Sharing the Mystery of Metalsmithing

By Beacon Staff

Alchemists have long sought to harness the power of transmutation; to change the properties within metals to make them more precious, like turning copper to gold. It makes sense then, that Karen Chesna, a local metalsmith, considers herself to be a type of alchemist.

However, instead of changing iron to gold or trying to find the elixir of life, Chesna’s magic lies in turning metals into imaginative, thought-provoking pieces of jewelry, forcing the observer to interact, move and ask themselves about the creations.

“My work is not about preciousness in value,” Chesna said in her studio workshop last week. “My work is very conceptual. It’s about idea; it’s about thought.”

Like most art, it’s also about conversation. And Chesna, a metalsmith for two decades, has taken the conversation a step further, opening Glacier Metal Arts Studio and passing on the knowledge she’s garnered so far.

With 12 years of teaching experience already under her belt, Chesna decided she wanted to pursue a different part of the student market – those who want to add a bit of knowledge here and there, those who have never worked with metals, but overall, those who don’t have the time to take a semester-long class.

Glacier Metal Arts offers a range of classes, from the “make and take” sort that allows people to gather on a Friday evening and make a copper bracelet to the more in-depth classes about soldering or forging.

Chesna also rents bench space to those who are considering getting into the metal art medium, but don’t have the resources to pull together an entire studio on their own. She works there as well, with a workbench in the back of the room.

Since opening the art studio last September, Chesna said she’s found her classes have attracted the students she’d hoped they would. People have driven from Hamilton, Missoula and Bozeman for evening or weekend classes, she said.

“It’s just about learning,” Chesna said. “It’s not accredited and I’d never want it to be.”

The make-and-take classes are typically for beginners or those looking for a fun night out, she said, while there are also classes for those who have some smithing skills but want to learn some more.

“I give a mean solder lecture,” Chesna said.

Then there are the classes for those with specific interests, longer ranging workshops that can feature special instructors brought in to share their expertise. Chesna views it as bringing the world’s knowledge to the Flathead Valley, which can feel isolated at times.

Many of her students were interested in learning about metalsmithing and had been reading up on the subject in magazines or online. But in Chesna’s opinion, this medium needs to be learned through hands-on experience.

A trio of “pathfinder rings” are displayed in Karen Chesna’s Kalispell studio. – Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon.

“It’s like riding a bike,” she said. “You have to do it to learn it.”

Chesna typically works with silver for her own creations, and students for classes can wind up using precious metals – gold and silver – as they learn. But typically, everyone starts with a sheet of copper, she said.

This allows students to make mistakes on 35 cents worth of copper instead of melting away a significant chunk of change with gold. Mistakes are just part of the process, she said, and once students no longer fear messing up, it leaves room for the creative impulses to shine.

Class fees can include the cost of the metals, Chesna said, but more often than not students will be responsible for ordering the materials. It’s tough to keep a steady price for a class with the fluctuating metal market prices, she said.

Metal can be an imposing medium to work with, Chesna said, but it’s also one of the most basic elements humans can manipulate. Her own work juxtaposes elements of time and mystery, highlighting the hold metals and jewelry have had on humans for centuries.

Even beginner students can experience this fleeting bit of alchemy – when making copper bracelets, they heat the copper rod, turning it from an inflexible stick to a moldable, molten medium. It’s here, Chesna said, that the ancient alchemic magic surfaces.

“You play with fire and change the molecules,” she said, laughing.

For more information on Glacier Metal Arts Studio and to sign up for the newsletter, visit or contact Karen Chesna at 406-212-1314

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