Undaunted by lockdown, Kelly Morgen hand-saws silver and crunches numbers to keep her business alive.
The artwork of Kelly Morgen is small in scale but rich in meaning. While perusing her collection you will encounter ancient goddesses, fairytale figures, Arthurian legends and animal talismans made from precious metals, tiny jewels and recycled piano keys. The Mountain View jeweler draws from mythology, folklore and psychology, as well as the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movements, with their emphasis on ornate, graceful designs inspired by nature.
“Every piece has a story,” Morgen said. “People seem to really resonate with my work on a deeper level.”
While her pieces may be ethereal in style and mystical in nature, their physical creation comes from hard work and painstaking craftsmanship.
Starting with a flat sheet of sterling silver, Morgen uses a small hand-saw to carve out the first layer, then saws out the small decorative details and solders them together with a flame torch to fuse the metal. She scrimshaws the faces of her portraits on ivory keys gleaned from her grandmother’s old piano (or occasionally mother of pearl or opal). Behind it all, she often sets a colorful stone, making each necklace reversible. Being completely handcrafted, each piece, depending on its complexity, takes from weeks to months — or more — to finish.
She happily takes commissions, but Morgen said she often works intuitively, following her initial inspiration with an investigation into who or what the design might turn out to be, feeling a sense of recognition when she’s on the right track.
“I usually sketch the goddess first, from an idea in my mind, and her companion animals, her symbols,” she explained. “Then I do some research and look up who that goddess is and so many times it’s like, ‘Oh yeah!’ Oftentimes I feel that it’s just sort of magically happening. I’ve never not found a goddess, I’ve always found the one she’s supposed to be.”
Personal favorites in her pantheon include fellow animal lovers Artemis and Diana, the (Greek and Roman, respectively) goddesses of the wilderness and the moon.
“They’re very independent and free-spirited,” she said. She’s also partial to her “Astrea” design — “the big, expensive, elaborate one,” she said with a laugh — a depiction of a celestial figure bedecked in golden stars and small diamonds, its details much more complex than any she’d done before.
“Astrea” is based on the painting “Zodiac” by Art Nouveau master Alphonse Mucha, Morgen’s all-time favorite artist. In fact, she’s one of only two jewelers worldwide licensed by the Mucha family, whom she met in England after a monthslong metalsmithing workshop in 2015, to recreate his work.
“That’s the accomplishment I’m most proud of,” she said.
Making a living as an independent artist is a difficult prospect, and calls upon other skill sets in addition to talent and diligence. Morgen said she also has a knack for business: making spreadsheets, crunching numbers and record keeping (growing up in a family of mathematicians may have helped).
“And there’s a bit of creativity to business, to say, ‘OK, what else could I do?’” she said.
Willingness to experiment with new marketing tools and technology has become all the more valuable during the Coronavirus crisis, she said, with her usual income source — participating in about 10 art fairs and festivals a year, including in Palo Alto, Mountain View and Los Altos — cut off indefinitely, forcing her business completely online.
Through her website and her social media channels she now shows off such skills as videography, photography and even voice-over, filming promos for each piece and holding livestream events to showcase her collection. She admitted she’s not fully comfortable with selling via social media yet — “I feel a little bit like a talk-show host,” she said — but so far, so good.
“I just have this passionate persistence; whatever I’m really passionate about, I just keep at it; I try every different avenue until it works. And I’ve done OK, I’ve managed to keep it working,” she said.
Morgen grew up in Marin County, then headed east to Williams College, where she majored in art and psychology — twin interests reflected in her current practice — and began to explore what would become her signature style.
“I’ve always been obsessed with drawing and painting, and Art Nouveau is so timeless, so feminine. And I was interested in the psychology perspective, of giving art meaning just beyond being something beautiful,” she said.
During a study abroad term in Florence, Italy, Morgen took her first metalsmithing course, which she loved so much, she ended up getting an apprenticeship with the master goldsmith there and staying for a year.
“‘That’s what I want to do; I’m 100% going to be a jeweler,’” she recalled telling herself.
Back in the U.S., she met artist, silversmith and Cherokee medicine man Heyoka Merrifield, who became her biggest mentor.
“He was the one who taught me how to infuse my work with meaning and to work with archetypes,” she said.
She founded her business, Kelly Morgen Jewelry, in 2005, and has been based in Mountain View, where she said she enjoys the youthful demographic and lively art scene, since 2010.
Thinking back over her career and journey thus far, “there’s a sort of kismet to it as well. I’ve been lucky. I think a lot of it is just connecting with people who resonate with the things you love,” Morgen mused. “We all have these kinds of needs for stories and archetypes in our life; fairytales and folktales. It fulfills something we all are searching for inside.”
More information is available at kellymorgen.com.
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