Keith Lewis

Keith Lewis

2022 Fellow
Published on Tuesday, August 23, 2022. This article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of American Craft Magazine.
jewelry artist keith lewis in studio

Photo by Jovelle Tamayo.

Keith Lewis
Thorp, Washington

“As cliché as it sounds, the first time I held a soldering torch in my hand, that felt very right,” recalls metalsmith and jeweler Keith Lewis. A prosaic statement, yet Lewis’s work is anything but. Since receiving his BS in chemistry from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and his MFA in jewelry and metalsmithing from Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, Lewis, 62, has created pins, brooches, necklaces, and rings—body ornaments usually worn by women—that confront gay male sexual identity, memory (Victorian mourning jewelry), loss (AIDS), and the body.

Jewelry has deep historical connections with intimacy and sentiment. As such, it became “the medium I felt was most useful in pursuing the subject matter I was most interested in,” Lewis says, subject matter rarely, if ever, approached with such unapologetic directness and technical virtuosity in the medium. One critic described Lewis’s work as “sculpture that happens to have a pin on the back,” while another characterized it as “jewelry as a transportable polemic.“

art jewelry necklace with 35 gold strands and 35 miscellaneous pendants

35 Dead Souls, 1992–93, 36 pendants, assorted material and sizes. Collection of the Rotasa Fund. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Lewis’s investigations into jewelry as remembrance began with brooches commemorating friends and acquaintances who had died of AIDS and continued through work exploring, and sometimes satirizing, gay male identity and sexuality. He also began incorporating female sexual imagery, based on frescoes at Pompeii, in enameled pins and necklaces. More recently, Lewis has transformed baskets from Goodwill into adorned jewels reflecting their life- enhancing prior use.

art jewelry necklace with pendant in the shape of a torso with watering can spout for head and covered in pink flowers

Bloom, 1998, sterling silver, 18K gold, brass, enamel on fine silver, diamonds, 8 x 5 x 4 in. (pendant). Photo courtesy of the artist.

A distinguished professor at Central Washington University, where he’s taught since 1994, Lewis’s work is in the collections of the Tacoma Art Museum; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas; the Museum of Arts and Design, New York; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. “Jewelry is a stealth medium for pushing ideas people might not pay attention to on a museum wall or in literature,” he says. “Teaching broadens my engagement beyond sitting at the bench. There’s nothing else, from a professional point of view, that’s as suitable to me as teaching and making jewelry.”

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