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How did we meet Karen Christians?
We often visit the Western Avenue Studios in Lowell, MA and we met Karen on a sunny Monday morning. She was so enthusiastic about showing us around her studio and talked about her book project about the Jewelry of Star Trek. We were captivated by her buoyant personality and wanted to showcase her studio.
Tell us a little about what attracted you to this business.
I am an independent jewelry teacher, maker, and writer.
What visual aspects of your space are the most interesting, unique, and noteworthy (historically) that would help bring interest in your location?
Based in the Western Avenue Studios in Lowell, MA, my jewelry studio is located in one of the mill buildings that used to produce industrial fibers back in the heyday of the textile industry. Western Avenue Studios (WAS) has a vibrant community located on the Lowell Canal and is home to 350 Artisans, 250 unique artist studios on five floors and in two buildings. We have Open Studios on the first Saturday of every month, which makes our space unique.
How did you end up in your current location?
In 1998, I founded the non-profit jewelry school Metalwerx: School for Jewelry and the MetalArts in Waltham, MA. In 2008, I moved to Maynard Art Space, attracted by a group of multimedia artisans in the former Maynard Elementary School. In 2011, I moved to Artisan’s Asylum in Somerville, a 40K sq ft facility, where I built both the Jewelry Shop, a jewelry teaching, and metal casting shop. During my time there, I ran a funded Kickstarter for my book, Jewelry of Burning Man. In 2016, I moved to Western Avenue and teach privately.
What are the reactions when people visit your space?
Usually, “OMG!” My space is very colorful, highly organized and tells stories from Burma to Burning Man. It is a place of making, creativity and problem-solving.
What do you most want people to know about your business?
My space is more than just making or selling my jewelry. I promote Fair Trade metalsmithing from Africa, India, Nepal, Thailand, and high-end jewelry from Romania. I am passionate and committed to promoting all metal makers, regardless of where they live. I’m a bit obsessed with stones and learned how to cut cabochons. I love consulting. Consulting for a business, a school or personal studio space to give anyone an opportunity to learn, how to work with their hands and to have students gain a better understanding about the process, time and experience of making handmade work. That experience is now consulting with a jewelry factory to help their area flow with more consistency and maximize their net revenue. Metalsmithing is my absolute passion and it is evident when you walk into my world.
I also teach private one on one jewelry classes in both metal fabrication and lapidary.
How did your background help prepare you to start this business?
Good question. I was a late bloomer to college, graduated with a BFA in Metals with Honors and started Metalwerx in 1998, which is now in its 20th year. A BFA did not prepare me to start a school, but I’ve been lucky to have both business and art chops. I’m not scared of jumping if my gut says, go, go, go!
What’s the next level up for your business and when do you see that happening?
I am working on a second book. Jewelry of Star Trek, and continue to teach. I am the Education Chair of Loading Dock Education part of Loading Dock Arts at WAS. This is in conjunction with Loading Dock Gallery. My job is to attract high-level speakers, such as TED talk speakers, major installation artists, business, museum curators and public artists, and workshops who offer insights into running their business and their life as an artist.
Do you have any special projects in the works?
I am working with Makerspace Thailand in Chiang Mai. We will build the first Jewelry Shop for local Thais and visitors, spending three months, November to February, at Wat Sri Suphan (The Silver Temple) learning Thai Metal Chasing and teaching privately at Makerspace Thailand.
Do you donate or volunteer from your business in any capacity?
All the time. I see fledgling schools who need a boost and donate equipment and tools. My husband and I bankrolled Metalwerx purchasing the tools and infrastructure for the school to operate at about $250K. It was important for us to see not only a dedicated school thrive, but I developed a template for business sustainability which has been copied in 14 independent schools in the US. It is simply to give instructors a fair and living wage, pay for their housing, transportation and any shipping charges to run a high-end workshop.
Metalwerx attracted the absolute best of the best in their field. We also provided any specialized tools or equipment they needed to run their workshop. The premise being, Metalwerx takes care of the instructors and the instructors take care of the students. Word of mouth grew and spread. Most recently was Snow Farm Craft School in Williamsburg, MA where I donated two completely new jewelry torch setups, consulted on their metals classroom setup and donated $250 towards a new guillotine metal shear that was $1250 total.