It'sa fascinating story. I'll give you the abridged version: I told a friend that I wanted to do an apprenticeship in Dakar but that I couldn't find any info about how to do it. She sent out an email to four or five colleagues in academia and within 48 hours, I'd found someone who was willing to teach me even though "women don't wield the hammer"; I'd also secured an apartment and the names of three ex-pats who spoke English and who were interested in helping me adjust when I got there. It really happened just like that! It's also how I know that this is divine order; I initially felt like I was called to do this to buoy my confidence since I'm self-taught. But as I learned more about the traditional methods and realized how marginalized women are in metalsmithing [the world over, including here in the US beyond "jewelry making"], I decided that my service needed to be to find ways to bring this vocation to women and girls. My mentor there is descended from a long line of goldsmiths. I discovered this only after he had agreed to teach me; I was sent a couple of texts and his family was prominently centered. He's amazing and patient and he treats me like a peer [which is humbling and honorific]. After the first few days, he told me that I couldn't leave, that there was not enough time to really teach me. That's why I'm returning; to do a *real* apprenticeship.
How did the community respond to your visit?
Dakar is a city not unlike Oakland, CA . I didn't get to know my neighbors, or them me, because I literally went to the workshop in the artists' village every day except Sunday. I didn't even get a chance to do any sightseeing because I also realized that I needed to make the most of every, single second. In the artists' village where I worked, it was fascinating because, of course, I was the only woman there working with a torch. So there was a steady stream of oglers, all polite and all respectful but all day, everyday! I had to learn how to say "you can see it when I'm finished" and "I'm very busy, don't you have work to do?" The women in the artists village were very interesting: the women who were my age were fairly skeptical; the millennial women were curious. Of course, Senegalese people are the kindest and most generous people so smiles were returned, greetings met, etc.
What is your favorite memory from your trip to Dakar?
There were so many but this one stands out: one day I looked up from my bench and saw a little girl standing in the doorway staring at me. I smiled at her but she just stared. And it was in that moment that I really understood that representation matters. Now that she has seen a woman doing something that she'd never seen a woman do before, she can envision herself doing it too! And I have to do what I can to see that come to fruition.
When you traveled to Dakar how easy was it to immerse yourself in the Senegalese culture, and what did you learn from these experiences?
There was great ease and great challenge! My French is so awful that I had some difficulty understanding and being understood by many. My mentor and his assistant both spoke English which was so wonderful for me. His young apprentice, also his son, spoke only French and Wolof; his patience, though, was remarkable. When we weren't struggling through with my abysmal French, he and I took advantage of google translate often to talk about many things including his love for Rhianna!
Did you have any experiences that you feel may have changed the course of your work?
The experience of simply being a student -- and not a maker and entrepreneur -- completely changed the course of my work. I had time to simply field inspiration as it arose; I had the luxury of only learning without the pressure of worrying about paying rent and producing things that "will sell". It was liberatory and changed my approach to my work. I never felt bound by 'trends' and I can now reflect on how my jewelry was being created to appeal to what clients "might like". I have been moving away from "everyday" jewelry because I have so many ideas for creating art and not just "jewelry" and even designing small sculptures and vessels. That's in no way a slight to things that I did before [or may do again]; it's to acknowledge, though, that what I make now comes from inspiration and vision and isn't guided by what might be popular.
What was the hardest adjustment you experienced or had to make, during your stay?
The language. There were times when I was frustrated because I haven't had to use the language in years; as such, it's almost like I haven't ever spoken French. I'm planning to remedy that, though. It was also interesting working around men all day everyday without respite from women's energy. My teacher had a fete (party) for me at his home a few days before I left. I had such a good time getting to know the women and just being in a kitchen laughing and gossiping! The women wouldn't let me cook or help with the cleaning but I realized that I hadn't laughed that much the entire time I was in Dakar [and my days were pretty great days!].
If you could describe Senegal in five words what would they be?
Beautiful. Welcoming. Bustling. Urbane. Artistic. And if I were to describe Senegalese people in 5 words? Gorgeous! Generous. Talented. Kind. Fashionable.
Which African trends or artists do you find inspiring ?
I don't really follow trends in a literal sense; I love, though, that music and dance from West Africa is all the rage the world over. I've always been a fan of Afrobeat and highlife since my days as a teenager in Brooklyn. But while I was in Senegal, and even back here, I get to see and hear Afropop, hip-hop, and other genres that I can't even name. I certainly hope that I get a chance to experience live music when I go back.
What is your favorite piece you created when you were in Dakar and what made it so special?
The very first piece I created: I made earrings that were inspired by the many masks in the artists village. I was pretty proud of them because I'm still learning how to use their torch which is very different than what I use. I was also there for my birthday and on that day I made myself a ring [sterling silver and 18k gold with an Ethiopian opal]. I'd say those two are my favorites.
What is the biggest piece of advice would you give to young people who look up to you and want to consider jewelry design as a passion, career, or venture?
The best piece of advice I can give is to never stop asking questions, of your teachers but especially of yourself. I am self-taught and when I decided that this was going to be my path, I didn't take classes or go and get a degree mostly because I couldn't afford to. I joined online forums, I bombarded every metalsmith that I came into contact with questions but I also was willing to fail. I actually started out making malas and other kinds of prayer beads. Women would say "why don't you make jewelry?" So I started making beaded jewelry [which people found interesting but which left me feeling inauthentic because it wasn't that interesting to me]. My ideas grew, I was gifted a couple of books on smithing, including "The Complete Metalsmith" by Tim McCreight and I just went for it. But I'm always asking myself "how can I be better?" "is this the correct method?" "is *this* what I really want to do?" (the answer was a resounding NO with beading, for instance). Believe that you can make it happen and then go for it.
What are your plans for the immediate future? Rumor has it you plan on going back to Dakar for an extended stay to continue your education with your mentor.
Funny you should ask! Yes, my plan is to go back to Dakar in June. He asked me to return in June for a longer period and I'll be there until the end of the year provided I can raise the funds necessary to get there and study. I've set up a "youcaring" fundraiser to raise the funds for the airline ticket and the tools and materials that I'll need. I've also been advised by several artists who have successfully done cross cultural studying to find patrons so I have been attempting to locate sponsors for me and the project. And to get ahead of next year's journey, I'm also applying for national and international grants. In fact, I've applied for one local grant here in Oakland with which I plan to begin work with a non-profit in downtown Oakland upon my return at the end of the year. It's an incubation of my project, We Wield The Hammer and the plan is to teach introduction to metals over six weeks to young women in transitional housing. I'm really excited about it!
What new techniques or concepts are you most looking forward to learning when you return to Dakar?
The concepts that I worked on the most while I was there are patience and mindfulness. In Senegal, when I want to make something I have to start from scratch every single time. There's no supplier to purchase the metal from so if I want to make a ring I start by melting fine silver and copper [to make sterling]; I also have to make solder. From there, I forge and then roll it [if I want sheet] or draw the metal [if I want wire] and all of that happens before I can even begin the project. I sometimes got frustrated because here I can just reach for materials and start making, and there is takes a great deal of effort, some of it strenuous. As well, I'm learning how to be so very mindful with my bench; here I'm not always careful with scraps or with shavings mostly because I wasn't taught how to take special care with every, single bit of metal. Metal is not cheap, it's not plentiful and one works very hard for every millimeter. So while I look forward to learning techniques with hammers and ornamental work like filagree [Senegalese filagree is known worldwide], I really look forward to continuing to develop my patience and mindfulness practice around the work. Every day, I learned not to take anything for granted.
Gratitude is the concept that was most developed, gratitude from the earth to the sky. I feel enormous gratitude to my teacher [and am working on a project that will bring him here at the beginning of the year, so stay tuned!!] and to everyone who believes in me and my work enough to support me with words, deeds and thoughts. Thanks to you for this opportunity.
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