Kit Burke Smith’s work references elements of drawing and sculpture to create wearable jewelry that can both exist on its own and interact directly with the human body. Her pieces seek to be about line and plane, folding and unfolding, shadows and pairing, and positive and negative space. She received her BFA in Jewelry and Metals from Rhode Island School of Design and her MFA in Metals from SUNY New Paltz. She currently teaches design and metalsmithing at SUNY New Paltz, Dutchess Community College and Beacon Art Studios. She founded Kit Burke-Smith Designs in 1999 where she designs and creates one-of-a-kind wedding rings and limited edition production jewelry. Her work has been featured in a wide range of gallery and art museum exhibitions. She lives with her family in Beacon, NY.
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What originally sparked your interest in metals? When did you first decide you wanted to become a jewelry maker?
When I was 11, I was at summer camp and saw a friend of mine wearing a fantastic pair of earrings made out of loopy brass and copper shapes. I found out she had made them in a Metalsmithing class. Next chance I got, I signed up for the class and I’ve been hooked on working with metal ever since. I continued taking classes in the summer, eventually transferring to Interlochen Arts Academy, a boarding school specializing in the arts. It was there I decided to focus on being an artist, which eventually led into being a jewelry maker.
What is your own favorite piece of jewelry?
My engagement ring. Well, technically it’s my second engagement ring. When my husband and I decided to get married, it wasn’t a big planned out proposal. My first ring actually came from one of those supermarket vending machines where you put a quarter in, turn the crank, and a plastic container comes out with something inside it. It was a band with a leaf pattern on a red background printed on it. I wore it for 6 months, until my husband gave me another one, a replica of the original but remade by Jenn Parnell in 18k gold and enamel. I love it because it was about taking something special and sentimental and turning it into something precious and lasting and handmade.
You want to give that someone-someone jewelry but personal taste is tricky — what’s a good bet?
Oof, that’s a tough one! Some of the best gifts have to do with the story behind them. One of my favorites is a necklace I make for new moms- they send me toe prints of their baby, and I design a necklace based off those shapes for them. I send them a few ideas, take their feedback into consideration and then fabricate a one of a kind necklace. When helping someone pick out a gift, I usually just talk to them about the recipient’s likes and interests a bit, then go from there. When you look at it less as a fashion accessory and more as a wearable piece of art, it frees you up some.
If you could have any piece of jewelry ever made, what would you go for?
I think I would go for a piece that had a big impact on me when I first learned about it. That would be Graphite Pendulum-Pendant by Joan Parcher. Parcher’s pendant is made of graphite, which is intended to swing back and forth, leaving a mark on the wearer and eventually wearing down. It’s a piece of jewelry that needs to be worn to be complete, and has a relationship with the wearer. That kind of thinking changed everything for me.
What inspires you in your work?
My inspiration comes from two main sources; one is the shapes I come across in my daily life. Shadows from the afternoon sun, leaves my daughter picks off of the trees, the way a fern uncurls in the spring, that sort of thing. I’m also inspired by the process of making; so drawing, mark-making, and paper models are big influences on my work and designs. I want the process of how something is made to inform the shape it takes, like earrings that resemble gestural scribbles, or metal bracelets that feel like folded paper forms.
Do you have favorite artists/jewelry makers?
Favorite artists and jewelry makers — I have so many! For jewelers and metalsmiths, I respond strongly to people who blend concept, form and craftsmanship. Noam Elyashiv’s jewelry feels like drawings in space, Rebecca Hannon’s work is a constant exploration of materials, color and place, and John Prip’s silversmithing is the epitome of graceful modernism and marrying form and function. Right now I’ve got the beginnings of a new line of jewelry inspired by Henri Matisse’s cut paper pieces in the works.
You have an extensive education in metal-work and jewelry making — do you feel that changes how you approach the process?
Undoubtedly. Craftsmanship is important to me — so being trained in making things well, and having that be an important part of my work is key. I think there is a new respect for the handmade coming about, and I am happy to be included in that.
You also exhibit your work widely in galleries, is your process different if you’re working commercially or artistically?
Often in galleries my work is in a group show, so it needs to be work that can stand on it’s own. I think more about how it will be displayed, sort of like a small sculpture that can also be worn. When I am making my production work, it is usually seen with many of my other pieces around it. I design more with wearability in mind and having it be cohesive within a line of work.
Has your creative and work process changed since becoming a mom?
Definitely! I am much more cognisant of how I spend my time. I used to go into my studio and see what would happen, then work until I got to a natural stopping point. Since becoming a mom, I have developed a habit of intentionally leaving something unfinished right in the middle of my bench. This way, the next time I enter the space I can jump right in and get going on something.
Unfortunately making the creative work is the fun part, but then there’s actually selling it. How have you found the business side of running your own business and finding clients?
Being an artist is definitely much more of being a small business than I realized! It’s challenging, but I feel I get better at it the more I practice it. I learn a lot from other artists and jewelers. I love meeting people at some of the fairs and events I do — that’s the best non-making part of my job.
I heard that you also are a docent, knitting instructor, and metal working teacher. Do you have a favorite part about teaching?
I love helping people figure out how do do something for the first time! I still think about one of the first metalsmithing classes I taught. (It was actually at the summer camp where I first took metalsmithing!) I handed a torch to a 12 year old and helped them solder for the first time. Seeing the look on their face when they had that lightbulb moment, making the connection about how to execute this skill, was one of the best feelings ever.
Do you have any words of wisdom for moms interested in going into metal work or starting their own jewelry business?
I would recommend taking workshop classes — there are some everywhere. It’s a great way to dip your toe into making jewelry without having to invest in all the equipment. Some of the ones I know in the NY area are offered at Brooklyn Metal Works, the 92nd St Y, The Center for Metal Arts, and Peters Valley School of Craft. The book Craft, Inc. is a great resource for the business side of it.
If I had an extra 2 hours in the day, I would I should say sleep, but I know that wouldn’t happen! Take my dog on a hike.
The person who is my best source of inspiration is my high school art teacher Jean Parsons. She approached being an artist as a practice and a part of daily life.
If I were a superhero, my superpower would be being able to hop around like I was on the moon.
My current pet peeve is people who don’t stop for crosswalks.
If I were a color, I’d be sunshine yellow.