Meet Chris Keener
re-printed Plain Dealer Interview by Allison Carey
You're known for your beautiful work with metals, beach glass and other found items. How did you discover your talent?
I grew up collecting beach glass just to fill bowls and jars. Fourteen years ago, I made myself a bracelet. I drilled holes in the glass and made it with my hands; it was very organic. I wore it to a party and a woman went crazy for it. She asked me to make five of them. She bought them, gave them to her friends, who then started calling me for matching earrings. I was working in corporate America at the time. Discovering that I loved to work with my hands changed everything. I wanted to learn more about the properties of metals. I took classes at several schools. I studied in Colorado and got great training from Todd Pownell and Debra Rosen at TAP Studios in Cleveland. Most recently I went to Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, concentrating on metal-smithing. What I learned there changed my life. Now, this is my job, I work at it every day.
Your work evolves. There's always something new to examine . . . and want!
I've been exposed to so many different methods and tools. I experiment with what I've learned, like etching and enameling. My designs do evolve. I do many one-of-a kind pieces. Sure, they're all different because of the uniqueness of the objects I use, but I also incorporate design elements to make them more unique and sophisticated. Usually, I work in a series. I did a series of flowers, called "Flower Power," with many different shapes and mixed metals. I did pendants of glass and silver flowers growing out of sterling flowerpots. Now I'm working on a series called "Pronged." It's a takeoff of fine jewelry where big gems are set with prongs. I'm using beach glass and other found objects. It never gets old because each piece is different and has new challenges. I also make things other than jewelry, like belt buckles and decorative things for the home. I sew mittens from old sweaters. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a fashion designer.
And you are! You repurpose things found on the beach. What's the strangest thing you've found?
I used to go to a different beach practically every day. Now, I go only a few times a year. I have plenty to work with and I'm working more often with cabochons, turquoise, shells and fossils. At first I was in love with the hunt. Now I love the creating end of things. At the beach, I don't dig in the sand. I just pick up what I see. My friends tease that I have mermaids delivering the beach glass right to my feet. I'll walk the beach with friends who find nothing and I'll fill up a big bag. I've found an old porcelain doll face, old coins, an engraved sterling spoon, military dog tags and marbles . . . lots of marbles. Kids used to throw their marbles into the lake after their visits to Euclid Beach Park. Some things that wash up on the beach, like bits of china and sterling silverware, come from shipwrecks. There are reports of an estimated 2,000 wrecks in Lake Erie alone, up to 8,000 in all of the Great Lakes. Also, because trash was dumped in the lake for decades, beach glass comes from beverage bottles, decorative bottles and vases, car taillights, jars of various products and millions of other items. The easiest glass colors to find are white and seafoam green. The rarest is orange, then red.
What gives beach glass that smooth, frosty surface? Does Lake Erie produce good beach glass?
Rocky beaches are the best for beach glass. Lake Erie has awesome beach glass for a couple of reasons. Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes and has a high pH level. The high pH level and the rough waves that move the glass along the lake floor naturally tumble the glass and create the best frosty beach glass of the Great Lakes. The glass rolls along the stone and pebble bottom and takes on the shape of the stones.
How do you juggle being creative, doing shows and running a gallery?
I do fewer shows these days and I work at the gallery a few days a week. I do custom work for people who have good ideas of their own.
You're talent with metal has really grown.
I love the properties of metal. Because of the astronomical prices of sterling silver, I now also work with brass and copper. I'm careful with my inventory and I gather all of my scraps and filings and sell them back to the dealer. You can't waste anything. I buy metals in sheets and spools of wire. Tools and machines, like my 200-pound rolling mill, allow me to shape and texture sheet metal.
What do you love about your work?
It doesn't seem like work because I love it. I'm passionate about the process. I majored in textile design. I love colors, shapes and textures. I love the challenge of trying to figure something out. I'll draw a design and then I have to figure out how to build it. I prefer to go to the beach alone. It's therapeutic and soulful. I have to limit my time or I'd be there all day. I love my studio; it's like a tree fort with great light, windows and trees, and room for all of my tools. I doodle things that inspire me in a little sketchbook, and I have an area in my studio for looking at books on textures, flowers and whatever else might inspire me. If I get stuck, I can sit and regroup or I look at a tray of glass that I find super interesting. Any number of things can be my starting point -- the glass, the metal or even a tool that I want to work with. The challenge is to keep things fresh and new, but the ideas always come . . . eventually.