When she first started making jewelry, Karen Smith would create beaded malas by day and dream about silver designs at night. While product inspired her to teach herself metalsmithing, process is at the core of her vision for We Wield the Hammer (WWTH). As her students experience the physicality of moving metal, Karen hopes they also learn that "you can use your body in the way you want to, to change your life.” And to keep WWTH going, she hopes to have dedicated studio space by the end of 2020.Donate your scrap credit to We Wield the Hammer >
Based in Oakland, California, Karen founded We Wield the Hammer in 2019 to “identify, train, track and support young women of African descent who might not otherwise choose a career as a metalsmith.” The project’s name derives from a maxim among jewelers in Senegal: “Women don’t wield the hammer.” In 2018 Karen sought metalsmithing instruction in Dakar after months of experimentation fueled by books and videos. As the only woman in the shop, she remembers, “I was a sensation.” A little girl who watched Karen from the doorway thought she must be a ghost because she’d never seen a woman metalsmith. Karen realized that if the girl ever wanted to learn metalsmithing, there might not be anyone to teach her because the craft traditionally passes from father to son. She envisioned a space where young women in Dakar could wield the hammer.
Karen says, “Race, gender and representation have always been a part of what I do. If someone doesn’t see themselves in something, they don’t even dream of doing it.” She recalls the impact of her third-grade teacher introducing her to Langston Hughes’ The Best of Semple. “I went down to the library to find it, and as I held it I thought, ‘I can be a writer.’ Even though I came from a poor family, I still believed it was an option. I want young women to know that you don’t have to accept that the norm is only where you come from. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.”
Karen realized she would need to incubate We Wield the Hammer in the United States before it could be sustainable in Dakar. The 8-week program is held at The Crucible, a non-profit industrial arts school, when space is available. Participants learn the fundamentals of fabrication, starting with copper and progressing to brass and eventually, sterling. Each student receives a journal for documenting her sources of inspiration. The curriculum focuses on skill building, rather than on completing a particular number of projects. Karen says, “Young people today are perfectionists. I want them to know that one of the great joys of working with metal is that nothing is perfect, and that it’s okay.” In addition, she partners with BIPOC women metalsmiths who create everything from jewelry to sculpture and more, to show students that “just because you’re a woman, you’re not limited to making pretty earrings.” For students who do want to pursue a career in making jewelry, Karen is identifying urban apprenticeship opportunities with local jewelers.
Karen counts a metal quilt as one of the most memorable pieces created by We Wield the Hammer students. She wanted the students to see her working with metal, and she wanted the group to work on a project together. Karen gave each student a four-inch square of metal that would be “stitched” together with wire. One young woman created a sterling self-portrait of herself wearing hijab, the brass background stamped with phrases about how empowering it feels to do so in a society that judges her choice. Karen remembers the student’s satisfaction in achieving a high mirror polish after overcoming construction challenges. She says, “They often don’t believe that something is going to come out of it, until something comes out of it!"
Students can repeat the 8-week program as often as they like to expand their skills with new techniques. An 18-year-old woman experiencing homelessness has plans to return when her life is more stable, as does a 13-year-old who proudly demonstrated her new torch skills to her mother.
Karen’s goal is to offer the program four times per year. But sharing studio space means this isn’t always possible, and makes it challenging for students to hone their skills with practice time. Having a dedicated space will allow WWTH to run classes year-round, with schedules that accommodate the complexities of participants’ lives.
And strengthening WWTH in Oakland will bring the project one step closer to launching in Dakar (she’s also been contacted about bringing WWTH to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia). Karen says, “I envision this program in places around the world. It’s an opportunity to create real change for young women and girls through art and financial empowerment.”
She continues, “I’m keenly aware of where I am in this historical moment. If I can get any of this started before I leave this planet, I will have done what I came here to do."
You can help We Wield the Hammer bring metalsmithing classes to young women of African descent. Here’s how:
When you download and complete your precious metal scrap recycling form, indicate that you’d like to donate your scrap credit to We Wield the Hammer. Get started here.Download The Scrap Credit Donation Form >
The gift credit will be applied to the We Wield the Hammer account for purchasing tools, benches and other studio supplies.Support We Wield the Hammer >