by Jane M. Pascall
Seven people wait anxiously in the Homer High School art room for a slender man wearing an engineer-type cap to teach them about silversmithing.
Art Koeninger, 67, has been teaching workshops for more than 30 years and creating jewelry since the late 1960s. With much patience, he shows the group of beginners simple techniques, such as how to use a file, light a torch and hold a jeweler’s saw. Once the basics are covered, it’s on to more difficult tasks like soldering, bezels for setting stones, rivets and drilling.
“People have to start somewhere,” he said. “There is a lot of trial and error.”
Raised in Texas, Koeninger studied liberal arts at Rice University as a young man. He eventually dropped out and traveled to Ann Arbor, Mich., where he volunteered with the Quakers. They hired him to organized service projects with the underprivileged, like inner-city kids, migrant workers and mental institutions. His jewelry career began by wrapping beach stones and square nails with wire.
“I got books on metalsmithing and started making jewelry,” he said. “Pretty soon, I was selling stuff at local shops and summer fairs.”
Koeninger expanded his commercial techniques while working in the Mission District of San Francisco in the late 1960s-70s.
He came to Alaska in 1975 while traveling with his dad, who had worked for the Corps of Engineers in 1929 building the first trails and roads into McKinley Park.
“He had always told me of Alaska’s beauty,” Koeninger said of his father. “And I stayed.”
He furthered his skills by working at Begich’s turquoise shop in Anchorage, and as a resident artist with the Visual Arts Center metals department. He eventually bought an old tin shop in Chitina with the intention of scrapping about half of it to build a cabin. Instead, he acquired grants to restore the building as a “Historic Site,” now on the National Registry.
“It took eight years to restore, and now is my gallery Spirit Mountain Artworks,” he said.
Koeninger has been teaching jewelry classes in Alaska since 1978 through Artists in the Schools and Community Schools. He moved to Homer in 2003, and in August he and wife, Shasta, were married on the Pratt Museum grounds with more than 150 friends and family in attendance. They now enjoy life together with their recently acquired Sheltie pups, which have yet to be named.
Koeninger was hired at the Pratt Museum in 2008 as the facilities manager. He helps with exhibits and maintaining the older building. “Jewelers make good mount makers as our skills are transferable,” he said. “The Seldovia Tribal Museum heard about me, and I was hired to make their mounts and install the exhibits, also.”
His philosophy on metalsmithing is simple.
“Lower your expectations, or have no expectations,” he said. “Let the metal direct what it is to be.”
Koeninger teaches three classes through Homer Community Schools: Introductory Silversmithing (Jan. 26-27); Lost Wax Casting (Oct. 19-21 and Feb. 8-10) and Intermediate Silversmithing (Nov. 16-18 and Feb. 22-24). For more information on these classes, call Community Schools Director Mike Illg, at 235-6090. Koeninger’s work can be seen on his webpage at www.spiritmountainalaska.com.
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