Artist to Watch: Clarissa Knighten

(photo by Jim Barcus)

The Kansas City Artist’s Riveting Jewelry Work Offers a Metaphor of Struggle

Sometimes, art serves as a living metaphor for the life of the artist, a physical embodiment of his or her life story. “Lady in Satin,” the last album released by Billie Holiday during her lifetime, contains an exhilaratingly painful rendition of “You’ve Changed.” Although the song is talking about falling out of love, it almost feels like Holiday was singing about how the fame, setbacks and struggles of life had changed her. She was near the end of her life; the ravages of lost love, drugs and a lifetime on the stage had nearly consumed her, and it seemed to make her art more authentic than ever.

Like Holiday’s “Lady in Satin,” the riveting handmade jewelry pieces of local designer Clarissa Knighten, many made from painstakingly twisted wire and intentionally selected stones, resonate with strength and beauty forged under sustained intensity and pressure.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that Knighten, who left a 19-year corporate career to pursue her art full time, started making jewelry as a part of recovering from clinical depression. While her determination to defeat depression was obvious, the fact that her jewelry would soon be her full-time career was not. “I never thought people would want to purchase my jewelry,” Knighten told “The Kansas City Star” in 2019.

Following a first sale in an elevator, Knighten’s work has evolved into a wearable art practice that transforms not only wire and stone but also shells, bones, buttons, wood, and even bike chains into unique and beautiful works of wearable art. Like a composer transforming sounds and spaces into unforgettable music, she transforms juxtapositions of shape, size, color and texture into explosive constructions of visual rhythm that are ignited when placed on the canvas of the human body.

“The way materials touch each other creates an energy that inspires me,” Knighten says, as seen in this piece titled “Life.” (from the artist)

Knighten, who spent first through third grade in the Philippines as the daughter of an Air Force Chief Master Sergeant, subscribes to an organic and instinctual art practice. “I rarely clean off my worktable,” she says. “The way materials touch each other creates an energy that inspires me to push myself to another level. Sometimes the goal is to only create using items on the table. Other times, when I walk away and come back, my eye catches the glimpse of something I hadn’t seen earlier.”

Working from a studio in the InterUrban ArtHouse in Overland Park, Knighten’s skill and quality of work have led to an increasing presence in Kansas City’s art scene. Her growing list of accomplishments includes being a Fashion Week Featured Artist, winning First Place for Jewelry at the Mid-America Winter Art Fair in 2018 and 2020, being featured on Global Entrepreneur Week, and a residency at the Charlotte Street Foundation with the African American Artists Collective. A groundbreaker, she was the first Black woman to have a studio at the InterUrban ArtHouse.

The global pandemic has not slowed Knighten’s creativity. “During this strange time of the pandemic, I have been able to focus my energy on designing drop dead gorgeous pieces in a minimalistic way. COVID provided me a much-needed break to stop, reset and reassess my work, relationships and what is really important in my world.”

A certain peacefulness resonates from Knighten and is present in her work. She explains “Just knowing that God has gifted or wired my brain and hands in such a way that I can create wearable art that sparks conversations brings me joy. As an artist, I think we have a responsibility to share our gift with the world.”

She fulfills that responsibility with a genuine concern for the well-being of others. “I would like to remind people that when you are on the correct path, doors will open on your behalf; just keep walking through them. My creativity is inspired by what I see, feel and touch.”

The author has witnessed her personal care for others. In 2018, I was photographing Clarissa as part of a project on Black Artists of Kansas City. As we talked during the session, I mentioned that I was experiencing down moods a lot in the last few years. Clarissa took the time to share her journey with depression along with some kind suggestions on how to proceed. I took her advice and took next steps, sought treatment, got better, and will be ever grateful.

Clarissa Knighten is a truly good person making truly great art in our city.

See Knighten’s work at www.rissasartisticdesign.com.

Harold Smith

Harold Smith is an educator and multimedia artist who lives and works in the Kansas City area. Most of his work is focused on his experience within the American black experience.

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