A Moveable Menagerie
Kit Carson built Camp Cactus, his stone-cottage house in New River, Arizona, in 1993, and sold it in 2016. He is temporarily renting a house in Prescott, Arizona, while his new home, Cortez Camp, is being built on a lot just four blocks from downtown Prescott. I wanted to see Kit’s temporary creative space in his rental home, so I visited him on Super Bowl Sunday 2018. When Cortez Camp is completed later this year, and Kit’s new workshop is outfitted, I’ll return to Prescott and will share here all the delightful artistic touches to be found in his new home and creative space.
Kit spends day and night focusing his creativity on making jewelry and sculptures. He appears laid-back in his faux leather jacket, cowboy hat and boots, but at 68, Kit hasn’t lost his energetic drive to always be producing… something. A true cowboy at heart, when Kit has ventured from his roots, he always returns to the Arizona desert.
At the age of 16, Kit was deeply influenced by reading The Prophet, which led him to read Thoreau and Whitman. As Kit aged, his Philosopher-Artist sensibilities were honed ever sharper; his wisdom now seeps out in aphorisms, a hobby of his, and he often puts them on his jewelry. For instance, the inside of a bracelet might read, “Don’t fence me in,” or “Life is good.”
Kit likes to say, “Every good artist has a sketchy past.” Ba-dum-bump. His past may be sketchy, but Kit still has his youthful, lanky physique and mischievous eyes.
“Age is an attitude,” Kit says. “The older I get, the younger I am.”
Kit’s Temporary Cre8-Space
Kit’s quaint, aged, 900-square foot rental house is white with brown trim. A white picket fence encloses a charming, tiny front yard. Inside the living room, honey-colored wood floors creak comfortingly as we walk. Metal art hangs on every wall, and antique wooden chairs with tooled leather look as though they’ve been in place for 50 years. His well-loved furnishings fit the house perfectly as vintage suitcases sit under tables and atop shelves.
An acoustic guitar is propped on his desk. “I’ll pick up my guitar at any time and sing a song. Singing makes me stop thinking,” Kit says. Otherwise, his mind is always working (or more like playing), envisioning jewelry pieces or metal sculptures.
Kit’s temporary workshop just off his living room looks like it’s been there since the house was built. He gives me a tour and allows me to video him while he’s engraving a metal bracelet cut from an old can with orange paint on it.
“I make these bracelets, part of my Romantic Rust line, out of old, red tool boxes and license plates, too,” Kit says. “Painted metal from the 70s, or earlier, is best for these pieces. When I use a raw-hide hammer to shape bracelets made from newer painted metal, the paint will chip off.”
Kit’s two essential engraving tools are his vice and nematic engraver. Watch the video below to see how his sophisticated rotating vice and the electric engraver make engraving look easy. It’s not easy. Not at all. Especially creating the intricate scrolls and desert scenes, trademarks of his art. Kit has clearly mastered his engraving technique.
Kit’s workspace is about six feet wide and 11 feet long. Stations for engraving, cutting, assembling and soldering face one wall while on shelves case after case of tiny drawers hold teeny tool pieces and jewelry parts. A window over his main counter provides lots of natural light, but he also has multiple lamps clamped to every work station. The workshop is comfortable and efficient.
A large table in his living room along the front wall holds stones and gems, allowing Kit space to play around with composition of the jewels’ placement on earrings, pendants or bracelets.
When Kit decided to pursue art, his mother, Paula Carson, gave him good advise. “From day one,” she told Kit, “run your art like a business. Know how much you pay for supplies, add in labor costs and never sell for less than what you have in a piece.”
Kit has lived by that guidance and under his means, which meant he was able to produce art and support himself, sometimes barely being able to pay his $60-a-month rent in the early years. But he kept at it, worked on a rickety stool pumping out his handmade, unique designs, growing his business and then shrinking his business to a perfectly manageable size. To this day, Kit continues to reinvent himself and how he markets his art.
In the beginning, he branched out from just making jewelry, which has always been his core, to working with drawings, sign painting, calligraphy on signs and wedding invitations, watercolors, wood and rock sculptures, and engraving for local jewelry stores. “I couldn’t make a living and make art while working for $3 an hour at the bronze factory,” Kit says. “I needed a steady income and I knew I could have constant business by offering several artistic services.”
Kit didn’t know anything about running a business.
“Early on, I sent my jewelry to a gallery and didn’t include anything in the package. No list of items. No pricing,” Kit says. The gallery tracked him down from his return address and called him, asking, “What is this?”
“It’s my jewelry,” Kit replied.
“How much are you selling it for?,” they asked.
“What do you think it’d sell for,” Kit laughs, recalling the conversation.
“I didn’t know. They suggested how much each piece might sell for and I learned a lot by them walking me through the process.”
That gallery, the first one he approached, sold his jewelry.
Jumping into the commercial art world without any guidance meant Kit did some things wrong, and other things right. But he had courage and belief in his art. For 43 consecutive years, he has made a living from his art.
“One job leads to another job,” Kit says, “and I always make time for jobs.” Like when Fender saw his his skull jewelry on his website and contacted him about designing a “DIA DE LOS MUERTOS,” or Day of the Dead, Telecaster guitar for them. Naturally, Kit said yes. Fender collaborated with Kit, and other artists Dan Lawrence, Ron Thorn, Tom Arndt and Chris Flemming to create the most expensive customer guitar Fender ever produced. While some folks wondered if the guitar would sell, Fender ended up making and selling three of them.
Kit lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for 12 years. He got his career going by having the courage to jump smack dab into the middle of the Santa Fe art community where he knew no one. His business took off so well, it eventually earned $250,000 a year. Kit opened an office in Santa Fe and sold his art to 270 stores and galleries across the U.S. He was able to hire several employees to assist in producing his jewelry.
“One day I was in Boston and passed a store,” Kit says. “A bunny pin in the window caught my eye. It was a knock-off of mine. I went inside and told the clerk the pin was a poor-quality knock-off and I wanted them to remove it. The clerk said, ‘Oh, Hi, Mr. Carson. So nice to meet you. That is your pin.’ I was so disappointed in the quality of the work, that it had my name on it, and I hadn’t stopped it from going out the door. I went back to Santa Fe and closed my business. I wanted to be an artist in his studio knowing every piece that goes out is the best I can do.”
Kit firmly believes the two best things he ever did was to go into business big time and to get out of business big time. He had jumped into making art with both feet and little business know-how, yet he managed to have more successes than failures. Luckily, he’s happy to share the following lessons learned with aspiring artists of all mediums:
Quit your job. “Working a job will only take a new artist away from building their skills and their business.”
Don’t get married. “I knew two friends who wanted to work in art at the same time I was starting out and they got their girlfriends pregnant. They married and took other jobs to support their families. Of course, I got married later, too, so I didn’t listen to my own advice.”
Study an artist. Kit says find an artist whose work is of interest and then take weekend workshops with them. “You can learn more in a weekend with an artist than you can in an entire college course,” Kit says. “I’m an open book and will share my techniques with anybody.” Kit learned some jewelry-making techniques in the jewelry program at University of Oregon, Eugene. He also took night classes and weekend workshops.
Believe in yourself. “Artists must believe in themselves. I believed in myself,” Kit says. “That’s why I was able to build a business and stay self-employed. You have to discipline yourself to make a product, and another one. When you have bills to pay, that’s incentive enough to sit down and create.”
Find your voice. “An artist must find the core of their voice and they must have the ability to resolve abstract composition,” Kit says. He developed a voice early on and started engraving his drawings of bunnies, horses and desert scenes onto jewelry. “My jewelry stood out because not many people engraved their sketches into jewelry,” Kit says.
After 10 years in business, Kit was able to hire an assistant and has had several over the years. He trusts his employees and looks for enthusiasm when hiring. “I can teach them skills, but not enthusiasm,” Kit says. “They must also be able to tolerate failing and pushing through. Failures happen all the time, pieces don’t turn out the way we expect, but we keep creating.”
Currently, Sandy operates his website and Etsy shop; Halle in Denver constructs his jewelry from parts he sends her; and Louis, a glass artist from Prescott, works with Kit in his studio.
Kit was born and raised on Champie Ranch, a dude ranch, near Castle Hot Springs and Lake Pleasant, northwest of Phoenix, Arizona. His dad had given flying lessons during WWII and had spotted the ranch from the air. Growing up, Kit’s family didn’t have a phone, but they did have electricity and a radio, on which Kit as a six-year-old first heard Elvis Presley.
At the height of Gunsmoke’s popularity on TV, James Arnez, who played Sheriff Matt Dillon, brought his family to stay at Champie Ranch for a couple of weeks. Kit and his three brothers enjoyed swimming with “Matt Dillon,” and when James Arnez showed them his six-shooter, Kit was more interested in the gun’s engraving than he was the gun. Admiring the scroll work was a precursor to Kit’s fascination with the Arts & Crafts Movement and his love of Art Nouveau design lines.
When the Carsons divorced, 10-year-old Kit and his brothers moved from Champie Ranch to Prescott with their mother. To ease the transition after his parents’ divorce, Kit would retreat to his room and paint model cars and sketch. By the age of 12, Kit knew he wanted to be an artist.
“My mother taught us self-discipline,” Kit says. “If we wore out our jeans, she wouldn’t replace them. She would tell us to get a paper route and buy our own jeans. I had two paper routes delivering in the morning and afternoon. It was 1963 and I was the only Seventh grader with $20 in his pocket.”
Kit’s mother was also creative. Although she worked full-time, she took up weaving as a hobby and made quite a few rugs, some of which Kit sill owns. To this day, the local college manages the Paula Carson Scholarship Fund for Weavers.
Kit’s brothers still live in Prescott. His twin, Steve, uses large earth-moving equipment to coax nature back to its natural setting after man has messed things up. Steve is a cowboy. His other brother Tom is a building contractor, one of the best in Prescott, of course, and his other brother Johnny is a cowboy.
For his sculpture, Kit uses found objects, mostly rusted metal parts of all descriptions which make up his Library of Visual Solutions. Kit brought 10 tons of his metal “Library” to Prescott and sold about 40 tons before moving from Camp Cactus in New River.
When sculpting metal, he will search through his “library” and select pieces that complement each other, welding them together to create a pleasing composition of angles and geometrics. As an artist who has learned to focus intensely, Kit honed his ability to quickly select and arrange pieces. His eye is trained and his mind revels in moving pieces around and around until he lands on the perfect composition.
Two smaller sculptures pictured below hang in the rental’s living room and illustrate his use of repeated angles or other design motifs.
Before moving from Camp Cactus, Kit constructed a massive metal sculpture that looked like a giant earth-moving machine. It was about 30 feet long, 10 feet wide and 8 feet high. He sold it to one of his collectors. Not all of his sculptures are gigantic, however, and not all are completely metal. They come in all shapes and sizes.
The day of my visit, Kit is monitoring the construction of a rock sculpture, a bench commissioned by a client and constructed from rocks on the client’s land. Kit selected two large stones, one for the base and one to sit atop it as a back, and directed the crew on where to place them. Because big machinery wouldn’t fit on the rocky hilltop, the rock bench crew manually moved two massive rocks with levers, straps and cable.
As we’re photographing his workspace in the rental home, Kit receives a call; the rocks are in place and ready for his review. We jump into my MINI and drive over. “Everything in Prescott is only a 5-minute minute drive away,” Kit says.
We promptly arrive and Kit sits on the bench, posing with the happy men who built the bench using their brute strength and power provided by Red Bull. Kit approves the rock placement.
“I’ll add stones around the bottom,” Kit says, “and place soil, pine needles and sticks to make it look as though the bench has been here a million years.”
We drive back to town for lunch and Kit says, “I’m glad to see those guys so happy about the rock bench. They figured it out as they went along.”
These are the same men who moved the 1914 house off of Kit’s Prescott lot on Cortez Street, clearing the way for him to build his new home, Cortez Camp, which will be much like Camp Cactus back in New River; about 1,300 square feet of artistic touches, including metal pieces here and there, inside and out, and a big shop in the back.
Kit lived at Camp Cactus in New River on the edge of Tonto National Forest for 25 years and when he stood on his front porch looking out, all he saw were mountains and Saguaros, nothing man-made.
“I became a bit too isolated there,” Kit says, part of the reason he decided to sell Camp Cactus and move to Prescott where his three brothers live.
“Camp Cactus is my largest piece of art yet,” Kit says. Thinking of it as an art piece is the only way Kit could bring himself to sell the home he crafted with his own hands. As with every other piece of art he’s made, Kit signed Camp Cactus by engraving a silver plate with the following words and attaching it to a wall inside the house:
“This home was conceived in my heart, designed in my mind, and built with my hands as a work of art. It remains my masterpiece. Kit Carson.”
“I’ll always miss the house, and the view, but I’ve integrated those memories and only want to remember how good it was,” Kit says.
Cortez Camp is his newest work of art/future living space. Strict building codes in Prescott mean Kit has to hire certified welders to put up his rusted porch poles instead of doing it himself. That’s a bummer for someone who welds all the time. Luckily, Kit’s brother Tom lives next door and is the building contractor for Cortez Camp.
Tips and Tricks
Making a living at art isn’t just about making art. It requires adapting to customers’ changing tastes and active marketing. Over the years, Kit incorporated a few sensible tactics into his marketing repertoire.
“I was in Neiman’s one day and saw a consultant advising a customer on what colors worked best with her skin and hair. It occurred to me that I needed to know those things so I can advise my clients. And that’s what I do. I make the jewelry about them.”
Kit has attracted a number of serious collectors who buy his jewelry and home decor items. But he can no longer depend on his collectors to show up at art shows and buy enough jewelry to make it worth his while. Lately, he’s hit on a mutually-beneficial arrangement where he visits his collectors in their homes as they host a lunch or breakfast for friends. Kit enjoys spending time with his clients and hearing what works and doesn’t work with his jewelry, and they enjoy having an artist in their home, as a friend.
After 43 years of ups and downs, Kit is still the artist who branches out and takes jobs when offered. He still makes art from his heart, lives below his means and has an uncommon piece-of-mind.
Kit crafts his life like he crafts a well-designed piece of jewelry. And it sparkles.
Kit’s jewelry website: https://www.kitcarsonjewelry.com/store/c1/Featured_Products.html
Kit’s Etsy Store: https://www.etsy.com/market/kit_carson_jewelry
For an in-depth look at how Kit created his stone home in New River, be sure to read Candy Moulton’s online article, Camp Cactus: Kit Carson’s artist retreat near Cave Creek, Arizona: https://truewestmagazine.com/cactus-camp/
To hear Kit’s own explanation of the design and building materials/elements used in creating Camp Cactus, watch his Sotheby’s video: https://privateclientgroupagents.com/videos/cactus-camp/
PBS’ Craft in America featuring Kit: http://www.craftinamerica.org/artists/kit-carson/. Kit’s page on the Craft in America website has several videos explaining his work and philosophy.