Creative Couple: Jhenn Watts and Kenneth Pillsworth
When photographer Jhenn Watts first began showing her work at the Vineyard’s Artisan Fair in the late 90s, the work of a certain jeweler caught her eye. Kenneth Pillsworth had a booth located just inside the entrance (one of the festival’s founders, he’d earned prime real estate) and she walked past each week, admiring his unique creations.
“I loved Kenny’s work,” she remembered, sitting on the back deck of the Vineyard Haven home the couple now shares. “I was impressed by the diversity of his designs, the unusual gemstones.”
Unbeknownst to her, Kenneth had noticed her photography as well. “She was doing something I’d never seen before,” he said of the artist’s now trademark Polaroid emulsion lifts.
One day, Jhenn asked Kenneth to create a custom piece for her sister’s college graduation. He surprised her by assigning her to draw him a few sketches for inspiration. “I don’t draw,” Jhenn said, “but I took the challenge seriously.” It was their first collaboration. And though Jhenn admits the request was “just an excuse to get his number,” the necklace he made remains one of her sister’s favorites.
Years later, the couple is now married and both have fulfilling careers as professional artists living on Martha’s Vineyard. (You may also recognize Jhenn as the director of The Field Gallery, where the work of both artists are featured.) For the most part, they work independently: Kenneth out of a studio in their home, a small back room in which every surface is covered by an organized array of bits and baubles, and Jhenn at the dining room table, where they meet regularly at the end of a day’s work to check in.
Last year they began to collaborate in earnest on a series of lockets. The glass lockets, feature a small photograph of Jhenn’s on one side, and an abstract mixed metal interpretation of the photo designed by Kenneth on the other.
“We decided we wanted to collaborate,” Jhenn said. At first, they thought they might paint together.
“We had this unrealistic dream that we’d bring easels out to Cape Poge and paint on the same canvas,” Kenny said.
“It didn’t go very well,” Jhenn laughed. “It’s hard when you’re a creative person. You have confidence in your methods. To have someone come in and change what you’ve done…”
The locket project was more successful, perhaps because they could work independently but collaborate on elements of design. “We’ll sit down together now with some stones or a photograph and say, ‘What should we do with this?’” Kenneth said.
For many couples, the prospect of sharing creative work on a regular basis and giving and receiving feedback would be a daunting one. For Kenny and Jhenn, it’s the foundation of a healthy relationship.
“He’s a harsh critic,” Jhenn said of Kenny’s feedback style. “But it’s what you need. It’s not easy to hear ‘I don’t like that,’ but it’s important.”
“I want you to succeed,” Kenneth said.
“We don’t always agree. For the first time ever recently I ripped something up. I was so invested but Kenny looked at it and said, ‘You’re better than this.’”
And then there were the Christmas earrings. Each birthday and Christmas, Kenneth makes Jhenn a piece of jewelry, which usually goes on to be the prototype for his next line. This year, for the first time ever, he missed the mark.
“I said, ‘I’ll never wear these,’” she shrugged. He made her a new pair.
“Her line is, ‘It’s not my favorite,’” Kenneth laughed.
Jhenn nodded. “We’re honest,” she said. “Even when it’s painful, we’re honest.”