Upstate NY Metalsmith Barbara Klar on the Zen of Creation
Inside+Out Upstate NY is excited to share our next We ARE Upstate NY exclusive interview. Today we catch up with Clear Metals founder, metalsmith and modern maker Barbara Klar. For over 40 years, Barbara has created exquisite designs that evoke a sense of the cultural, historical or spiritual inspiration that went into each hand-crafted work of art.
Barbara got her start in Manhattan during the edgy, energetic days of the 70s and 80s. She began designing “stage wear” for friends in seminal punk rock bands, including Lydia Lunch, The Voidoids and The Bush Tetras. This cemented her place in alt-rock history as the go-to dresser for those seeking the most stylish, cutting-edge accessories. This caught the attention of Robert Lee Morris, who invited Klar to participate in group shows at Art Wear, and the infamous retailer, Barneys New York, who carried her line. In the mid-80s, Barbara opened her first standalone store, Clear Metals, in NYC’s East Village. In 1991 she moved that store to the fashion and shopping Mecca– SoHo, NY. Clear Metals enjoyed a highly successful run for ten years before Barbara chose to head for greener pastures in Upstate NY.
Barbara’s art-wear is worn by rock stars, celebrities and fans of unique, attention-getting things of beauty. She has been recognized on the editorial pages of Vogue, WWD, The New York Times and In-Style Magazine. Her work has been featured on television shows including “Friends,” “Veronica’s Closet” and “Judging Amy.” Film credits have included “Meet The Parents,” Wall Street,” “High Art” and The Eurythmics’ “Missionary Man” video.
Today Barbara is thrilled to be working from her home studio in Woodstock, NY. She continues to dazzle and delight with her collection of fastidiously detailed pendants, fobs & medieval-style chains, bold statement rings, personal projects and commissioned works.
Inside+Out catches up with Barbara Klar to talk of tiaras, rock ‘n roll, metalwork, reliquaries and UFO’s. Let us introduce you to Barbara Klar!
Inside+Out: Tell us about yourself–where were you born, and where do you call home?
Barbara Klar: I’m originally from Akron, Ohio, and eventually moved to Cleveland to study metalsmithing at the Cleveland Institute of Art. I call the Hudson Valley home now because I find it so beautiful and inspiring.
Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that jewelry design and being a metalsmith would be what you did for a living?
I first fell in love with art in high school when I took an art class. My first jewelry-making class was at Akron University, where I realized I had the patience and perseverance to learn the craft. I’ve always found beauty and design to be fascinating and healing. An appreciation of beauty and engineering is my Zen. I was that kid who would accompany my father to the hardware store and get lost in the hinge and lock department.
What inspired you to become a designer? What was your journey?
When I moved to NYC in 1979, I thought I would become a musician and be in a band. I’d studied piano for 10 years and bought a Farfisa that I brought with me to NYC. All my friends were in bands, and it was a very vibrant time in the East Village. Music and Art pounded through the streets. I soon realized that I didn’t like being on stage because I was too shy, and more than that, I hated having to depend on or wait for others in the band. My talents were better utilized by making jewelry and leatherwear for all my friends who were in bands. Soon I got a store on East 7th Street where I lived and worked. By living and working “on the street,” I became a fixture in that scene.
How did you manage sourcing and the costs when you first started out? Equipment, materials, stones, and gems could be quite expensive. What advice do you have for upcoming designers struggling to get past GO?
When I first started out, I had to work as an office temp during the week. I would work in my studio at night and open my small store showroom on the weekends. Jewelry making is labor-intensive and incredibly expensive. That being said, I think that being broke forced me to use inexpensive materials like leather, vinyl, copper and plastic. I also learned to create techniques that didn’t involve purchasing expensive equipment, like turning my buffer into a lathe. Passion for what you do and the willingness to do whatever it takes is key.
Where do you source your materials?
I source my materials wherever I can get them. I have forged many connections in the city in the 23 years I lived there. Now I go to the Tuscon Gem Show to buy special stones. Often I use found objects from nature in my work. I’m always looking at the ground when I take hikes; I think that’s why I’m such a tripper and faller!
Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
Inspiration is the easy part. My mind is always busy observing. I think I’m a little bit of a voyeur: I love fashion and street style, pop culture, nature, and history.
Music played a role in your design and career; tell us about that. Who are some of your favorite music artists?
Music has always been important to me. When I lived in Akron and Cleveland, many bands started up like Devo, Pere Ubu, and the Deadbeats. I’d go to clubs with my friends to see David Bowie, Patty Smith and Iggy Pop. It was an amazing experience that continued when we all moved to NYC and hung out at the Mud Club and CBGBs. Now I listen to more podcasts than music. Still, my favorite bands are mostly my friends’ bands like the Bush Tetras, Squrl, Faith, The Verbs and now The Rolling Stones. Steve Jordan has long been a client of mine and wears my work exclusively onstage when he tours with them.
What do you think is the draw of your designs–what do you do to keep things “fresh?”
My work is very eclectic. Keeping my designs fresh is natural to me because I follow fashion trends and see what my friends’ kids are into. I adore the younguns. I like taking historical concepts like the chatelaine and re-interpreting them into chains and fobs. Old chains are a fixation for me. I love big chains and making chain links.
What’s one question you’re constantly asked; what’s the biggest misconception about your designs?
People often ask me why my work is so expensive. That happened a lot earlier in my career. Now people collect my work and don’t ask that as often. Many of my clients have been with me since 1984. They now make more money, and their kids shop with me as well, which makes me incredibly happy. If someone has ever attempted to make jewelry, they understand why it costs so much!
You’ve had successful retail shops in Manhattan. Do you miss that experience? How did you juggle everything – running a store, designing, marketing, trunk shows and networking?
Sometimes I miss the spontaneous moments and visibility of having a store. I never knew who was going to walk in and what conversations I would have. As I said before, inspiration is the easy part. Marketing, bookkeeping, and networking are the most difficult parts of the process.
How do you like living/working from home?
I love it! Having the showroom and studio in my home is the best. I have flexible hours, and you never know when inspiration will strike. I used to watch my painter friends work in their studios for months and then have a show. I envied them and now I get to do just that! I love the big reveals of new pieces and collections.
How much of your business is commissioned work vs. creating a piece and then selling it?
It’s about 50/50. Word of mouth is my advertising mostly. When I had my store, I made pieces that I never thought would sell just to put them in the window and draw people in. I developed a passion for creating pieces only for the experience and challenge of making them. Oddly enough, these pieces do sell. Now I stamp my one-of-a-kinds “only one,” and I think that someday that will make them more collectible.
What stores carry your line and how can people buy your pieces?
I consider myself one of the best unknown designers. I have a cult following. Clients used to come into my stores and tell me they didn’t want to tell anyone else about me because they wanted to keep me to themselves. That killed me! Now my work is carried at Clouds in Woodstock, through my website and through special appointments in my studio. I also do an annual holiday show at the Chelsea Hotel in NYC.
What is one thing you would change in your industry if you could?
I think the jewelry industry has changed tremendously since I first started. Now anyone can become a jewelry designer; it’s much easier. I’m one of the few women jewelers who still make all their own work. I think now the industry is more inclusive.
Are you working on anything new that you’re excited about?
I have a secret passion for making reliquaries and mourning jewelry. I do it in secret when I have chunks of free time. When I was young and first started going to museums, I became obsessed with reliquaries. Bones of the saints encased in beautiful and ornate tabletop creations were fascinating to me. Having lived through the Aids Crisis and now Covid has inspired me to make these reliquaries as memorials and tributes to those we have lost. I think it gives us something physical to hold onto in our memories.
What do you love most about living + working in the Hudson Valley? Does where you live influence how and what you create?
I love living and working in the Hudson Valley because I have direct access to nature and other creatives who live here. Yes, I am influenced by living in there. I feel free and liberated to create how and when I want to.
What local businesses do you rely on to be successful?
I rely on the Secret City because they are a constant source of inspiration for me. The Secret City is an “Art Church.” If you don’t know about them, you should. During Covid lockdown, Chris Wells had a daily live show on Facebook and Instagram that saved me. He’d share with poetry, writing, a word of the day and a piece of art for the day. During Covid, I made a huge Tiara Crown for him to wear during his live performances on stage with his band, “the Silver Spaceship.”
Are you on social media, and do you use it in your work? How do you promote your work to your audience?
I do use social media, but not as often as I should. I think it’s an amazing resource. Technology has allowed me to live in the middle of the woods and still make a living. I do cross-marketing with a bi-monthly e-newsletter about my new work and also post it on Instagram and Facebook. It gives me visibility, and I love seeing what everyone else is doing!
Tell us something about yourself people might be surprised to learn?
I am a devout UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena) follower–I’ve had a lot of sightings and UFO experiences. I believe the Truth is Out There!
I’m intrigued! There have been so many local stories of Hudson Valley Alien sitings. Tell us more about your experience.
I don’t usually talk about this because people make judgments. I think it all started when I was about 8 and all the bomb shelter raids were freaking me out with nuclear bomb threats. Wright Patterson Airforce base was nearby where I lived in Ohio and it allegedly kept the recovered UFOs from the Roswell crashing in the late 40s. My mother took me aside one day and said to me, “Barbie, don’t worry about nuclear war because the UFOs will come to earth and save a certain percentage of the population and I’m sure they’ll take you. Don’t look for me or your father, just GO!” That sent me on a lifelong journey. I’ve had many experiences that I thought were dreams but now I believe was real experiences. In the early 90s, I attended a talk with Bud Hopkins, a NYC painter, and UFO book author. He asked us all to write down any symbols that we knew. He picked me out at the end of the lecture and said some of my symbols represented the symbols found on UAP airships. Very possibly, I’d been abducted. I use these symbols in my work and have always done so
That’s a sweet message from your mom!
What’s your current state of mind?
My current state of mind is Peaceful. I’ve never felt so peaceful. And also, I stopped comparing myself to others. I literally don’t give a SH*T. I love where I live, I have the Zen of creation in the palm of my hands, and I have amazing clients and friends. I feel rich.
That’s a great note to end on. Thank you, Barbara.
Photos by Franco Vogt for Inside+Out Upstate NY and Courtesy of Barbara Klar
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