Kelly Jean Conroy - laser-etched gem earringsKelly Jean Conroy - laser-etched gem earrings

An Interview with Metalsmith Kelly Jean Conroy

Kelly Jean Conroy discusses her approach to metalsmithing, jewelry art, and education. Learn what her Video Series on Ganoksin offers.

17 Minute Read

HomeLearning CenterJewelry DesignBehind the DesignAn Interview with Metalsmith Kelly Jean Conroy
By Emily FrontiereMore from this author
[introparagraph]"Teacher — metalsmith — art jewelry." The words under Kelly Jean Conroy's name on her website perfectly describe her focus. A longtime educator whose enthusiasm is as apparent as it is infectious, Kelly has taught metalsmithing at a high school in Massachusetts for over a decade. She has created a workshop there with the tools necessary to foster creativity in her students. This year, the invitation-only MAD About Jewelry pop-up sale at the Museum of Arts and Design celebrated her work. To continue sharing her knowledge of metalsmithing, Kelly has teamed up with Ganoksin to produce a series of videos focusing on basic metalsmithing techniques. Kelly was kind enough to speak with Ganoksin about her career as an educator, her art, and the inspiration behind the beautiful laser etchings that characterize her work.[/introparagraph]
Kelly Jean Conroy - laser-etched gem earrings
Kelly Jean Conroy uses a specialized laser to etch nature-related themes onto flat surfaces of gem materials, such as onyx and mother-of-pearl. She then sets them into handmade custom silver or gold settings. Photo and jewelry by Kelly Jean Conroy. Used with permission.

How Does Kelly Jean Conroy Define Herself?

I started the interview by asking Kelly how she self-identifies within the art world. Specifically, whether her work as an educator or an artist takes center stage. She said that both are integral parts of her being.

I always like to define myself as half-teacher, half-artist because that's how I truly feel. My teacher identity is intensely important to me. I went to school for Art Ed, and teaching people how to be metalsmiths or make jewelry gives me so much joy. But, then, I also really dedicate a ton of my time, and I don't have much time, to my practice. So, I think it helps inform my teaching. I think it goes hand in hand. It's an equal 50:50 split.

When Did Kelly Jean Conroy Discover Her Passion for Art?

I asked Kelly if she discovered this passion for metalsmithing and art as a child or if inspiration struck her as an adult.

You know, I wish I had what I teach — high-school metalsmithing. I didn't know metals were an art form or something I could do until I was at Syracuse (University) working on my portfolio. You're supposed to take as many classes as possible and try many things. So, when you enter the field, you have experienced many mediums. So, I took my first metals class my sophomore year and was like, 'Oh, that was really great.' I loved that. I thought I was a painter because, like most kids in school, even the kids in this high school, they think, 'Oh, I'm gonna be an artist. I'm a painter.' That's what artists are in many middle and high-school brains. So, for me, it was like, 'This is a whole new world,' and I took a second semester of metals.

Kelly described how she continued to learn after graduation by taking an enameling class with her mom.

I convinced my mom to sign us up for enameling classes because they had enamels at Syracuse, but nobody knew how to use them. And I was like, 'Ooh!' I would say that enameling was my gateway drug because it was like color on the metal. I could do miniature paintings on a necklace, and then I thought, 'Oh, people run out of wall space, but they always want more jewelry.'

Selling Jewelry and Pursuing More Education

This realization prompted Kelly to start selling her jewelry and seek additional formal education.

I used copper blanks and painted stuff on them, and people would buy them. I started an Etsy shop, and that was really fun. It went from there. Just like grew and grew. I would read more books, watch (videos), and teach myself more things. And then finally, after being an art teacher for general art, I was like, 'I'm going back to school to be a real metalsmith.' So, I went to graduate school for jewelry after being in the real world for five years.

Kelly then shared her thoughts on the benefits of seeking higher education on a subject she didn't have a chance to pursue during her undergraduate years.

I will say that I don't think that grad school makes you become a real metalsmith. It just helps you become an artist and thinker, which I got from that. The technical stuff I wanted to know was still self-taught, even in graduate school. Because they aren't teaching you the nuts and bolts of making things in graduate school. So, in that sense, I was behind my peers because many of them had metals in their undergrad. It's funny, though, this show I just did (the MAD show), I feel like I finally made it. I finally proved to myself, 'I'm a real metalsmith.' Which is kind of weird. I've been doing it for twenty years now.

Kelly Jean Conroy at MAD About Jewelry Show
Kelly at her station at the MAD About Jewelry show. Photo and jewelry by Kelly Jean Conroy. Used with permission.

How Did Kelly Jean Conroy's Parents React to Her Profession?

Interestingly, Kelly spoke about how her parents' generation didn't consider art and artistry profitable professions. However, she said they were happy she wanted to study art education because they recognized teaching as a respectable job.

I think my parents were happy I wanted to do Art Ed because I could be a teacher, and there is income there. But, thankfully, I really truly do love teaching. It wasn't like, 'I'll just do this because.' I really like the passing of knowledge, especially in the craft field. That whole idea of apprentice and master. And you pass on the torch. You pass on the skills.

Indeed, Kelly's affection towards her students was highlighted several times during our interview. She had several students working in her classroom during our conversation. As she showed me the school's laser — the same model she has in her personal workshop for etching gemstones (more on that later) — she proudly spoke about how one of her students uses the same equipment to precision cut her own handmade sketches onto paper.

She's doing this amazing laser-cut paper, and then she's going to roll her print on the metal. She's doing, like, a little custom logo.

Independent Learning or Formal Learning?

Nowadays, anyone with a computer or smartphone can access substantial educational content online. This has led some, particularly in artistic fields, to prefer learning independently rather than entering a formal learning environment. They may find that type of regulated process too rigid. As an educator, Kelly had some interesting thoughts on this issue. She reflected on the lessons she learned while in school.

People will tell me, 'Oh, I'm not an artist. I didn't go to school for it.' I'm like, 'That has nothing to do with it!' I feel like graduate school really gave me the confidence I was hoping for in (developing) my voice as an artist. When I started graduate school, I didn't know what I was going to do, right? I was like, 'I'm gonna make these pretty things.' And (instead, professors posed questions like) 'What is it all about? Why do you make things?' So, they really just delve deeper into why you make things and why it's important to you. And why you should make things for the rest of your life. That has been the most valuable thing to me.

The work from graduate school has propelled me to what I'm doing now, with my teaching and the (workshops) I get tapped for teaching, like laser cutting, piercing, and casting natural objects. You can (take) elements off these big crazy pieces you make in graduate school, and then they can form like bodies of work you could take for years. That was a wonderful gift that graduate school gave me.

The Themes in Kelly Jean Conroy's Works

This statement led us to the underlying themes in Kelly's jewelry pieces. Her etchings feature nature-related images, such as flowers, butterflies, birds, animals, and plant life. She then sets these etched gems in handmade silver or gold settings. As it turns out, there's much more to these images than just the apparent subject matter. She says her work relates to mortality, sadness, grief, and renewal themes.

(My) work is about beauty, death, and life cycles, like flowers growing up through bones. As a child, I would find a dead bird, mouse, or mole and bury it. I would get my little paint set out, paint their headstones, and have a funeral. And that was a sense of play. But I was a kid. I didn't know what death meant, but I knew you were supposed to be sad and all these things. So, revisiting that whole concept of me at play as a child with these pieces I made in graduate school informed everything about life.

Mad About Jewelry display
One of Kelly's displays at the MAD About Jewelry show. Photo and jewelry by Kelly Jean Conroy. Used with permission.

Hidden Meanings

The profoundly introspective themes Kelly explores, issues that have affected her since childhood, speak to the power of her work. I asked her if the individuals who purchase her work fully understand the meaning behind the images. Interestingly, she says she only explains the depth of meaning to select receptive buyers. She will "sneak in" symbols in her commercial, non-commissioned work.

For Kelly's laser etching, she uses drawings, either her own or from a sketchbook. She may even work from photos. For example, she might take a picture of a dead snake she found on one of her runs and, using a computer, add high contrast and remove the background. 

That snake is now put on necklaces, but people don't necessarily know it's a dead snake I found on a run. It's like a beautiful, sinuous S-shape. I'll layer (the image) with flowers and sometimes sneak in a little fly. So, the flies, you know, the reality of death. The smell attracts the flies, and they come in after. And they are, you know, the cycle of life. They are feeding on death. And so, I'll put these little symbols in. Sometimes, if something strikes the right person, I'll tell them about this stuff. But usually, I keep it really light.

Gemstone Symbolism and Practical Constraints

With all the symbolism and intention behind her work, I wondered if Kelly matched her images with the popular meanings attached to gemstones. She said it's a concept she's played with, but practical considerations constrain it.

I possibly could do more of that because, you know, I'll talk to my students here. Many of them are wrapping it up, and I'm like, 'Okay, rose quartz brings love into your life and happiness.' I'll tell them that these things do have hidden meanings. I haven't really thought about that in my work. It truly (comes down to the material) the laser likes to work with. So, I just figured out it likes coral. So, I've been buying some coral and playing with that, and so much testing is involved with each gem. Lapis is something that's been working, and turquoise works quite well. But even different chunks of lapis don't work well. If it has too many pyrite inclusions, the design won't show up.

So (I spend) hours with my settings because you need power, speed, and PPI (points per inch). So, I'll lower the power a little bit if it blasts too much of the surface. There's a lot of technical boringness that I'm doing behind the scenes for hours. Like, a stupid amount of time. Right now, I'm working with green onyx and really trying to figure that out. But eventually, I would like to think a little bit more (about) the history and symbolism of the stones, too, because obviously, that's the cool part.

lapis lazuli and mother-of-pearl etchings
Lapis lazuli and mother-of-pearl etchings from the MAD About Jewelry show. Photo and jewelry by Kelly Jean Conroy. Used with permission.

What Gem Materials Work Well With Laser Etching?

Kelly says she has discovered a few gemstones her laser likes to cut. She has seen good results with soft organics like coral and mother-of-pearl. There are more, too.

I'm into the green onyx. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. It may (take) no mark. Sometimes it does (work), and the marks are so crisp. So, it's a little bit more of an enigma at the moment. The black onyx is sometimes awesome, sometimes not. I figured out (other) chalcedony, even though (it has) such a good low price and all these fun colors, won't work no matter what. Big bummer for me.

I've found that quartz works for me, so that's a little avenue I plan to investigate this summer. But yeah, it's like, I love turquoise. That I know works well. It's the soft ones, right? I feel like the Mohs hardness (the laser can cut) is 5 to 6. I bought some synthetic opal when I was in Tucson. And I haven't done it yet. I still think the fake opal is really precious. I'm, like, 'Ooh, I don't want to.' Like, I don't want to mess it up.

Kelly Jean Conroy - gemstone earrings
A pair of earrings with multiple gemstones, shown at the MAD About Jewelry show. Photo and jewelry by Kelly Jean Conroy. Used with permission.

The Luxury of Uncompromised Vision

Kelly creates designs that speak to her and doesn't compromise her vision for the sake of sales. While she faces a time-consuming learning curve working with her laser, Kelly quickly added that teaching grants her the financial freedom to maintain her authentic artistic voice.

I want to say one thing about how I'm keeping my work for myself. It's so part of the privilege of being a teacher. Like, there's so much privilege when you can make jewelry in general. But the fact that I don't have to make my jewelry to have income (gives me) the luxury of just doing whatever when I want it. So, I want to acknowledge an immense amount of privilege in jewelry making, especially the jewelry I'm making. That I'm allowed to do so. Yeah. So, I can just do whatever I want, and I don't care if it sells. And in fact, I'll keep all of it for myself because I make things I want to wear. I always just try to remember that I get to make things I love and share them, and people enjoy it. So that's awesome.

My Etsy store is now closed. Now I sell my work in some galleries in the US that represent me. So I have galleries in Texas, Chicago, and here in Boston. I don't have the bandwidth to make more. And actually, I feel really bad because when MAD ended, I told everybody I'd have tons of stuff to send them. And they're all like, 'We need more things.' And I was like, 'I just don't have time to make more things.' But again, that's the luxury. I'm not trying to (live) off my jewelry. It's just like a bonus fun extra side hustle.

The MAD About Jewelry Pop-up Sale

The show that Kelly refers to is the annual MAD About Jewelry pop-up sale at the Museum of Arts and Design. This year, Kelly was selected as an exhibitor, something she feels is a true honor. This exclusive show doesn't accept applications. Instead, they handpick 50 artists from at least 20 countries. Specifically, they invite artists who use a range of unconventional skills and materials to curate an experience with an array of artistic techniques represented. Kelly described how this experience validated her identity as an artist tremendously.

So (they) found my work, and I'm super honored to be included, because it's once in a lifetime to go to the Museum of Art and Design (MAD). It's the only museum in the United States with a permanent collection of contemporary art jewelry on display. (At) the MFA here in Boston, we have art jewelry collections, but it's all, like, antique jewelry and specifically contemporary jewelry. So, (the MAD) is a special museum to me.

Mad About Jewelry Show Display
A view of Kelly's work at the MAD About Jewelry show. Photo and jewelry by Kelly Jean Conroy. Used with permission.

Teaching High School Metalsmithing

Our conversation pivoted to Kelly's work teaching high-school metalsmithing, something she says is only taught in three public schools in Massachusetts. As we spoke, Kelly proudly panned her camera to show me her classroom, which includes six stations for her students to practice soldering, the laser-etching machine so integral to her personal art, and the equipment necessary to teach casting.

I was most impressed at Kelly's ever-evolving curriculum and how she brings new things to each course.

Next semester, I'll have a bunch of metals. I'll teach some enameling, have enameling kilns, and then a casting burnout kiln. Basically, every piece of equipment they would have at (Mass College of Art in Boston), we have equipment just as good here.

She also fondly said she has the materials necessary to melt metal, something always popular with her students.

A Positive Presence in the Classroom

Kelly actually teaches at multiple locations, including adult craft schools. She is an incredibly positive presence and passes that optimism and sense of gratitude to her students.

I tell the kids: One, it's dangerous. Not many schools want to have torches (on their premises). Two, it's expensive to fund, especially with (the cost of) copper and brass skyrocketing. I do buy silver for them. The way it works is if they use silver, they weigh it and pay me for what they take home. It's a great opportunity for them to try stuff without (risk). If they melt it into a ball, who cares? I'll save it for when we do casting. So, it's like a low-risk, try-all-this-cool-stuff-out (activity). And then they're all amazed.

Usually, when they can make a ring in silver, they put it on the scale, and they're like, 'Oh yeah, skinny little stack ring this big cost you $0.80.' I'm like, 'How much would you (pay for that) in a store?' And they're like, 'At least $20.' You can hook some kids with that awesome magic of making your own things.

I was curious how Kelly structures her curriculum for beginners with no experience manipulating metals.

So, the first half of the semester is technical skills, like learning to saw, rivet, and file. We're going to learn what sanding is. We're going to talk about craftsmanship, and then we're going to learn soldering. And then, you're going to make a ring. How do you make it fit your finger? So we do all of that.

The Kelly Jean Conroy Video Series on Ganoksin

In keeping with Kelly's love of introducing metalsmithing, the video series Kelly has produced with Ganoksin covers the basics. She introduces fundamental techniques and carefully defines all the associated terms and lingo necessary for anyone to get started. These videos will help people pick up these essential skills.

They're for beginners, my favorite people to teach. I want to hook people and make them feel like they can do it and encourage them. It's intimidating, I think, but it shouldn't be. It should be very accessible and fun, like a relief and a release for people. Not many people have a skill they can fall into and decompress with. I don't know. I think (you're) lucky to (have that).

Kelly states that most of the videos are project-based. They're primarily recordings of her teaching a friend projects and techniques she wanted to learn. Her friend, Lisa, is associated with Ganoksin, and they realized it would be fun to record their sessions for the website. Once they began filming, Kelly stressed that she described every step in the process carefully, so anyone can follow along.

It was a fun way to teach. Like, this is what flux is, this is what solder is, this is how you hold the torch, this is what the torch is doing when the flux turns this color.

Are There Plans for More Videos by Kelly Jean Conroy?

Fortunately, Kelly says she has more videos planned for the future, including an enameling unit she's particularly excited about. "It's one of my favorite things to do and to teach," she noted.

How Can Ganoksin Members Access a Safe Workshop?

As became apparent when we spoke about Kelly's classroom, metalsmithing requires specific tools and a safe workspace. I asked how Ganoksin subscribers without their own workshop setup can access those things. Fortunately, Kelly says there are quite a few locations they can rent by the hour.

She also noted that local schools often allow students time in their workshops for a reasonable rate. "(Upkeep and maintenance) is expensive for a metals classroom and all the tools," she reminds us. "It's best just to take a class and get that access."

Kelly Jean Conroy - oxidized silver earrings
A pair of oxidized silver earrings in development. Photo and jewelry by Kelly Jean Conroy. Used with permission.

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Emily Frontiere

Emily Frontiere is a GIA Graduate Gemologist. She is particularly experienced working with estate/antique jewelry.

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