KNEELING MARIACHI SKELETON GUITAR PLAYER of silver, eighteen and twenty-two karat gold, moonstones, and turquoise; 9.9 centimeters high, 2008. Photograph by Robert K. Liu/Ornament.

Kit Carson

Renaissance Cowboy

The southwestern United States is an evocative landscape, associated with mesas, sandstone and turquoise. It is not ostentatiousness but grandeur that defines the area, as elegantly represented by the Grand Canyon. The land is not filled with the thick forests resident to the Pacific Northwest, and often the vegetation is limited to sporadic brush and cacti. It is in these areas where the earth itself rises up to fill in the void with crimson reds and august yellows. It might seem surprising to see so much color in a desert, but come springtime there will be all the more, in the form of millions of flowers. The southwestern desert constantly gives lie to the stereotypes associated with the term, as it is full of color and life, always containing a surprise. Metalsmith, sculptor and jeweler, Kit Carson is in that way emblematic of his environment.

KIT CARSON’S STUDIO, with eco-friendly design. Photographs by Kit Carson Photo except where noted.

That environment is a sprouting spot of rusty iron surrounded by the otherwise undisturbed wilderness of New River, Arizona, bordering the Tonto National Forest. Unlike so many human habitations, which seem to push nature away with a stick and lawnmower, Carson’s abode is an unassuming oasis of humanity within the surrounding desert. That said, Cactus Camp, Carson’s studio, is eccentrically characterful. A corrugated metal half-cylinder reminiscent of an airplane hangar lies next to mounds of rusty contraptions. Sculpture, shrines, signs, and a shack for glasswork stud the area, making Carson’s home a source of visual stimulation.

Carson’s artistic background has been a permanent fixture in his life. Laughing at his pragmatic roots, the artist remarks, “Really, it started very young when I was on the ranch, and learned I could draw. I discovered I could draw well. And people noticed that and said you can draw well. I listened. And I went, ‘Wow, in that case I’m going to draw a lot because I get attention!’ ” Such encouragement was instrumental in Carson’s growing involvement in the arts. He would continue his drawing interests into high school, where he became influenced by the psychedelic posters coming out of San Francisco and California in general.

“Rick Griffin, Stanley Mouse and Kelly Studios, R. Crumb, those guys were doing super foreshortened drawings, a lot of playing with scale, and all the melting letters making three-dimensional lettering. I was fascinated by the style—I could draw it well. I could copy it well. And I started making my own lettering.” Already the entrepreneur, Carson drew Big Daddy Roth style monsters (those who grew up during the Ren and Stimpy cartoon era will be familiar with Big Daddy Roth) on other students’ T-shirts for twenty-five cents, and lettered the campaign posters for student representatives running for office. This aspect of his life would continue as he attended the local junior college in Prescott for more art education, where he took metalworking and other courses. That would be his introduction to jewelry.

KIT CARSON’S WORKSHOP TABLE, with assorted stones, drawings and jewelry in various stages of completion. Photograph by Robert K. Liu/Ornament.

However, it was Carson’s stint at the University of Oregon, Eugene, that would lead to the artist’s jewelry career. Enrolling in the metalsmithing program there, Carson would become exposed to engraving due to his jewelry instructor, who would occasionally give demonstrations of different techniques.

Carson is not a person who appears to switch from interest to interest; rather, he accumulates them. Engraving became his new passion, but as with drawing was simply added to his repertoire, after intense study. “I studied lettering with him for the next two years,” the artist explains. “That’s all I did, lettering, the hardest thing I ever did in my life. Studying that discipline with hand-sharpened, hand-pushed gravers, making Roman numerals, old English script lettering until you just get it down.” Eventually he began to work as an engraver, earning fifty cents for every letter he engraved. All the hard work paid big dividends when Carson began to engrave his own little animals and designs. “Boom! There’s my career—engraving my drawings,” Carson states emphatically. “I took the classical trained engraving techniques of trophy lettering, and instead of doing lettering I carved my drawings. There’s the essence of my jewelry career.”

PENTAGONAL TIDEPOOL NECKLACE of eighteen and twenty-two karat yellow gold, Tibetan turquoise, citrine, peridot, and London Blue topaz; hand-engraved, pierced, constructed, bolted, 2009.

Carson attributes as much credit for his skill to workshops he attended as he does to his college experience. “It’s ongoing. Just last year I went to the engraving school in Kansas and took an advanced class there. Learned a lot, and had a ball. Bunch of engraving nerds for a week. We would go back at night and engrave!” The artist also teaches workshops himself, which he finds just another element in the educational journey.

The power of Carson’s works comes from his finagling of disparate visual elements into a single engaging piece. The color and type of stones used, open engraving or solid metal, where and whether to add a dangler; these are the aspects Carson modifies in his work to produce a menagerie of jewelry. These are always accompanied by his trademark motifs, with Art Nouveau influences in much of his engravings. Animals, such as his iconic hare, feature in many pieces, as do fleur-de-lis and skulls and skeletons.

Carson is fascinated by the nature of the desert, and this appreciation has led him to submerge himself within its vast depths. As an inquisitive resident, he has spent many hours exploring its reaches, all the while learning more about his chosen abode. His surroundings become incorporated into his jewelry; from cholla cactus skeletons to desert flowers, the local fauna, the land and its colors.

It is this attention to the reality of the desert and a love affair with the thematic elements of the Wild West both old and new that results in Carson’s beautiful palette of gemstones and zany character. Spiny oyster shell provides brilliant orange hues, while moonstones, gaspeite, sugilite, and other less commonly used gems surprise the eye with opalescent blues, ostentatious purples and lime greens. This aesthetic arsenal alone makes Carson’s jewelry distinctive.

JACKRABBIT CUFF of eighteen and twenty-two karat yellow gold, rusted steel from one-hundred-year-old whiskey barrel ring strap, and India Blue moonstone, 2010.

However, it is the prism of Art Nouveau vision through which Carson’s many subjects pass that results in the true magic of his engraving. His skill at the technique translates to a sense of refinement of design; every line is in its place. And these lines converge to become hares and ravens, skulls and skeletal horses, cholla cactuses and cardinals, often accompanied by the swaying stylized depictions of leaves and plant life that make up the garden imagery of Art Nouveau. Through this we see a truly living desert, stretching beyond the stereotypes of the Southwest to something more real and more honest.

Perhaps this is due to Carson’s own integrity. When one compares his early work from the 1980s to his current explorations, a true evolution of complexity and a developing understanding of design makes itself apparent. More contrasting visual elements in harmonious repose, bolder engraving lines, unconventional compositions all make their appearance in his work, and one wonders if it is due in part to the increasing diversity of the Southwest itself. Carson’s work in 1987 featured bucking bronco bolo ties, snakes, lizards and cow skull belt buckles, all what one associates with the Wild West. But the days of the Southwest being exclusively the purview of cowboys and indians is over. Now, Latino culture is acknowledged as a significant Southwestern element. Native Americans have slowly emerged from their image as adversaries in the media and now are recognized as part of the artistic soul of the Southwest. Imitating none but drawing from them for inspiration, Carson accurately depicts the much more subtle world of the modern West.

CACTUS BROOCH of silver, eighteen and twenty-two karat gold, amethyst, spiny oyster shell, Carico Lake turquoise, and Sleeping Beauty turquoise; 7.8 centimeters high, 2006. Photograph by Robert K. Liu/Ornament.

There are some people who thrive on the stresses of a deadline, and Carson derives energy from the pressure of necessity. This acts as a creative force for him. Having to complete a dozen pieces for an upcoming show in a week is energizing for Carson, both physically and creatively. The demands of the deadline require mental gyrations to produce the work, and Carson revels in the challenge. Having pushed himself hard through his study of engraving and subsequently selling his services as a letterer, work is not perceived as daunting. Indeed, the impetus provides the opportunity for focus. With an artist like Carson, whose library of ideas stretches the entirety of the Arizonian desert and beyond, this is a blessing. Deciding on a single motif, rendering it, and producing it can be impossible if one is drawn in too many directions. “One has to realize that the realm of ideas is often more perfect than the realm of manifestation,” Carson ruminates. “So, you can get your idea and then when you go to manifest it into your work, which is your business, which you have to run as a business to make money to make a living, that edits out a lot of your influences of all the things you’re pulled by.”

Carson is a veteran jeweler, having crossed the rubicon between worrying about others perceptions of you, and your perception of yourself. To him, that point of no return is acknowledging that there is always more to learn. “I think when you’re younger you reach a point after some initial success where you think you know it all, and your career starts slowing down a bit. And then once you get out of that ego trap, then you start realizing, ‘Wow, look at these guys around me that are using my techniques and doing things I really don’t understand. Let’s go research that, let’s see how can I grow.’ And once you start learning how to grow and really learning how to learn, then education opens up for you because you want it just because you crave doing better, not because you want to get the degree.”

EARRINGS of steel and antique olive oil can segments, amethyst, sterling silver, and eighteen karat yellow gold; 6.35 centimeters long, 2010. STEEL CHAIN BRACELET of eighteen and twenty-two karat yellow gold, orange spiny oyster shell, sugilite, gaspeite, and copper, 2010. LARGE STEEL CUFF of eighteen karat yellow gold, twenty-two karat gold, Sleeping Beauty turquiose, 2010. Photograph by George Post.

This insight is essential for any artist; it is, in essence, living for the work rather than expecting the work to live for you. Carson’s wisdom is easily applicable to not only artists but people in all creative professions. “Insecurity breeds grandiosity. When someone gets a little bit of knowledge sometimes that’s dangerous because others notice that you know how to make jewelry, so they give you all these accolades. If you let your ego listen to that, then you get into a place where someone’s going to find out what you don’t know. And your ego also says, ‘Well, let’s just show them how much we know,’ so you react to the grandiosity to cover up the insecurity of what you really don’t know. It’s a silly trap, I see people get into it, I got into it when I was young too. But one needs to just pursue the essence of your work and really think about why you’re doing your work.” Such self-awareness breeds knowledge, which breeds confidence. It is this which expresses itself in Carson’s energetic experimentation with his work, resulting recently in his Romantic Rust series.

It would appear that his newest work has struck a deep chord not only in his audience, but in Carson himself. Perhaps it was an inevitable development. The artist’s home is a cemetery of metal, with organized piles of rusted objects separated by neat footpaths. Over thirty tons of rusty junk makes up the artist’s “visual library.”

HUMMINGBIRD BROOCH of sterling silver and eighteen karat gold; 4.65 centimeters, 2010. Photograph by Robert K. Liu/Ornament.

For Carson, these decaying contraptions and parts are raw material, to be reanimated as bracelets, earrings and necklaces. What was formerly interpreted as valueless now are the qualities that impart value; the deep browns and reds and murky black hues that are seldom seen in jewelry, with that feeling of antiquity only rust can provide. Sealed with polyurethane, all the beauty of the rust is evident without the material rubbing off on one’s clothes or skin. Like his dancing and instrument-playing mariachi skeletons, there is no morbidity of spirit; the metal is alive once again.

Rusty metal also offers many opportunities for unusual color palettes, and Carson runs with this as far as he can. Paints applied to the rusted surface splash deep blues and greens across the coal black surface of a bracelet, topped by a touch of silver and crystalline topaz. The colors of the bracelet would never be found in traditional gold or silver jewelry; perhaps annodized metal might offer comparable hues. The result is mesmerizing; the contrast between the bold blue and green colors with the textured black surface of the rusty steel is highly attractive. A butterfly pendant is filled with shades of brown merging into orange and black. The turquoise ellipse in the center draws one’s gaze in, to then radiate back out along the veins of patina.

When asked about the necessity of space to recharge the imagination, the artist points to his newest jewelry. “I do that pretty spontaneously within the work that I’m doing. So I am in the middle of coming up with a new line that requires techniques I haven’t done before.” Having to connect dissimilar metals, such as rusted steel or copper and a noble metal like gold, having to deal with different rates of metal fatigue and even the aesthetic possibilities of the new material has pushed Carson’s creative envelope. Enthusiastically he continues, “So, right within working on that new line I’m like on a working vacation, you know. Because I’m going back out to the scrapyard, I’m discovering new pieces, I’m really excited about pulling pieces out, like this piece right here made out of the strap off an old whisky barrel!

MAD HATTER BRACELET (obverse and reverse) of sterling silver, aquamarine, amethyst, peridot, citrine, and garnet; 5.7 centimeters wide, 2010. Reverse features the Cheshire Cat. Photograph by Robert K. Liu/Ornament.

“I’m all about using anything that looks good. If it looks good, it is good to me. I’m all about playing with that idea of value,” Carson explains in regard to his usage of materials. “Just because it’s got a six carat emerald doesn’t mean it has any more value than another piece of jewelry that has a green piece of rubber in it, that’s a fabulous design. I’m all about pushing those limits of what is value and what isn’t.”

As far as pushing the limits of art itself, Carson is adamant that Burning Man, the annual counter-culture gathering and social experiment in the Nevada desert, is the place to go. Having attended four times, first in 2001, Carson acknowledges that the event “blew open my doors of what I can do as an artist.” As someone truly appreciative of and in love with the making of art, Carson finds something undeniably attractive to the unrestrained self-expression found at Burning Man. “Burning Man is the coolest thing I’ve ever been to in my life,” the artist solemnly asserts. “I’ve never seen people put so much ingenuity, technical skill and humor into work just for the sake of doing the work. You can’t sign it, you can’t sell it, you can just enjoy it.”

EARRINGS of eighteen and twenty-two karat yellow gold, steel, India Blue moonstone, and Sleeping Beauty turquoise; 4.13 centimeters long, 2010.

Ultimately, what is definitive about Carson is his love of creation, and willingness to create in whatever field takes his fancy. While a seasoned and skilled jeweler, Carson also creates sculpture, keeps drawing as an essential aspect of his life, does cold-worked glass, decorates custom guitars and even plays in his own band. Carson’s ability to engage across the spectrum of interests no doubt has an effect on the variability and complexity of his work.

Perhaps Carson’s versatility of spirit comes from his philosophical outlook. “Once you lose your ego, you come from a place of greater integrity, because you’re coming from your soul place,” the artist elaborates. “Not from a place where your ego says, ‘I’m different than, I’m better than, I’m less than, I’m separate than,’ but your soul says ‘I’m equal with everything, and I’m capable of doing anything.’ A life lived with integrity follows naturally towards opportunity.”

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