This week we chatted to jeweller and portrait artist Zena McKeown. Zena has run her own jewellery label Me and Zena since 2007 and her wares have since been worn by the likes of Rihanna and Cara Delavingne.
LTP: So has jewellery always been your main interest?
ZM: No, not really! But I think there was something that drew me to it, it always seemed like this small, secret, symbolic magical thing. And from being a teenager I always had a necklace or a charm or a ring, to me it always symbolised something that was a secret for me, and I’d wear them every day and create stories around its personal symbology. So I always had a weird connection to it, but I never thought about it as a career.
LTP: So how did it turn into a career?
ZM: When I moved to London after I finished my art degree, I started to tie art and fashion together a bit more. London was a very inspirational place for fashion, really different to Edinburgh, where I’d studied. So I got really excited about fashion at that point, but I think jewellery was also a practicality – I had a market stall at the time selling my artwork, and because I couldn’t drive I thought I’d make jewellery (easy to carry). So straight away after moving to London, I was really excited about it.
LTP: Roughly what time was this?
LTP: So what was happening in London at the time that was getting you so excited and making you think to commercialise your passion for jewellery?
ZM: There was a real DIY vibe for jewellery. I think people were getting a bit sick of what was on the high street – which wasn’t very good at all – and people had started to drill holes in random objects and things like that! Tatty Divine were getting really big at the time and they were an art school brand, and I think their attitude was quite inspirational to people who’d come out of art college. So I think it was this feeling that you really could do it yourself and that you didn’t have to have ties to anybody in the fashion world.
LTP: So regarding what you said about attaching stories to your jewellery and always being excited about the meaning behind it, does this go some way to explaining your current range? There’s a combination of Eastern symbology, words and sayings with a very western aesthetic – bright colours, golds, very ostentatious. Did you want there to be a meaning behind it?
ZM: With that particular collection, it was inspired by my long term interest in the occult, esoterica and yoga. That stuff is kind of fashionable now, which is a bit annoying for me because you don’t just want to do something because it’s fashionable, but at the same time I am very interested in this stuff. Also teenagers love that ‘faux depth’ thing, maybe I was guilty of that when I was younger, wanting a ring that says something on it that means something. Astrology is really big with teenagers at the moment, so I guess I tied my own person interests in with that. Also in the past I would always use words and games in my jewellery, secret little messages and things like that. But I don’t think I made anything with any kind of spiritual meaning before that collection.
LTP: So it wasn’t out of a connection to the things you were making into jewellery but it also wasn’t a deliberate ploy to appeal to teens and people in their early twenties, it was just having fun with words and messages and involving it in the jewellery?
ZM: It’s a combination of all of that. When you’re running a business you have to keep your eye on what sells – you can’t just put your favourite word or phrase on your jewellery, it has to be something that appeals to an audience.
LTP: Aside from jewellery, you’re also becoming more interested in portraiture. What do you get out of it that you don’t from jewellery?
ZM: Well when designing jewellery, the design part is a small part of running the business. With portraits, it’s more of a hobby. I feel like I’m at a professional standard, but it’s a way to relax. The appeal is entirely creative. I’m not putting pressure on myself to make money from it, and that’s when creativity is best, when you get the most from it.
LTP: Was there any reason you took to portraits in particular? Were there a couple of people that caught your eye and made you want to draw them?
ZM: I don’t know, from a young age I was always obsessed with people’s faces! I just wanted to draw people and I found some faces perfect and I wanted to recreate them. As a teenager it was a kind of worship – drawing people I was really into, people in bands, actors, that sort of thing.
LTP: What’s inspiring you at the moment?
ZM: Still combining the religious and pop culture. I’m really into these new-age pseudo-Christian portraits that people do; I really love them and they always involve a glowing figure – I’d love to draw some pop-culture figures in that kind of style.
LTP: We look forward to it! Thanks.