One of the things I enjoy most about doing craft shows is connecting to other crafters. Often times it is your neighbors that make or break the show for you (well, that and the sales), especially when you are anxiously awaiting for customers to arrive.
This past fall I had the opportunity to meet many other creatives as I was participating in holiday shows really for the first time ever. While I saw many faces I recognized from previous shows, I also had the opportunity to meet some new people, including Kendra Tornheim of Silver Owl Creations. I’ll admit, when I started to set up next to Kendra at a show in Boston I was a little weary to be next to another jeweler [there are always tons of jewelers at these shows], but honestly, I could not help but to keep coming over to her table to admire her work.
Kendra makes intricate wire-wrapped skeleton keys embellished with items such as watch gears and beads that are unlike anything I had ever seen. It is no wonder that people kept flocking over to her table! Talking to her, I could see the excitement light up in her face as she told me a little bit about her process and how she got started making these stunning pieces, and I’m so excited to be sharing it and her work with you today!
How did you get started making jewelry, and more specifically, your wire-wrapped keys?
I’ve dabbled in a lot of different arts and crafts earlier in my life. I was lucky to be able to take art classes in high school that included stained glass and enameling as well as working with a variety of sculpture materials. My mother is a fiber artist, a felt maker, so I learned to spin and card wool when I was quite young, and also attended and assisted at a number of craft shows. My family visited museums and craft shows and galleries regularly. My father is a scientist, but he’s also an antiques collector, and I used to go to yard sales with him on the weekends. So in addition to being exposed to art and craft early on, I also developed a love of finding interesting old things and reusing them.
Making jewelry to sell started for me in 2007. It began with a medieval cording technique called lucet braiding, which I learned in the Society for Creative Anachronism, which is a medieval reenactment organization. They have a massive event I attend every year in PA where there are free workshops in all sorts of craft techniques, as well as history, performance, and almost anything else related to the medieval world. I learned how to add beads to these lucet cords — you work them in during the process of making the cord, rather than attaching them afterwards — and I started to experiment with adding different types of beads and focal pieces. A friend of mine told me he thought his mother would love a necklace made this way as a gift, so I figured out how to turn the cord into a necklace and then started making more of them.
At around the same time, I happened to find a book in the library on beadweaving amulet bags, which was one of the techniques I had always admired in craft galleries. I started using beadweaving to create jewelry, and began to read everything I could find on the topic. A lot of the books and magazines I was reading talked about using wire to create your own findings. Eventually I bought some pliers and enameled copper wire and started to experiment with wire: curves and spirals and freehand wraps.
I loved working with wire. I starting trying to wrap all sorts of things I had in my house: a shell, a glass gem…an old key I had gotten from an antique shop. I discovered my local hardware store had modern skeleton keys, so I wrapped some of those. Magpie-like, I had been collecting neat things for a while that I thought I could use to embellish jewelry — watch gears, glass leaf beads — so I used those on the keys. I had started an Etsy shop and sold a handful of wire and beadwoven pieces (amusingly, the person who made the first purchase from my Etsy shop, buying the first wirework pendant I had ever made, became my husband many years later). The wire wrapped key pendants sold much faster than anything else I had listed on Etsy, so I made some more. I found it was possible to buy batches of antique keys on eBay, so I bought more old keys and kept wrapping. I’ve probably wrapped upwards of 2000 keys by now.
The next major leap came several years after than, when I started coloring my own brass. The variation and beauty of the colored brass pieces is what is keeping me excited about key pendants even after so many years, though I also dabble with other wire techniques that don’t involve keys.
What is the story behind your shop’s name?
For as long as I can remember, owls have been my favorite creature. In the medieval reenactment group I mentioned above, it is customary to choose a medieval name that was in use during that period of history. I selected ‘Arianhwyvar’ which is a Welsh name meaning ‘silver owl’. The slight difference in spelling from modern Welsh is because of language changes in the intervening centuries. I began to use the name as my handle online in part because there was no competition for it — no need to be owl3558. When it became time to choose a business name, I wanted to incorporate the ‘silver owl’ that was part of my online and offline identity. I searched for a number of variants before I found one that still had the domain name available.
What do you like most about having your own creative business? What do you find most challenging?
I love experimenting with wire and colors and making pieces I find truly beautiful. It seems to be necessary to me to have some sort of creative outlet that produces finished work: I took a 3D-art class of some sort every year in high school, and an art or creative writing course every semester in college. It’s nice to have the artwork pay for itself; sales more than cover cost of materials and other related expenses. I enjoy having people appreciate my work — after all, someone being willing to pay money to own something you made is sort of the ultimate compliment! And I have really enjoyed being involved with other artists or art movements such as the Interstitial Arts Foundation. Selling my work or putting in it art shows occasionally also gives me a chance to travel to places I wouldn’t otherwise visit.
[Tweet “Someone being willing to pay money to own something you made is sort of the ultimate compliment!”]
The most challenging thing for me is probably marketing. Marketing and promoting effectively take serious skills, and it’s not what I’m best at. When it is tough for people to find my work, I am sometimes at a loss as to how I can let anyone know it’s available. Marketing and promoting my work also takes time which I sometimes have in very short supply.
What inspires you to create?
Going to high-end craft shows or museums. I always come away wanting to create, and often wanting to try out new techniques.
What do you think motivates others to buy handmade?
I think part of it is the uniqueness of what you can get. Artists hand-create designs you don’t see in department stores or on 50 different sites online. The individual pieces often are also unique — no two pieces an artist creates may be exactly alike, depending on what techniques he or she uses. I think a piece may also become more appealing, or the price seem more understandable, when a customer understands the process and time it takes to make it. The things some people create by hand are really quite amazing.
What is your favorite handmade item you have bought or received?
I bought a pendant recently by Lightwing Designs by Shawn and Ann Lester. They are a husband and wife team making jewelry with silver designs on top of a glass background, where one person does the glass work and and the other does the silver smithing. I adore dichroic glass; it has such glorious shimmer and colors. A lot of their pieces have the same gorgeous teal-blue-purple gradient that I love getting with my inks, and their silver work has such delicacy. The nature scenes they create particularly speak to me.
When you are not making jewelry, what do you like to do with your time?
I read a great deal, especially fantasy and science fiction. I watch movies and TV shows with my husband — right now we’re working on Boardwalk Empire. I also play live action roleplaying games, where people dress up in costume and act out an open-ended narrative.
What is something people might not know about you?
Earlier in my life I did a fair amount of choral singing, though I haven’t had time for a regular chorus for some years now. Ten years ago I was in the Christmas Revels in Cambridge. While that was a great experience, the most magical choral experience I’ve had was in the Society for Creative Anachronism, at the huge medieval reenactment event I mentioned above. A large number of very dedicated people created a replica of the interior of Chartres Cathedral, including stained glass windows, candalabra, a shrine, and a floor mat of the labyrinth. I was in the 50-person choir that gave a concert of medieval music that was sung at Chartres, including songs with up to 24 separate parts. We had a week to practice together on the music — people participated from all over the country — and then gave the concert. It was magnificent.
What is one piece of advice you would offer to others with their own creative business?
For people just starting out: get online now! Especially if you want to promote or sell work online (and I think most people should have an online presence), get a sample of pictures of your work up as soon as you can. If you are considering using a site like Etsy, create a shop and put up a handful of listings right away. You can put up more listings and better photos later, but it takes time, sometimes a lot of time, for people to start seeing and favoriting or ‘Like’ing you listing, your Facebook page, or whatever online presence you have.