Inside an artisan jewelry-maker's studio

The bird house is a symbol of protection and security, nature and beauty. It's a safe, serene place to quietly watch the outside world unfurl. And it's also Hudson Valley jewelry-maker Denise Leaden's signature piece. Denise is a creative dynamo who spends hours in her own bird house of sorts: her jewelry studio. Trueself caught up with Denise to discuss her passion to share the beauty, simplicity, and fulfillment of artistic creation.

What was your earliest memory of making art?

As a little girl I was always creative. I loved being home sick in elementary school where my mother would give me crayons and coloring books. I purposely picked out the odd colors. I clearly remember colors back in the 60s such as "blue-gray." "Greenish blue" was a favorite, "maroon" and "burnt orange." I knew it was different to use these colors, so a sense of uniqueness came to me early on.

When did you start making jewelry, and how did you learn? Why jewelry?

I really stumbled into jewelry. I don't wear much myself. Being creative with many mediums, I eventually discovered beads. I have a friend who was obsessed with them, and all along I never felt what she did until I glanced at a Robert Redford's Sundance Catalog about 8 years ago. The aesthetic was so pleasing. I started to go to bead shows and down to New York City to look for the components. I copied some of the pieces because I loved the feeling from the warmth of silver and subtle semi-precious stones. As I made pieces, I sold them to friends and at vendor craft shows. Although all along, I felt so compelled to make my own components. This is when I decided I wanted to work with silver. I started taking a few classes, and through the process of trying out new techniques I got really comfortable. I am still learning everyday, and would love to take more classes.

Over the years I had worked with other mediums such as printmaking, collage, sewing, woodworking…so many things. I still have ambition to pursue more of these crafts, but have no time!

Denise Leaden

Any favorite pieces?

I make these tiny constructed bird houses. Living on 5 acres of land, being a naturalist and avid bird watcher, my home is home to many species of birds lured by different types of food and bird houses. It is such a symbol of nature and gardening. The medium I use is PMC or precious metal clay. It's a compound made of microscopic powdered recycled fine silver with a binder that makes it pliable, just as any clay that would eventually be fired in a kiln. I build these one at a time in my studio. It's actually like constructing a wood one, with a floor, walls and roof. I add textures from things I find such as the grain on a piece of wood, a snippet of a screen, linen; the possibilities are endless. After kiln-firing them, there's a whole process of oxidizing, buffing, and polishing. Finally, I solder a sterling jump ring to the top and put them on chains. I also love unique earrings and have come up with many designs.

From which other artists do you draw inspiration or influence?

None that have influenced my work, but lot's who inspire. To narrow it down, I have always been drawn to young or tortured geniuses, loners, travelers… The Beats, Patti Smith, and work that is odd or different … something to make me think more. Outsider art, Gee's Bend quilters, Basquiat, Keith Haring, the passion and striking talent of Chuck Close, whose profound statement was pivotal for me getting involved with metal work: "The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who'll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you."

Denise Leaden

What does art-making mean to you? How does art fit into your life?

Being a maker is something I have to do. It's like breathing. It's the first thing I think about in the morning when I wake, sometimes before coffee! I pick up where I left off the night before. Any free time I have I am at my bench, sometimes working on two or three things at once. Although it is a discipline, it is also my mediation. Everything I worry about—and I am a worrier—disappears when I'm able to create.

How does art benefit children?

I have always been involved with children, from childcare to teaching art workshops throughout my life. After my attempt at gaining a teaching degree in my twenties, I fell into a position as Art Director at a local established daycare and preschool. Children are natural artists, free to draw from their mind and experiences without judgment. They gain emotional perception and intuition through creativity. Studies show students who love art and visit art museums show stronger critical thinking skills. Socially, a room full of kids drawing and creating promotes unity and tolerance, the more early on the better.

With the advances of technology, new media such as video, LEDs, mechanics and Instagram have come into the foreground. Do you think technology has threatened or enhanced art?

Not threatened at all. We are always evolving culturally; it may be hard to accept, especially being from my generation, but to see kids excited about creativity and producing art in alternative ways is also exciting enhanced or not. 3D printing and all it involves makes me anxious; I am not drawn to learn, although I have seen amazing things printed out, and can respect these artists.

There will always be people who want to work with traditional mediums, there will always be crafters; in fact with the Makers Movement, even more than ever.

Any advice you'd give to aspiring artists? Any warnings?

Just keep creating and learning through the process, try different mediums, explore your passions. Get involved.

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