Metalsmith Forges Opportunities for Black Women Artists
October 7, 2021
By RUTH TERRY
Within an arts ecosystem that often marginalizes people of color, Karen Smith found a nontraditional path to becoming a metal artist. Now she’s inspiring women like her do the same.
Karen Smith’s website bio opens with a deceptively straightforward tagline: “I am a Black woman artist.” This declaration feels radical, not because of any explicit political intent by the Oakland, California-based metal artist, but because of the systemic lack of race, gender, and socio-economic diversity in the art world — particularly in jewelry and metals.
Smith has made it her mission to model and increase representation in metalcraft. After a transformative apprenticeship in Dakar, Senegal, Smith founded We Wield the Hammer to reduce barriers to participation in her craft and nurture entrepreneurship for Black women.
Black women rarely see artists who look like them. In the United States, men comprise more than half of arts graduates and working artists, and 80 percent of working artists are white, according to a 2014 U.S. Census data analysis by the artist collective BFAMFAPhD.
Jewelry and metalsmithing are even more “shrouded in exclusivity,” as Sotheby’s recently wrote, in large part because of the immense cost of access to studio space, training, and materials.
“You can go traditional routes… get a BFA or an MFA, and that is cost-prohibitive for, like, everyone,” says Smith. For example, tuition and fees for a bachelor’s at California College of the Arts in Oakland (CCA) cost upward of $50,000 per year. “I’m self-taught because I was not able to pay exorbitant prices to learn how to do this.”
Learning Curves in Silver and GoldAfter a divorce in 2010, Smith began making malas — prayer beads used in her Buddhist practice — and started a business teaching and selling “mindfulness-based products.” Responding to customer requests, she started making beaded jewelry but quickly discovered it wasn’t for her.
“I loved making malas and rosaries and dhikr beads, but I didn’t particularly like making jewelry with beads,” says Smith. “I kept getting these ideas [for new designs]. And, you know, it turned out that they were metal.”
As a former academic and educator, Smith was confident in her ability to teach herself the skills needed to make and sell wearable art. She read books about metalsmithing, joined Facebook groups to connect with other makers, and sought out other Black metal artists.
Though she found a market for her creations, financial viability quickly became — and continues to be — a challenge.
“This vocation, this art form is really an expensive one,” Smith continues. “When you go to craft shows, a large percentage of the people that you see are wealthy white women…”.
“I know women whose parents have just given them $50,000 to start, along with access to the family’s attorney. I know women whose parents pay for their rent and utilities… I don’t fit in there anywhere. I haven’t had financial support for building my business. And that’s why [it] has been very slow-growing.”
Being self-taught can bring its own technical challenges. When Smith received her first commission for a wedding ring in white gold (an alloy of pure gold mixed with zinc, nickel, or palladium that performs differently from other metals), there was a steep learning curve. But that tricky commission was also a key turning point: Smith knew she had to learn more about working in gold, and felt a spiritual pull to do so in a country historically known for intricate goldsmithing: Senegal.
Art of Africa
In 2018, she apprenticed with a master goldsmith in Dakar — a highly atypical arrangement in a country where metal craft is traditionally passed down from father to son.
Smith’s presence attracted the notice of women and girls in the community, who had simply never seen a woman working with metal. She conceived We Wield the Hammer as a culturally responsive training program for local Senegalese women. However, due to the complexities of starting the project outside the U.S., she decided to pilot WWTH in Oakland to serve marginalized women there.
Though people of color own 51 percent of Oakland businesses, a 2018 study revealed that the median income for Black households was $72,500 less than that of their white counterparts.
“We have such a high population of young women who have been trafficked,” says Smith about Oakland. “We have a high population of young women who are not formally educated, who are first-time single mothers, who are locked into poverty, aided by trauma. And I wanted to reach that population specifically [along with the broader population of Black women and girls].”
Thinking Globally, Acting Locally
Smith launched We Wield the Hammer in 2019 as a free, 8-week-long metalsmithing training program for Black women and girls, ages 14 to 24.
“We are training young women in the fundamentals of metalsmithing,” says Smith. “But it’s important to me that we don’t just train them and then let them go. If they decide they want to be jewelers, we have a way of connecting them with jewelers who let them apprentice. If they want to start their own businesses, [we help] them learn how to write a business plan… because honest to God, making a living as an artist is really hard.”
So is making WWTH financially sustainable. Operating under fiscal sponsor Independent Arts & Media allows Smith to accept grants and in-kind donations, but funding is still tight.
For the first two years, Smith didn’t take a salary, and even paid teaching artists out of her own pocket. And the demands of running the program and applying for 501(c)3 status have made it nearly impossible for Smith to focus on her own art.
Still, Smith is committed to growing WWTH. She is working with her board to hire a deputy director who is skilled in development and fundraising. In September, she signed a lease with Liberty Arts, a multidisciplinary arts space in Durham, N.C., where local instructors plan to launch WWTH courses in January 2022.
“I have been doing this project all alone since I conceived it almost three years ago, [and] what I have learned is that I cannot do everything,” says Smith. “The program is actually now growing and the fruits of my labor are starting to really flower. Next year, God willing and the creek don’t rise, we’ll finally get to go to Dakar.”
In the meantime, Smith continues to build community in other ways. Her Instagram feed amplifies the work of other Black metal artists, interspersed with her own work. She is increasingly recognized for her expertise in metals and her perspective as a Black woman artist. Her work appeared in Richmond Art Center’s 2020 “Art of the African Diaspora” exhibition. She has been a guest on the Etsy and Interweave Jewelry podcasts, and quoted in a Forbes article on Sotheby’s Brilliant & Black initiative.
“Everything about how I move through the world is being female and being Black,” says Smith. “And I’m really proud about that. I’m really proud of the way that I see things based on who I am.”