ARTISTS & MAKERS / KRIS SINGLETON OF KIKI KOYOTE

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Today marks the first post in our Artists & Makers series here at Birch & Pine, and it seems fitting that the person who inspired us to make this monthly series a reality is our first feature. Kris Singleton is the incredibly talented jewelry designer behind Kiki Koyote, and designs simple, sturdy, effortless brass and silver jewelry. She has recently partnered with Madewell for a pop-up shop at the Mall of America, and you can find her pieces scattered throughout the Hackwith Design House feed.

I stumbled across Kris’s account while browsing through Instagram over the summer, and was completely drawn in to her work. I immediately purchased one of her brass luster cuffs, which hasn’t left my wrist since the day I received it in my mailbox. The intrinsic nature of this amazing woman’s pieces are ideal for my lifestyle and simplified approach to dressing. I often forget that I am wearing the piece(s), they sit so comfortably on my wrist or neck. They are light without being delicate, sturdy workhorse pieces (to use Kris’s words) that don’t get in the way of daily life.

When I reached out to Kris about this feature, she was kind and incredibly generous in her response, and sent me a box full of original pieces to shoot here, at a local studio. Originally, I was going to hire a model to wear the pieces, but thought back to the day Kris stated that she felt I embodied her brand, in my efforts to seek out beauty daily, and chose to wear the pieces and step in front of the camera, which has happened very rarely and is incredibly intimidating to do, but I'm so glad I did. I feel strongly connected to these pieces and their story, and hope that one day soon I get to meet Kris in person.

Kris’s story is deeply moving, inspiring, and she tells it with such clarity and wisdom. Her pieces are about more than just creating a product to sell. However, instead of me rambling on about it, please read her words below. She says everything far more perfectly than I ever could. Settle in on this cold November afternoon with your hands wrapped around a mug of hot tea or coffee and join us as we discuss the making of Kiki Koyote, and the struggle and pain that led to such light and joy.

Tomorrow is not ours, not in any meaningful way. Tomorrow is incomprehensible. Today is everything. Today, in all it’s ordinariness, contains the whole of our purpose.

How did Kiki Koyote come to be? What inspired you to create your jewelry?

A little over 31/2 years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. I was twenty-seven years old and a mother to a brand new baby. By the time the cancer was diagnosed, it had spread considerably, and the diagnosis came at a crucial time. Had it come even two weeks later, my surgeon told me I would have very likely died. I lived a period of my life not knowing if I would live or die. I remember many nights lying in bed, sobbing, begging that I live to see my daughter grow, recognizing with painful clarity that tomorrow, next week, next month may not come for me. I knew my humanity, that my days were not an inevitability, and nothing was guaranteed. This sort of recognition is terribly powerful. While I don’t hold it now with the intensity that I did then, I still know it to be true. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had this sort of realization at a young age. I lived each day as I underwent intense chemotherapy and numerous surgeries.

“I lived each day. I lived each hour. I lived simple. I did not have the capacity to live anything else.”

 The future was uncertain and overwhelming, but beyond that, I knew each moment for the gift it was. Beauty wasn’t something distant or elusive, it was what surrounded me, and my purpose was uncomplicated and clear. I knew to sit with my baby girl and watch her grasp at me was the most important thing I could do with my life. I recognized that I was made to sit in the sun and simply be as I closed my eyes and let its brilliant rays settle deep into me, body and soul.

“Life was strangely uncomplicated as I struggled to survive. I was strangely free. And I knew a strange happiness.”

Emerging on the other side of this fight, healthy again, I found myself to be in many ways, a different person. I felt a bit disoriented finding my independence and normalcy. I needed creativity in a new way, beyond anything I’d known before, although I’d always been enamored with beauty, story, and mystery. I felt an insatiable and intense need to create. Reentering my life was painful, overwhelming, and confusing, juggling busyness and priorities, setting and managing revived expectations, and processing all the changes our lives had undergone.

Making jewelry brought me home, bringing me squarely into the moment and into the now. It wasn’t an escape, it was an arrival, a gateway back into reality. I just made. I was calm, happy, and at home. When we create, creating is the only thing that’s real. We are centered and focused, we are free and alive and living. We are at home, we are in the now, and that’s where I needed to be, where I need to be, where life is.

Creating makes very tangible the miracle of each moment. We don’t have days or years, we have hammer, paintbrush, guitar string strokes. We have moments. And these little unassuming moments change the world forever, this is where we dwell. These moments are where the beauty lies and the richness is found. In these moments, we are creating reality, we are incarnating the world, we are doing what we are made to do, and fulfilling our truest calling.

Kiki Koyote is my need, my aspiration, and my struggle to live life moment by moment. My belief that beauty is in the simple and the everyday, that the small, authentic, honest moments of our lives are our story to tell, and that story is huge, rich, worthy of being told. Kiki Koyote is my recognition that we have it all because we have a moment, my conviction that it is good, it is now, it is enough.

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2. Have you encountered any major roadblocks since the launch of Kiki Koyote?

The major ‘roadblocks’ of my life thus far have also been the major impetuses of my life, and I don’t think I’m exceptional in that. I often think of the Muslim mystic Rumi’s reflection that the wound is the place where the light enters you. That just seems to be part of the human condition. We are transformed and redeemed and bound to others through our struggles and suffering. There’s a Scripture verse that I believe states this beautifully: unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

 3. What are your goals for Kiki Koyote? Where would you like to see yourself in a few years?

My goals for Kiki Koyote are simple. I want to continue to take it day by day. I want to do my best to grow in my craft, gather knowledge, gain experience, forge and nurture relationships and most importantly, be in a daily place of yes. I don’t know what that will translate into over the years. But my hope is that it continues to grow both as a business and a passion. And I will be very happy if Kiki Koyote continues to both reflect and affect a simplicity, gratitude, and mindfulness in my life and the lives of those who share in my work.

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4. What does a typical day look like for you?

Oh, my day is very much the day of a mama with her babes. Grace, my four year old, usually crawls into bed with me around seven and asks for pancakes. I usually have an hour with Grace before Edith (eight months old) wakes. We always talk at length about the dreams we had the night before. I spend some time checking email, drinking too much coffee, and attending to anything that needs attention with my shop. I nurse Edith before tackling the day, and on the days Grace has preschool, I try to run my errands and drop orders in the post those days. Our afternoons vary quite a bit day to day: we’ll go to the park, library, grocery shop, or local mom’s group. If the weather is nice, we play under the big trees in our yard. My days are very ordinary. My girls make up the majority of them. There’s lots of laundry, lots of milk, lots of crayons, and lots of mess. There are falls and tantrums and dirty diapers galore. There’s also adventure and giggles and conversation, some intelligible, some not.

When the girls take an afternoon nap at the same time, which is about three times a week, I beeline to my studio. Even though I’m often just filling orders or prepping for an upcoming event, this is my time to unwind and just be. I’m always listening to music or a podcast (total junkie here!). Since the girls are asleep, I’m limited to doing semi-quiet work (jewelry making is a very loud business), so I’ll either saw or do finishing and assembly. My favorite days are the days I don’t have a specific agenda and I can discover new designs.

When my husband, Charlie, arrives home from work we eat dinner and spend time together. My husband is a killer guitarist, so many nights we sing and dance in the kitchen. Grace always has requests and we tend to favor old-school country, folk, and bluegrass. After this, I often head into the studio for an hour or so to do my loud hammering and finish up anything I need to have ready for the next day. After the girls are successfully in bed, Charlie and I end the night with books, notebooks, or Netflix, and a high five that another day, with it’s many ups and downs, was ours.

5. As a working artist and mother, do you find your work/home life difficult to balance? Advice for others trying to do the same?

Balance is tough. There’s a unique challenge for the stay-at-home mom who also has a business she’s trying to run and grow. The hardest thing for me is never physically leaving for work. Consequently, I never leave the immediate demands of being caretaker for my children, and the time I do need to dedicate to my jewelry making is hard to find. If I have work to do in the studio and hear my baby crying upstairs and my husband having a hard time quieting her, I have a hard time not rushing up to help. However, it’s very important that I carve out that time to do my work without interruption. I’m a better mother when I allow myself the time I need to work. I’m more fully present with my family when I’ve allowed myself the time to be alone doing what I love. We often think of balance as something that’s needed because of the many roles we play, but I also believe that balance is something that can only be achieved in playing numerous roles. This way, it’s not something we are constantly striving and failing to find, but something we allow ourselves in the midst of hectic and demanding lives.

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Above, Kris working in her studio*.  Below, pieces rest on one of the workbenches in the studio*.

*Much thanks to Beka Cunningham for the generous use of the preceding two images.

6. Does your personal style influence the aesthetic of your pieces?

My personal style is hugely influential in my designs. I would never put something out into the world that I would not be excited to wear. That being said, the greatest influence in my designs is the process of making. I am constantly amazed by the will of the raw material I work with. I feel there is a partnership between my initial concept/intention and the disposition of the metal, and both are equally influential in the emerging piece. I couldn’t have arrived at very many pieces without going through the process of making them. The metal teaches me things about form, balance, and texture that I cannot come up with on my sketchpad. The sawing, hammering, shaping and sanding are authorities in my design as they are steps in the process.

7. Describe the pieces you create and how you hope they will be worn.

In conceptualizing my designs, I keep them very simple, yet I am very drawn to tension within a piece. I like for their to be dialogue, a back and forth. Often I do this by creating conversations between sharp lines and soft curves. While still simple, there is a wholeness and fullness there.

I hope my pieces can be worn without one single worry about how they are being worn, by the carpenter as she builds her table, by the mother as she tackles her mountain of laundry, by the chef as she directs her hectic, steamy kitchen. I don’t want my pieces to require of anyone or to be an encumbrance on daily life; I want the pieces to fit seamlessly into their lives. I strive to create workhorse pieces that will be timeless and versatile, ones that are worn often, perhaps for those who gravitate towards a simpler aesthetic and lifestyle. I think my work appeals to those who like to see story and soul in what they buy, who would rather see hammer marks than a factory finish. Story is about struggle and imperfection, it’s what makes it interesting and attractive. I think we oftentimes purchase things as a way of playing a role, of becoming something or someone else. I want my pieces to remind us that we are enough as we are, unrehearsed, without styling or critique.

I hope that people who wear my jewelry carry not only the physical thing on their person, but also the conviction from which the piece was born. I hope the piece is a visual reminder that their life is now, in this moment, that they don’t’ need to attain more things or fit certain expectations, that they don’t need to grasp in vain at some idea of what is beautiful or desirable. I hope the simple lines, the quiet presence of my pieces whisper that beauty is surrounding them, in this moment, in the ordinariness of their lives. I see the aesthetic of my work and the aim of my work as being one in the same.

Kiki Koyote pieces aren’t big statement pieces that turn heads. They might even go unnoticed because they are so at home on our bodies. But when they are noticed, they are striking in their simplicity and they take on a commanding presence, very much like the extraordinary beauty of the everyday becomes obvious when we have determined ourselves to acknowledge it.

8. Do you have a favorite piece? Do you wear it?

I am very rarely not wearing a few cuffs. They are so easy to wear and since many are made of brass, they age beautifully and literally take on your life. I love to mix metals and wear silver with the brass on my wrist. One silver cuff, three brass - bam, that's the way I like it. I also love the notched arch necklace because it looks particularly good lopsided, which in my life, is basically always how it's hanging.

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9. Tell me a bit about you and what you do outside of making jewelry.

I change a lot of diapers and read lots and lots of Curious George. Ha! Yes, at this stage, motherhood is pretty demanding of my time. I sing alongside my husband's guitar, bake, although I'm not much of a cook, and I really like to write, or perhaps better put, I really need to write. Flannery O'Connor has this great quote: I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say. That pretty much sums up how I feel about writing. When I get out of the habit of writing, I definitely feel like I'm leaving a whole portion of my life untouched. When I don't reflect on an experience, and for me that is through the written word, I don't feel I've fully experienced it.
Besides writing...I love reading. Russian literature in particular. Philosophy. I love flea markets and thrifting, though I'm trying to have a more discriminating eye in purchasing these days. I know the lyrics to basically every song in every musical. I find it much easier to talk about something very personal than something superficial, even with people I do not know. I'm actually pretty awful at small talk. My husband and I love to go to concerts, though that's fewer and further between these days. I love to run, it clears my head and energizes me. I love Alfred Hitchcock, Wes Anderson, and David Lynch films. I love listening to This American Life, Radiolab, The Story, and Third Coast. I'm one of five kids, smack in the middle. I always joke that I'm the neglected middle child. Kiki Koyote was my nickname growing up. The "Kiki" has stuck.

Birch_and_Pine_Kiki_Koyote10. What did you do before Kiki Koyote?

Before I had Grace, I worked in direct mail marketing, and then a made a major change and became a high school teacher. I taught a humanities course, which I loved. It was a seminar style course for high school seniors, and we sat around a table and discussed great works of literature, philosophy, theology, and poetry. Lots of reading, writing, and conversation. I loved it! I also taught Latin, which is a very handy language to know. ;)

11. What is your workspace/studio like and the feeling it evokes?

We converted a spare bedroom into my studio. It's so wonderful to have a space dedicated solely to my jewelry. I can spread my work out and leave projects unfinished and not have to worry about a baby getting into anything. Spaces are incredibly powerful. My studio gives me an energy I don't feel anywhere else in the house. Being surrounded by my tools, my finished pieces, my works in progress  - gives me both focus and freedom. The walls are soft white, there are wooden shelves on the walls, and workbenches for various tasks. Some of my daughter's drawings hang on the walls, mixed in with other meaningful pieces of art, and of course, plants, because I am not right without a few good plants in every room. My main workbench faces the window and looks out onto the apple and maple trees in our backyard. And there's always music in my studio.

12. Who do you admire? Who inspires you to keep creating?

I am inspired by people that make big sacrifices and venture off the beaten path to pursue their passion or follow their call, people who do what they do without need for recognition or accolade, those who hold strong convictions with as much love and humility as resolve, by people who have experienced grave suffering and are transforming it into something beautiful. I’m inspired by our humanity, our brokenness, our struggle. I’m inspired by authenticity and honesty, by those unafraid to share their weaknesses, by people who reach out and embrace real relationships with others.

I’m inspired by my girls, who have the most powerful little souls.