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Second Column

Kelly Jean Conroy 
Attention to Detail

Interviewed by Madison Egleston

Kelly Jean Conroy is a jewelry and metalsmithing teacher and artist who grew up in New England outside of Boston and is currently based in Holliston, MA. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from Syracuse University in both Art Education and Painting before pursuing her Master of Fine Arts from Dartmouth in 2013. She is best known for her work with GlowForge and introducing lasers to the fine art metalsmithing community as well as participating in events like MAD About Jewelry at New York City Jewelry Week. Her work focuses on life cycles and death within a jewelry format and focuses on themes of loss, growth, and finding beauty within loss. Kelly’s work is conjunctive and she uses a variety of mediums and processes, including enamel painting and drawing, carving bones, and piercing mother of pearl before etching or cutting these materials with a GlowForge laser. 

How did you start making art, and when did you decide to become a metalsmith? 

There never was a time where I wasn't making art. 


I remember my mom framing the first painting I made, I think was 3 or 4 years old and it was just a bunch of tulips, obsessively painted... and my mom framed it, so it's always felt like, that was my first artwork. 


When I went to grad school 10 years ago, I was trying to figure out, why do I make art... it’s simple but it’s the ultimate question. 


So now, it’s often referenced — this Tulip situation and my first Etsy shop was tulip necklaces... It's a recurring theme. I was a little girl at 3 years old painting flowers and here I am. 


When I was a little girl, I was playing in the woods, and I was painting little tombstones for dead birds and mice. And I would bury them and have funerals, but I was a kid and I didn't know what death meant. I knew I was just... I don’t know supposed to be sad. 


So then in grad school, I started making these funeral necklaces and putting dead birds on them, and the dead birds wearing gemstones. And I tried every single option to not make a real dead bird. 


I tried everything and kept asking my graduate committee and they're like, “yeah, you're not there. You're not there yet. You're not there yet. And then I put an (electroformed) dead bird on a necklace. And they're like Yes! you've done it.” 

When did you find metals?  Was it the classic story of falling in love with it on accident in your undergraduate classes? 

Yes!  —On accident, and I did fall in love! I was a sophomore and as an Art Ed major they encourage you to take a breadth of classes, so you can be as cross-disciplinary as possible. So I took ceramics and hated it. Took metals and I had that magical metal moment we all have? I thought to myself, "Oh my God... this is it!"


It felt like I had found out about this secret thing that none of us had in high school. Now I teach high school art and  I teach them metals. Everyone should be able to have it...I'm literally trying to inspire the next generation of SNAG members at my school! 

My mom is a painter, although she says she's not an artist because she didn't go to school for it, because her parents didn't encourage her. But she encouraged me to go to school for it, and I went for Art Ed in my undergraduate. 

I just knew I was a teacher always. I identify as 50% teacher and 50% artist. I love teaching so much. I could, quit teaching and make jewelry full time, but personally, I would teach for free. 

What role does teaching play in your art practice or in your life? 
Do you have any hobbies outside of art that you think contribute to your work or that are completely separate? 

This is a huge hobby…and honestly, it’s a vocational love for me too. This is my life... my whole life… like there is no other way to think or dream anymore. Ever since grad school, it’s always felt like the most important thing in the world to me. 


I don’t know. Honestly, it is. 


How lucky are we, you know? Like you and I... that we have this space, we can go wherever we like, and make something absolutely fucking magic that's never existed before in the world and could never exist again? It’s so fantastic and romantic.


Even the ability to see something and decide “I'm going to make that” down to technical skills and knowledge...we're the luckiest people on Earth.


I teach adult classes at Metalwerx in Boston, and so many people desperately want to have the skill set and the ability to make the things that their brain sees, but they don't yet... But you and I have it, and that's a magical privilege and treasure.   

My work is my life, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think you just need to keep making [artwork] and you will if you love making [artwork], because how could you stop?   


Just keep the ball rolling, find a craft school to infuse yourself in... or a residency,do absolutely anything you can to find a way to make creating artwork a priority for you. If you love it, you’re talented enough that the rest will follow.  

Do you have a method or any advice on balancing art-making, work, and life?

Glowforge is a crowd-sourced startup company based in Seattle, Washington that produces and sells affordable laser-cutting printers that are able to cut and etch hundreds of different materials including wood, glass, metal, natural material, and acrylic.

Does your ADHD diagnosis affect other parts of your practice? 

Yes! It's actually pretty amazing, I want to do it all — it lends itself to my work as a teacher because I'm a beginner's instructor for metals, and beginners always want to know a little bit about a lot — which also lends itself to the ADHD and feeds my teaching.  


It’s good because I can know all the things, and I don't have to specialize in anything!  

It's so funny because ADHD has always been seen negatively. I'm having a mind shift and reframing it because there are actually a lot of superpowers to [ADHD]. 


I think it's a good way to be, even though there are challenges.  

Do you document your art-making process and is it the process, or the finished piece that's more important to you? Is it the proverbial journey or the destination?  

Results all the way.  


It’s a journey, and it’s fun, but I care about the end piece more. I’m not the person who only gets halfway because they love part of the process more than the rest.  

I love the idea of somebody owning and wearing an object that I made. It's all about the pieces for me.

Do you lay out your studio in a certain way, or do you let things fall where they land? Is it at home, at work, or in a separate space?

A large part of my answers (in this interview) has to do with the fact that I was recently diagnosed with ADHD, which has given me an immense amount of insight into my brain, and [helped me to understand] how I work, and I think.   


It’s why my studio looks the way it does! This (studio layout) all makes sense to me and now I just have to accept the way my brain is. My studio is in my home, so I do keep it neat and arranged how I like it, but that's all based on what makes sense to me.

Do you envision your work as academic and how do you see it in the future?

 I think about this a lot, especially doing math for my production work... I don't care about making money. I don't. I want to have an enriching and fun experience and that's the that's the luxury and privilege of teaching.


I care about mostly getting my name out, and I want to be a person people know for both artwork and teaching! I want to teach workshops all around, I want to meet more people, and teach more students! That's what I always wanted. I don't want to be famous for selling stuff, that's never been what I wanted for myself and my career.

 I'd like I'd like one-of-a-kind production, that's the dream, right? I don't want to sit here and make 15 of the same exact necklaces. I want people to know they’re the only one with that specific piece of jewelry. I want to make people jewelry that's brand new and they'll never find it again. 


It's such a niche, and we're such a funny little subset of the art world.  I think we all feel that way.  You know? We're all the same people. We are my people.  

About the author

Madison Egleston is a metalsmith, woodworker, and plastic-enthusiast who makes utilitarian sculpture and wearable objects that contemplate the feeling of within and without and duality of the human condition. She explores feelings of discomfort and solice surrounding expression, identity, and communication through the novelty of nostalgic objects.  

Madison graduated with a BFA from Kent State University in Kent, Ohio in 2019. She currently lives in Edinboro, Pennsylvania where she has been a Graduate Student in the Metals and Jewelry area at Edinboro University since 2020, and will graduate with her MFA in the spring of 2023. In her graduate studies, Madison found a new love of woodworking and works as a Graduate Assistant in both the woodshop and metals studio at Edinboro University. 

Madison’s work is featured in several publications including, SNAG Jams 2019, Ornament July 2022 and Fusion Magazine. Recently, Madison published an article titled Shop Talk: Powdercoating Basics, through Commence Jewelry, and her work is displayed in several galleries including Eye of Iris in Chicago, IL and Don Drumm Studios in Akron, Ohio.

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