Yvonne Kuennen remembers one of her first major metalworking projects, one that she designed for her final project while working on a Master of Fine Arts in metalworking at Eastern Michigan University.
“I raised a chalice from a flat piece of metal,” she said, describing the labor-intensive process. “I was just so hooked, it was so awesome.”
Now, Kuennen works mostly with metal clay, which is soft like regular clay but contains traces of precious metals, such as silver. In addition to producing art to display and sell at galleries, including Arts Alive Gallery in Breckenridge, Kuennen teaches workshops and volunteers as an art instructor at Snowy Peaks High School.
Discovering art in all its forms
The artistic gift runs through Kuennen’s family. Her grandfather was “an absolute wizard” with art. He was primarily a painter and became popular in his Baltimore neighborhood for the oil pastel paintings that he’d paint on his neighbors’ screen doors.
“He was always trying to make his art useful,” Kuennen said. “He’s my inspiration. That’s where I got it.”
Born in Florida, Kuennen grew up in Virginia Beach, Va., and eventually moved to the Midwest for college, where she received a degree in philosophy and worked in the advertising industry, specifically with graphic arts.
“When I came out to Colorado, I knew that it was going to be permanent because everyone that I knew that went to Colorado never returned,” she said with a laugh.
The same was true for her. Not only did she enjoy the beautiful scenery, but she met her future husband within just a few weeks of moving.
Kuennen had dabbled in beadwork, along with her metalworking, and took up both again seriously about 15 years ago.
At that time, she brought her young daughter, Laura, along with her to art festivals. Laura, too, has shown an artistic aptitude, Kuennen said. Kuennen has also flexed her writing skills, submitting articles to various art magazines.
For the past seven years, Kuennen has been a part of the Arts Alive Gallery, a co-op gallery in Breckenridge in which local artists display and sell their artwork, as well as volunteer at the gallery once a month. It’s through the gallery that Kuennen started volunteering at Snowy Peaks High School.
Sharing art with others
“I love the teaching part,” Kuennen said. “I think my favorite part is demonstrating how simple the process can be and reminding people that everybody has the gift — and I get to help them open their present! It’s just so much fun.”
Kuennen, who teaches the students how to mold, shape, paint and fire the metal clay, has been impressed with the pieces that her students have produced.
It’s particularly satisfying when those who start out skeptical — often boys — end up with “the most incredible things, and they’re so pleased with themselves,” she said. “It’s very rewarding.”
In addition to teaching high school students, Kuennen hosts workshops and private lessons in a variety of art forms. She has several certifications in teaching metal clay and often takes lessons in new topics, such as torch enameling.
The majority of Kuennen’s work at the gallery is jewelry. In her display cases, silver shines and dichroic glass sparkles in a rainbow of color. She makes earrings, necklaces, bracelets and rings, each item different from the last. Another good way to take a look at her work is to look at what she’s wearing — nearly all the jewelry she wears, she makes herself.
Many of Kuennen’s pieces have natural elements, such as leaves and feathers.
Recently, she found a way to incorporate real aspen leaves into her jewelry. Using trial and error, she managed to cover a leaf in silver clay. Upon firing, the leaf burned away but left impressions of its delicate tracery of veins. Kuennen made a necklace and now makes them on commission.
In addition to nature, Kuennen is often inspired by a single element, such as a stone or gem.
“I’ll design around it, (for example) a beautiful piece of turquoise,” she said. “Some of my favorite things are turquoise, rubies, emeralds and fire opal, amber and coral.”
Although the actual process of artistic inspiration is difficult to put into words, Kuennen is an expert at putting it into practice, not only in her own works, but in her workshops.
“That’s what I love about the metal clay, is it demonstrates to people that yes, they indeed can do this too,” she said. “It’s not this thing beyond their reach.”