JEM Students Impress at Annual Society of North American Goldsmiths Conference


M.F.A. JEM student Julessa Barnes displays her heart armor at SNAG. Photo courtesy of the School of Jewelry & Metal Arts.

The Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG) is the largest professional metalsmith organization and every year, it hosts a conference to invite the who’s who from the jewelry and metal arts industry.

The professionals, trailblazers, educators and rising up-and-comers attending maintains a conference gold standard and this past May, the School of Jewelry & Metal Arts (JEM) from Academy of Art University joined in on the fun at the conference in Portland, Oregon.

Karen Chesna, JEM online coordinator, traveled west from Montana in May to represent the school in the Educators Resource Room. The goal was to make an impression on SNAG they more than achieved their goal within the four days of the conference.

“We’re certainly on the map with the association now as a school and it was nice for our students to see the top of the profession up close and personal,” Chesna said. “I’m just so glad we went. We spoke to many potential students at our booth in the Educators' Room, and made some serious professional contacts, as well. We [had] a good presence.”

Two of Chesna’s online JEM students tagged along with her to conference, M.F.A. student Julessa Barnes and M.A. student Korinne Lewis. Back in November, Barnes submitted an entry to be part of the Exhibition in Motion showcase and was elated when her pitch was accepted. For her first time at SNAG, she certainly made a splash.

“I think part of why my piece was accepted was because I was myself,” she said. The exhibition theme was Objects of Protection and Barnes presented a large chest piece bearing a bronze heart right in the center.

“I kind of told this funny story about Dirty Harry,” remarked Barnes, speaking on her proposal. “Who would you call if someone broke your heart or called you stupid? “Like, ‘Yeah, I’d call Dirty Harry and his .45 magnum.’”

Barnes’ bronze heart certainly was a talking point and attention-grabber. After the runway, a few industry heavyweights approached her, curious to see the sculpture up close and to question its creator.

Charles Lewton-Brain (“The most prominent metalsmith in the world at this point in time,” according to Chesna) picked Barnes’ brain before tipping his hat to her and giving his blessings for a job well done. The authors of the book that pulled Barnes into metalwork, Cynthia Eid and Betty Helen Longhi, also approached her and commented on her craftsmanship. In a separate instance, Barnes also chatted it up with Andy Cooperman, a Seattle metalsmith whom she also admires.

Karen, Julessa, Korinne

(L-R) JEM Online Coordinator Karen Chesna, M.F.A. student Julessa Barnes and M.A. student Korinne Lewis. Photo courtesy of the School of Jewelry & Metal Arts.

“I met four of my five idols that day,” she mused. “It never occurred to me that they were regular people like me; they’re just artists, they do their work and they want to mingle, meet new students, up-and-coming artists and share their experiences. It helped me realize that I do fit [in] here.”

In addition to exhibits and pop-up galleries, the SNAG conference was a full industry roundabout featuring speakers, demos, trunk shows, fundraisers, student exhibitions and portfolio reviews. Lewis was a SNAG volunteer who got to see a little of the behind-the-scenes action, but didn’t leave the conference without having her own chat with prominent artists such as Lewton-Brain.

“It was like a first step, an introduction,” said Lewis, who was overseeing a student gallery when she spoke with Lewton-Brain. “To see him be taken away by something was really cool because we’re usually admiring them but here he was looking at other people’s work.”

With such a successful showing, Chesna hopes JEM becomes a regular presence at SNAG and other industry events like it. Being able to promote and cull prospective students is only one of many benefits – largely, it’s also about exposing JEM students to the industry and vice versa.  

“It’s one thing to see professional work in your class,” Chesna comments. “But to actually go and see it and meet the people who are making it… Students see that these [professionals] are their peers. This is the standard, this is the level.”