by Nancy E. McCarthy
Making jewelry is not just a livelihood for Corning artisan Kelly Ormsby—it’s an obsession. Her passion and natural talent surfaced early. Ormsby made her first professional jewelry sale at age 13.
“My mom gifted me a kit for making hemp necklaces,” she explains. “I enjoyed the results so much I set about gathering larger quantities of materials in order to experiment further.” The outcome was a chunky, woven necklace featuring a rainbow of colorful wooden beads.
The striking necklace around her neck caught the attention of a Lake Placid boutique owner when the vacationing Ormsby family was shopping. Later, Ormsby’s father urged her to let the owner know that she created the necklace and offer to make some for the store.
“The next day I visited her again and left beaming having made my first wholesale order!” says Ormsby. It marked the serendipitous beginning of her vocation as an artisan and entrepreneur.
Today Ormsby owns her own jewelry business, Turquoise Terrapin. “Turquoise” is for her liberal use of this vibrant gemstone. “Terrapin” is a fond nod to tortoises she’s nurtured as house pets.
Ormsby, 27, has been honing her signature designs and business model for a decade. She handcrafts an impressive array of necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Her work features turquoise and other gemstones which she uses as pendants or as beads plus natural materials such as antler tips, leather, carved bone and feathers. Her jewelry, sold at retail outlets and art shows, reflects her love of the outdoors, the Finger Lakes and Adirondacks regions and the American Southwest.
The Great Outdoors
Ormby’s recalls her joy of “unstructured time in nature” as a child. The artisan was raised, along with her brother Dan, in Corning – known for its picturesque landscapes. She still lives in the area. After community college, she studied Outdoor Recreation at Houghton College. It seemed like a great fit at the time but Ormsby wryly notes her studies didn’t make a defining impact on her career path. Her career would be jewelry making and she already had a head start. Ormsby created and sold jewelry all through high school and college—even the campus store carried her work. She also had a small landscaping business that kept her contentedly outdoors. She continued to cultivate both businesses after her 2013 college graduation.
In 2013 Ormsby was offered the opportunity to share booth space with Cagwin Photography at Glassfest, a popular Corning arts festival. Ormsby had done some modeling for photographer Molly Cagwin and her business partner Kathy Connery was helping Ormsby establish her art career. Connery introduced Ormsby to the art show circuit and the local arts council. She also became an avid collector who has purchased over 70 Turquoise Terrapin pieces. About 60 are hers and the rest selected as gifts.
Connery describes her pieces as timeless yet contemporary, elegant and sophisticated–equally at home paired with blue jeans, a little black dress or business attire.
Ormsby was back at Glassfest the following year when Pip’s Boutique owner Sarah Files visited her booth, on the hunt to offer more local jewelry. “She had such a cool, funky, eclectic vibe it was hard to resist,” says Files. “I figured it wouldn’t be for everyone but we do have that artistic clientele that I knew would love it.”
She was pleased when even conservative customers were drawn to Ormsby’s designs. “They usually look at her work and say ‘No, there’s no way I could wear that. That takes a confident, bold woman to wear that’,” says Files. “I just say, ‘You should just try it on for fun.’ And when they do, all of a sudden they transform. They see how amazing it looks, and realize that that piece they’re wearing is giving them this cool confidence that they didn’t think they had!”
The Southwest Connection
Corning’s Rockwell Museum highlights North American West and Native American collections. It’s a popular school field trip destination but Ormsby never liked the exhibits there. “I thought it was the ugliest art I ever saw,” she laughingly confesses. Yet, as a college freshman she went back on her own with fresh eyes and a new appreciation.
She found the artwork as captivating as the space it was housed in. “The walls were bright blues, vibrant reds, bursting yellows and just delicious to look at,” she says. The western landscapes celebrated an America she never saw firsthand but she was moved by it. She had to go and see it for herself.
Ormsby and her father made two southwestern treks during her college years, first driving the state of Arizona, then New Mexico. Before their New Mexico adventure, a friend’s mother encouraged Ormsby to visit her niece, Albuquerque artist Ali Launer. It was Launer who suggested that they visit artsy Santa Fe.
Ormsby was enchanted and she kept going back. By her third trip to Santa Fe in March 2016, her jewelry was sold in six shops and she was doing seven annual art shows back home. When Ormsby entered Canyon Road Contemporary Art, gallery owner Nancy Ouimet found her “style to be stunning.”
“That day I was wearing several pieces of my jewelry: three layered necklaces, a thick leather cuff, a multi stranded wrap bracelet, and a pair of copper heart earrings,” Ormsby remembers.
Even though Ouimet didn’t carry jewelry, she immediately offered Ormsby the opportunity to have her work represented at her gallery.
Go Big or Go Home
One of Ormsby’s best-selling designs is her long earrings made of 12” pheasant, duck or peacock feathers. “Ladies from ages 9 to 90 proudly walk out of my booth wearing them,” says Ormsby. “They instantly stand taller, smile wider, and look like they just took one more step towards expressing who they truly are.”
The artisan sources materials locally as well as during buying trips to Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. She designs and produces her jewelry in her cozy, rustic cabin studio just outside of Corning.
New pieces start with a vision in mind though filling inventory gaps partially drives her creative process. Ormsby begins with a focal point, working from center, then outward with trays of materials sorted by style within easy reach. Each item is handcrafted. Some designs are one-of-a-kind while others are duplicated several times over.
Ormsby folded her landscaping business and transitioned to full-time artisan last year. She feels strongly about overcoming the “starving artist” stereotype so her decision was backed by careful financial planning–including a long term retirement plan even though it is decades away. It is career advice she freely shares with other young, aspiring artists.
“I want to see artists thrive, and peace of mind about retirement frees up more mental space for creativity!”
Ormsby’s bold creativity is on display at eight retail outlets. For location details plus upcoming Turquoise Terrapin art show appearances visit turquoiseterrapin.com.