Color on the Cutting Edge: The Jewelry of Michael Kirk
Elizabeth Kirk is the daughter of legendary Navajo & Isleta Pueblo jeweler Michael Kirk, as well as a frequent collaborator and manager of his business. Michael Kirk, has long been an innovator in the Native American jewelry world, and his name has become synonymous with quality and craftsmanship. People don’t often associate Native American jewelry with cutting-edge technology, but Kirk is an artist whose work makes you rethink everything you think you know about Native jewelry. We sat down with Elizabeth to talk about her father’s signature feather designs, the innovative technology behind his popular color series, and how she and her father are responding to a changing market.
My father, has been making his feather pieces since 1971, and we began the color series in 2014. The feather work is what draws people to my father’s jewelry. When you hold one of his pieces, you can actually see and feel every individual line, and people simply don’t understand how he can achieve that level of detail. They think it’s a machine and then we show them the tool we use. It’s very labor intensive, and that finish and detail really sets his work apart from other jewelers. My father’s designs are extremely delicate. He loves things to look like they flow.
In developing the color series, the whole allure was being able to add color without utilizing stone. To create the bright colors, we add a ceramic e-coat to the jewelry using electroplating technology. To my knowledge, there are only one or two Native artists using this process, so it is completely new and different for most people. I love that these pieces incorporate the traditional part of jewelry which is the fabrication and the contemporary part which is the coloring.
The feather pieces are all handmade, fabricated pieces. The e-coating color system is the final step the pieces go through, and it brings out and magnifies any imperfection so we have to be extremely careful in the finishing process. The process involves eleven steps comprised of an electrocleaner, distilled water, an acid dip and drying done with an air compressor. Fingerprints will show up in the color so we can’t touch the pieces and have actually developed our own tools for handling the jewelry.
Once the piece is completely finished to our satisfaction, we submerge the jewelry in a liquid bath and apply electricity, choosing voltage based on the thickness of ceramic wanted on the piece and the color we want to achieve. The other factor that affects the color is how long you apply the electrical current. The color process is followed by more cleaning steps and drying. While it air dries, it goes from something that looks tacky to a very metallic finish. Finally the pieces are cured for 30 minutes in the oven.
The e-coating technology was developed in Italy and is sold at Rio Grande here in Albuquerque. They’ve been instrumental in providing new technologies and helping us improve production, thus taking our art to new levels and make sure our jewelry is constantly evolving. My father welcomes change because he feels that when you become stagnant, you become obsolete. While the feather design has been very good to us, it has evolved greatly from when he first started in 1971. As the times change, so do the buyers, and we have to adapt while keeping true to ourselves and our designs.
Nowadays more and more people are purchasing Native jewelry not because it’s an art but because it’s an accessory. They purchase because it goes with an outfit, which is something I do myself. The younger generation is looking for different and edgy, and the ceramic coating has offered us a way to change the look of the jewelry without taking away from the integrity of my father’s work. My father and I take issue with others dictating what Native art is and isn't. By using this new color technology and developing his line of cast pieces, we plan on expanding our market.
Our designs are generalizations of our culture, and in no way depict any part of our culture specifically because that is forbidden. Many are looking for a romanticized story to go along with a piece, but the truth is that we make what we do for the beauty, to make a living and for the love of art. I first took over the business aspect of my father’s jewelry-making when I was 17 in order to free him up to be the artist he is. I’ve been in this industry full time for 21 years and have become intertwined in his art for the love of family and our art form. I do what I do to carry on the legacy which my father and uncle started to build 43 years ago.