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Arlington artist’s can-do spirit leads to one-of-a-kind jewelry pieces

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By Theresa Goffredo
Herald Writer
Published:
  • Artist Karen Keith uses a propane torch to melt recycled bits and pieces of silver.

    Photos by Michael O'Leary/The Herald

    Artist Karen Keith uses a propane torch to melt recycled bits and pieces of silver.

  • A freshly cast piece of silver is lifted from the broom straw.

    A freshly cast piece of silver is lifted from the broom straw.

  • Keith often adds gemstones to the her jewelry pieces.

    Keith often adds gemstones to the her jewelry pieces.

  • Artist Karen Keith's specialty is handcrafted silver filigree jewelry, such as these earrings dangling from a martini glass.

    Michael O'Leary/The Herald

    Artist Karen Keith's specialty is handcrafted silver filigree jewelry, such as these earrings dangling from a martini glass.

  • Keith pours the molten silver from a ceramic pot into the broom straw.

    Keith pours the molten silver from a ceramic pot into the broom straw.

Growing up, Karen Keith's mother used to say, "Don't try, just do it."
It's the kind of life lesson that forged Keith's way as a single parent of three studying to be a math teacher.
And that motto gave her the gumption to master several ways of making wearable art, one of them quite eccentric, indeed.
Last summer, Keith took a workshop on the art of "broom casting" and now she makes and sells one-of-a-kind silver necklaces and pendants.
Broom casting works like this:
Keith cuts off a hunk from a straw broom and soaks it in water overnight. Then she puts several chunks of silver -- discarded scraps or recycled jewelry bits -- in a ceramic pot and melts the pile using a propane-oxygen torch. When the silver turns liquid, she dumps it quickly over the top of the broom straw in one swift pour.
The result is a multifaceted piece that, like a snowflake, is unique. Unlike the raw beauty of what nature provides, Keith can polish her cast piece of silver with a cache of cool tools.
She likes the randomness of broom casting.
"Each piece is different, and no two ever come out the same," Keith said.
The broom-cast silver pieces are often finished off with a gemstone. And here again is where Keith impresses.
Keith flips through her lexicon of stones and gems with a fluency one uses for foreign languages: kyanite, topaz, labradorite; aventurine, agate and garnet.
Her love of working with stones and gems, as she tells people on her website, compares to "working with treasures from the Earth."
The 50-something Keith is one of those people for whom information sticks to like moss to a rock, and who collects interests like stones. Walk through her home and those facts are on display everywhere: a grand piano, artwork of all kinds and walls of books.
Keith believes it's all connected.
"It's all music, math and art," Keith said. "They are integral to each other."
Keith has been immersed in art and music most of her life. The math she's been doing full-time for 16 years as a geometry and algebra teacher at Arlington High School.
She began her math-teaching career when she found herself a single parent with three boys, an artist and a lover of history.
"Is that going to get me a job? No," Keith said.
So with her mom's "just do it" phrase to guide her, and her dad telling her that there's a good job market for female math teachers, Keith enrolled at Shoreline Community College in 1989.
She went on to Western Washington University to earn a bachelor's degree in mathematics and master's in education.
Along the way, she met and married Lloyd Keith, a history professor at Shoreline. Together, they raised the boys in a bucolic Arlington setting. The middle son, Sean, who was uncanny with animals, was happy to help the family care for their herd of llamas, which grew to nine before Sean died 13 years ago. Karen and Lloyd were married nearly 20 years before Lloyd died two years ago.
Lloyd Keith was supportive and accepting of Karen's interests.
Four years ago, Keith took up silversmithing actively, and now creates dangly earrings and other items, handcrafting silver filigree jewelry based on designs from rosemaling, a Norwegian folk painting technique Keith has used for years.
Keith is largely self-taught on an eight-harness loom, weaving pieces whose colors dance together.
Creating the broom-cast silver pendants came last on Keith's to "just do it" list, but she said it made sense.
"It comes full circle," Keith said. "You weave a piece of fabric, design and create the fabric, and then create the garment. Then you create the jewelry. And then you've got an ensemble."
Theresa Goffredo: 425-339-3424 or goffredo@heraldnet.com

Pieces up close
To see more of Karen Keith's broom-cast silver pendants and handcrafted silver filigree jewelry, go to her website at karenkeithcreations.com.
Keith will be at a booth at the 15th annual Lavender Festival on July 15, 16 and 17 at 220 W. Alder St., Sequim. The website is www.lavenderfestival.com.



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