This past summer, we took a family vacation to Monhegan, a tiny island off the coast of Maine. Let me say this: traveling from central New Mexico to Maine is like taking a spaceship to a different planet. My kids swam in the Atlantic, rowed around the little harbor in a skiff, and journeyed out onto the open ocean to fish for mackerel. We hiked through misty forests. We ate lobster rolls dripping with butter. Our minds were blown.
As if being a marine playground for landlocked New Mexicans were not enough, Monhegan is also the home of jeweler Susan McDonough. One of our first stops on the island was her studio. We chatted for a long time that day and here’s a little of our conversation.
Molly Therese Bell: Tell us your Monhegan story. How long have you been living here?
Susan McDonough: I moved to Monhegan from New Mexico after college so it’s been about 18 years now! Time has flown. My family summered here when I was a kid, so I spent about 38 years here altogether (I’m 38), 18 of those year-round. I’ve worked as an island librarian, made archival repair to books and documents, owned a bakery, was a waitress, worked on the roads, ran a transport business, organized trash and recycling for the town, sat on the Planning Board, helped write a grant to build a new wharf, and volunteered as an EMT and a firefighter. I ran the rescue service for a while. I had open studio hours in the summers and long winters all to myself in my studio surrounded by falling snow and screeching wind. I’ve seen amazing sunsets and terrible storms and shooting stars and aurora borealis and things you can’t describe and probably shouldn’t tell anyways.
MTB: What’s on your bench right now?
SM: I’ve been making handmade 18k chains with super-tiny tube-set 1mm champagne diamonds in forged clasps, 22k bezel-set cabochon pendants, and earrings with tube-set diamonds, and hand carved bezels. They have an ancient look I really enjoy, and the juicy colors of the stones just pop with the rich yellow in the 22k. I’ve also been making bangles and experimenting with different types of oxidation on sterling. I’m pairing the oxidized sterling bangles with one gold one and rocking it. They look and sound great and are fun to make!
MTB: How exactly did you become a jewelry designer?
SM: When I was a teen I did a lot of beadwork—time-consuming peyote-stitch stuff—and loomwork too. At 16, I started a college classics program in New Mexico, and by 20 I finished a degree in Philosophy and Religious Studies. After all that, I needed to use my hands for a while. After moving to Maine and becoming a librarian on Monhegan Island, I finally took a metal class at Portland College of Art in Maine (now called MECA).
That first metals class was the beginning of many, and I started building a tool collection, learning more all the time. I serendipitously stumbled upon Oppi Untracht’s Jewelry Concepts and Technology, and this changed everything. I’ve read it so many times now I had to get a new copy.
After exhausting my local Maine resources at Haystack and Portland College of Art, I went to New Jersey to study granulation with Fredricka Kulicke—I drove through a terrible storm to get there, and actually got snowed in with her. It was one of the best and most memorable workshops ever! The quality of work and the techniques Fredricka demonstrated blew my mind. I haven’t stopped since.
MTB: How has your work changed over the years?
SM: I’m more interested in process and detail than ever before. In the past I’ve been inspired mainly by the materials, and the desire to try new things—this led me to skip steps and rush things. But then I studied with the master jewelers at Revere Academy in San Francisco, and I saw a level of craftsmanship and mastery of skill that I wanted to emulate. My work has drastically improved since my classes in San Francisco, specifically those taught by Nancy Wintrup—this master craftsperson is also an amazing educator with a treasure trove of tips and tricks. I often think, “What would Nancy do?”
MTB: Which pieces are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of the 22k granulation work with handmade woven chains. The processes are exacting and time consuming and I’m totally addicted.
MTB: How do your remarkable surroundings influence your work?
SM: Living on Monhegan has been amazing and hard and everything in between. It’s a tiny island 15 miles off the coast of Maine, with fewer than 40 people living here in the winter and upward of 1,500 a day visiting in the summer. With 17 miles of hiking trails, surrounded by ocean and sky, with high cliffs and migratory birds and sea life and crazy wind and weather—it’s an artists’ paradise.
I make a lot of simple silver pieces with locally found sea-worn rock and sea glass, which I have sold to the many tourists who visit and love Monhegan (thanks, y’all!). These affordable pieces have given me the opportunity to grow my skillset with a solid foundation, try more techniques, and buy more tools!
MTB: What keeps you creative and creating?
SM: It’s my drive—I’m happiest when I’m making jewelry, and that can be pretty freakin’ happy! It’s really only since studying at Revere that I’ve been exposed to other artists and makers. This inspired me to work with other people, so I’m soaking up all I can.
Last year I took a workshop with Kate Wolf, the most amazing wax carver you’ve ever seen. Really. So now I’m excited about turning wax and carving wax and casting pieces! I was inspired by her passion for what she does, and that in turn makes me excited about employing those techniques in my work. I’ve made some cool whistles and swords and vessels that have been fun and different from anything I’ve made before. New techniques take you in new directions.
MTB: I understand you have plans to relocate to Austin, Texas to study with Ronda Coryell. Tell me more!
SM: Austin is going to be a blast! Ronda showed me Argentium®, and I am excited about the possibilities its properties opened up. Since I love granulation and fusing already, trying it with this new metal is awesome.
Ronda is offering a teaching certification in Argentium®, which I hope to complete while in Austin. I also plan on checking out some great music and plenty of good bourbon. Then next summer I plan on moving to Walla Walla, Washington, to work in the Walla Walla Foundry, where they pour huge pieces and execute work for big-name artists around the world. The quality of the pieces they pour is bananas, and I’m super excited to get to be a part of it. It’s going to be so much fun and so educational since I’ve never worked on that scale. Who knows where that will take me!
MTB: What will you miss most about living on the island?
SM: The sunsets and the crazy weather and the clear starry night skies and the funny, good-hearted people I call friends. It’s going to be a real change of scene leaving here, but I just can’t turn down the amazing opportunities that keep landing in my lap!
Well, no vacation is complete without a sparkly souvenir, and now that you’ve seen Susan’s beautiful work, you understand why I had to leave with a lovely handmade chain to remind me of our magical Monhegan adventure. To take a closer look at Susan’s prolific collection, visit her website, Susan McDonough Jewelry.