Found in the Vacancy
Now that I am gone, living in New York City feels like a fever dream. I made my decision to leave Arizona with a coin toss, when my previous school shuttered its art program as I was deciding who I wanted to be.
Once I was there, I struggled to find my place and voice in an art institution in which it seemed no one shared my formative experiences – how it felt to breathe in the expansive air after a summer monsoon or the scent of the Ponderosa Pine. I tried to imagine the city as its own ecosystem, the skyline as its canyon rim. The humidity was so full on summer evenings, heavy during the day. It was lonely. I could feel the bones of the apartment most days. I knew every person’s footsteps by the way they echoed against the ceiling of my room and traced themselves down the hallway. I didn’t see a sunset for an entire year. It just got dark.
On a whim, I started taking silversmithing classes. I shaped cicada wings in silver, curved metal twigs and branches around my hands. I loved how tactile it was, the intimacy of it.
I felt full in a way I hadn’t since leaving Arizona. Everything I made was some reflection of my home in the desert, peeking through a window behind me. Attention to details expands into attention to moments. All of a sudden, I noticed sunsets all the time - lilac and cool yellow reflecting in all the east-facing windows, soft light splintering across a city that never quiets. Jewelry can reveal a new way of seeing, a new relationship with an object.
The work I make in the studio is born from my experiences in the Southwest, and from the act of missing it. I often thought about the subtle lines, curves, colors, and textures of the highlands of Arizona. Whenever I returned home I spent long days gathering and collecting natural objects: stones, bones, snake skins and branches; and observing how the objects overlap and coexist to define this place. These things, in turn, helped form my sense of self.
I use a combination of traditional forming techniques and direct burnout casting, burning away the object as it sits in fine plaster, and filling its vacancy with precious metal: a perfect replica. A tiny monument for the small details of the desert. I let the objects lead the designs. It was so easy to become overwhelmed by the fear and grief of uncertainty. But in the studio, while creating, lives the possibility of presence.
The pandemic pushed me out of the city before I was ready. I took my cat, my senior thesis jewelry collection, a few dresses and fled to my childhood home. There was a moment, right before I stepped onto a plane, where the jet bridge didn’t quite touch the aircraft. That last full breath of a specific place. I tried to balance all my bags, my cat fussing in his carrier. It’s important to love where we are going, but also to honor where we were, what we lost. I forgot to take my last breath of New York City.
There’s something about a place with so much sky, so much life hidden by an orange landscape. It makes you raw, easier to crack open. In the quiet, there is space to hear your voice. Making jewelry explores the extension of myself in its context, allowing me to speak into that space. I am constantly working to understand my relationship with my home landscape through the intimacy of making. Making jewelry explores the extension of myself in its context, allowing me to speak into that space. Making work about my home, while I grew to know a new one, deepened my love for both places. It is a tender and firm sort of love.
Leaving the city was unceremonious. I did not get to say goodbye. New York did not blink when I left. My friend packed up all my tools and studio supplies, wearing a facemask on our now-abandoned campus. All my projects that were unfinished and sitting on my workbench were stuffed into boxes without me there. I do not know who I will be when I see them again.
But leaving also gave me a gift. In Arizona, I’ve slowly assembled my studio. I make myself go on a walk every day. I collect stones and sticks and small bones. I cry. I ask: is my breath happy here? I sit in the wilderness and sketch, marking the deep cuts of bark in graphite, then pen. I remember how my heartbeat slows in the presence of Manzanita. The tightness in my chest that I always felt walking through the city streets has loosened. After two months, I began making again.
Art cannot heal the sick, or feed the hungry, or bring back the dead. But art has capacity for empathy, for intimacy. Art can help us understand and it can help us connect. It feels as if the world is on pause. There is a vacancy in the space everything else has been holding. And now, it might bridge the social distances between us. Long studio days are not romantic. Making is hard, like stitching a wound. I’ve cried over melted solder seams more times than I can count. But creating is also innate and necessary, it offers possibility.
I still grieve leaving New York. I grieve the state of the world. It is a privilege over and over again to be able to dedicate so much of my time to making. From our beleaguered earth, I see an invitation for creativity that can help pull the world through its aching growing pains. On my workbench, there is a pile of stones, and sticks, and small bones that I have been waiting on. I’m going to listen to where they tell me to go.
Kestrel Fleischner is an art jeweler and writer who takes inspiration from the small details, colors, and textures of the Southwestern topography she grew up in. Her work stems from her personal sense of place and belonging that she has developed through desert botanicals. Kestrel transplanted herself from Arizona to New York City in 2017, completing a BFA in Jewelry Design at Pratt Institute in 2020. She currently splits her time between the two places, where she continues to silversmith, write, and explore.