Kate Furman


Kate Furman

West Greenville artist and entrepreneur. Graduated from RISD in 2012.

"I never thought I would move back to Greenville. But when I did move back and things started falling into place, and I was able to be a part of the growth happening in Greenville, I recognized there was real opportunity here."

Full Interview

Kate, tell me about your life.

I grew up here [in Greenville], went to the Fine Arts Center and Greenville High and started studying jewelry and really fell in love with it. My mom is a painter and my Dad does commercial real estate. So I have his business side and my mom’s artistic side.

Art and business-what a great combination.

Yeah, I remember starting jewelry thinking, “I can make this a business.” So I ended up going to the University of Georgia and declaring jewelry as my major and I never changed it. I might have been the only person in college that knew what I was doing before I started and stuck with it! I graduated with a BFA in jewelry and metalworking, and then moved to Jackson, Wyoming. I knew I was going to apply to graduate school, so I took a break and worked as a rafting guide and worked at a ski resort. I also ended up teaching at the art center there.

What happened, after this gap year?

I went to graduate school at RISD. I remember visiting with my sister who lived in Boston and driving down there and she was like, “You HAVE TO go here.” When I had my interview via skype, and the interviewer said, “We would like to offer you the position,” I didn’t even need time to think about it. She actually wanted to know when I would be able to confirm, and I said, “Oh no. I’m coming.” This was my dream come true. It was the only thing that made my leaving Wyoming worthwhile (Wyoming is such an incredible place). So I moved to Rhode Island!

What made your experience at RISD so incredible?

The RISD MFA program is two years—crazy hard, crazy stressful. But I met all the people I had studied, all the people I wanted to know, and they were my teachers! We had a teacher who would fly in from Seattle, literally just to teach our class.

Tell me about your studio.

They could fit up to 12 artists in our working space, but the graduate class above us was 4-5 students at that time and my class was between 4-5 students. It was tough. If you weren’t pulling your weight, you wouldn't graduate. I was one of four in my class, as we dropped two as the term progressed.

After that pretty life-changing opportunity, what did you do?

That was amazing. I went back to Wyoming after that to see if that could be my permanent space, but I felt like I had grown out of it once I had finished grad school. I had the opportunity to show in international exhibitions, meet incredible makers.… It just didn’t feel the same. So then I briefly moved to New York, and worked with a woman there named Emanuela Duca who makes really beautiful handmade jewelry. I did all of her administrative work. At the time she was in the NYC Fashion Incubator Program which is two years of free space and free mentorship. She was the only jeweler on the floor and it was in the fashion district! People who had been on fashion runway and big deal people.. I was only there for several months but it was really cool. It was pretty short. I was living with a boyfriend and we had a pretty terrible breakup. So I came back here to sort of regroup.

What were some of your plans at that time?

I was thinking I was going to go back up to NYC. But things just sort of fell into place here. My parents definitely wanted me to stay (obviously). I was hired by Llyn Strong. She is in downtown Greenville and has been there for a long time. She is really well respected downtown and I worked for her full-time for two years.

What was it like working for Llyn Strong?

Great! I did everything from customer service, to sales, to social media, to inventory, to pricing, to merchandising, to the casting and polishing, and pearl restringing. I was one of a team of five. Then I would come home and sell through my website and sell through her store. She knew when I started, I was planning to go out on my own.

What was your next step?

When I was ready to make that jump, I got a part-time job at Hales, a family-owned jewelry store that has been in operation for 160 years. It is on Haywood Road, in Greenville. It was where my parents bought their wedding rings. So I worked part -time for 2 years while also working in my studio at GCCA (Greenville Center for the Creative Arts) and at home. And then when we found this new studio, and began the renovations, I decreased my hours with Hales and would work there maybe one day a month.

What was the process like to renovate your current studio space?

Since it is in the city limits, all the permits and things took a lot longer than anticipated. So a metalsmith—a welder— used to live in the adjacent house and used this (garage) as his studio space. Because of its proximity to Pendelton Street— for First Fridays, foot traffic—I thought, “What a fabulous space!” I needed my own space because of the noise and soldering. And so when it came on the market, several people told me about it, and then a realtor actually called me and said, “This is it!” My parents thought it was a shot in the dark but were willing to help me out, so here we are. And eventually I will take over the whole property-expand over there, or rent it out.

So, it sounds like you were getting pulled back into the Greenville scene!

I never thought I would move back to Greenville. But when I did move back and things started falling into place, and I was able to be a part of the growth happening in Greenville, I recognized there was real opportunity here. From the time I was growing up until now, there was so much more to do, much more appreciation for the arts, and lot more opportunities to help it grow.

What makes your art-making practice unique?

I am one of the very few fine art jewelers here. There are a lot of people who make handmade jewelry but what I do has a much more conceptual look, so it has been fun to start educating and help dissolving the stigmas around conceptual art. Some people are scared by it, you know? You get the same comments a lot, like, “How do you wear this?”

Explain the concepts behind your art a bit.

In graduate school they force you to write along with your making. So concepts for my work are very important. I don’t like to start with a blank piece of metal, or a blank piece of paper. Everything I make I think of as a souvenir and they are usually personal moments, yet general enough that people can relate. Like for example— wood, forest, shells. The wood pieces are all about gathering. When I am alone or with someone, when I am my happiest, at my most peaceful place, this is when I am outside, when I am whitewater kayaking or hiking. Interacting with nature and highlighting it, taking these objects with me as souvenirs and then wanting to interact with them, not only to make something with them, but then to actually want to create that desire to put them on the body… This is where jewelry is different than sculpture, because you have to make someone want to put it on. Take something like a piece of wood, off the side of a trail, and to put it on their body: that is the challenge. I want people to notice the subtle and small lines and the details in it. I use a lot of drawings. I use line to connect the pieces together whether it is a chain, or sewn element, and I also use line as a way to connect it to the body- with how it is hanging with you, on you. Even the smaller pieces are more sellable versions of that. I am still thinking about that picking up- the desire to take something with you. That wanting to hold that moment. My more simple pieces, with gemstones, are still about responding to that item.

What are some of the places and themes that have inspired your work?

I spent quite a bit of time in school researching Native American jewelry and it was all about the symbols and souvenirs. It took me two years to get back to that: the travel, the memory, those small moments.

Did you do any research on this area?

The wood I started collecting in Wyoming and now from the rivers around here. Most of the shells have been cast from SC beaches. Hiking, in neighborhoods, and wood that friends send me from abroad.

Who is your clientele, generally?

Outdoorsy people. Edgy, confident women. Young professionals. Established career women. By far the most sells are people coming to find me directly. I do sell through other stores and my website. People like to buy handmade items from the maker and sometimes I do wholesale, but it is mostly consignment. I sell in Augusta 20, Art and Light Gallery, my big wooden pieces are through a dealer in NYC, Chattanooga, McClain Made, and The Gallery at Flat Rock.

How are you involved in the West Greenville community?

My parents are some of the founders of GCCA and I teach a jewelry class there. I curated a wearable art show two months ago and we had international artists join us. From gemstones to painted fabric, and everything in between. I have been able to meet a lot of people through the teaching: young professionals, men and women, baby boomers. Our classes have really evolved into a working, talking, communal space. Which is what Greenville needs— a place for technical, conceptual, and critical engagement. We are going to be moving to the cotton warehouse eventually which we hope will house a massive jewelry facility. GCCA is in the fundraising stage currently.

What is the arts community like in West Greenville?

While there are moments of healthy competitiveness, there is a strong sense of community, in our art world here, and this is because everyone has the common goal of bringing one another up. It is fun to be a part. I have been in situations where artist will cover their work when they leave their space, or won’t share knowledge or skills or processes. That is so unlike the Village art district which is engaging, connected, and caring about the bigger picture.

At the end of the day, why does this work matter?

For me, being a maker, a jeweler, it is such a personal thing. From building the concepts through drawings out my ideas, to making the art pieces, to my involvement in the Arts Center; to be able to say that I had a full career and supported myself as a maker: this, for me, is a full life. I want to be proud of myself at the end of the day and be happy with what I have created, knowing that what I have made helps others to be happier throughout their own lives.