Photography By Jillian Lukiwski
This Artist Feature was written for and published in Modern Huntsman Volume One. To see the story in print, click below to purchase a copy of Volume One.
Tell us about your jewelry practice...how did you originally get into it?
I came to the US 13 years ago when I married my husband. By way of Alaska, we wound up living on a remote satellite station for US Fish and Wildlife on the middle of the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation outside of Parker, Arizona. It was a very isolated location, and Robert was working as a fish biologist, while I was waiting for my green card paperwork to process. While it was processing, I couldn’t work, and had a ton of free time on my hands. I was also lonesome and looking for a sense of community. I was snooping around one day and noticed that a college in Lake Havasu was offering an introduction to silversmithing. Since I had nothing else to do with my time, I signed up for the course. In that class I learned to roughly solder, saw metal, and bezel set stones with extremely primitive tools. Anyone can make jewelry, but not everyone is good at designing jewelry. I was good at both. Once the class finished, I slowly began to collect tools for my workspace, which was located in a quonset, along with 10,000 endangered fish at the facility we were living at (and Robert was managing). That’s when I really began in this medium. I had one hammer, one small anvil, a rusty vice, some moth eaten files, a torch, and a black widow infestation. But I began small with a big dream, which is how all self-employment or small businesses should begin. I added tools to my space as my profits allowed. My green card came through, and I worked two other jobs in town — as a librarian at the elementary school, as well as at a tiny sandwich and coffee shop upriver of Parker. When I wasn’t at my official jobs, I just kept chipping away at building a dream in my little workshop. I opened an online store, and within two hours had sold my first piece of jewelry. Three months later, I quit my other jobs, went full-time with silversmithing, and the rest is history. There aren’t any distinct differences between how I work now and how I worked when I first started. I set about it with curiosity and dedication, and my designs evolved as my tool collection grew. I did my very best to find inspirations from the world around me, from my personal experiences out on the land, and from life lessons. I did my best to be honest in my work. At some point in time, I might have been romanced by the term “artist” and everything that goes along with that, but these days, I hesitate to call myself an artist. There can be something pretentious about the word, and I prefer to view my work as the pursuit of a craft, and storytelling. I’m trying to build an interconnectedness in my life with my studio time, writing, gardening and farming. I recently told someone that “there is elk on our dinner plates and there are elk on my cocktail rings.” I’m seeking to live a life that is directly reflected, echoed and honored by my metalwork, writing, and photography efforts, so that everything is true to the context in which my inspirations are received and decoded.
What materials do you typically work with in your jewelry process?
I work primarily in sterling silver, but occasionally use 23K gold for embellishment purposes. I prefer agates and jaspers that come out of the western states of the US — it’s just one more way for me to honor the land I love — with the enormous windswept spaces that act as sky burnished temples to the elk, the mule deer, and pronghorn. I use turquoise in my designs, as well as chrysoprase, elk ivory and antler. I also cast little bones I find, bits of flora, and fabricate sagebrush — whatever catches my eye while I’m out and about.
Do you make jewelry pieces based on your inspirations, or are they mostly commissions?
I try not to do commissioned work, but make exceptions from time to time for friends or family. Sometimes I bump into a person who simply won’t take no for an answer, and I wind up working for them, but I try to keep my schedule free of commissioned work. It’s not that I don’t like creating specifically for an individual, but I often end up recreating older designs that I feel I’ve moved past, and it takes the momentum out of whatever direction I am headed in. I’m selfish about my studio time, and like to make what I want to make, to feel free to follow rabbit trails, to explore and engage my curiosity. Most of the techniques I employ in my work are things I learned by simply messing around in my medium. The metal has been a wonderful teacher to me. For me, the point is not to make as much jewelry as possible as quickly as possible. The point is the process behind the work; slowing down to notice my inspirations, to notice beauty in life and death, and translate those details into a wearable format (or to photograph and write about these things). The point is to take a handful of materials and change them into cohesive and contextual beauty that is aesthetically lovely and meaningful to me, the maker, as well as the individual who ultimately wears the piece. This isn’t my job, it’s my vocation.
How often does hunting provide you with usable materials for jewelry?
Well any antlers I’ve used in jewelry designs are sheds we’ve found while out bird hunting or hiking. I think elk ivories are an exquisite material, and hold such a strong connection to runaway ridgelines, cloud encased timber, the autumn blaze of brush in old burns, cold wind, and everything that is so alive and thrumming in the high country. When we are in the Owhyees, I often find agates, jaspers, and druzy crystals on the ground as we hunt, and some of those stones have found their way into my designs.
How much of an influence is the outdoors or wildlife in the development of your work?
It’s a total influence. I don’t identify with new age philosophies or animal shamanism — which is to say, I don’t want someone to tell me what everything means, what a snake can teach me or an elk symbolizes. I want to discover those things for myself. I’m pretty headstrong that way, and like to find my own way and inspirations. When I’m outside I learn a lot from a landscape by noticing things and asking WHY — engaging my logic and deductive skills — simply finding a question and then discovering the answer to it. There’s a ton to learn from animals and plants by simply watching them, and I find all of these lessons can be metaphors for the human condition; for the growth or decay I see in myself, or for what needs working on in my own heart and life. I don’t always spell those lessons out for people when I go to share a new piece of work, but the lessons are there, embedded in the molecules that build the metal and stone. If I am doing good work, it’s an echo of everything I brush up against outside, or in my daily life. It is true to my life, and it is just true.
What’s your favorite piece of jewelry you’ve made to date?
That’s a hard question to answer. Whatever has me on fire at present is what I love most. If I’m growing in my craft, working diligently and with great integrity and truth, and am delving into my life outside the studio with fearlessness, my work will echo that. Whatever is right in front of me on my bench, actively in the process of being built, is what I’m all about, right then and there.
In the same spirit of Native American adornments or other cultural applications, how does jewelry function for you?
I’ve always loved jewelry. If it’s well made and thoughtfully designed, it’s wearable art. There’s something magical about wearing an item like that right next to your skin, over your heart, at the pulse points on your wrists, or swinging from your ears. A friend of mine who weighs molecules for a living once told me that the molecules of any material are under constant effect of the world around them, so that they record and remember vibrations, forever, within the structure of their crystal lattices. I like to believe that a piece of jewelry is brought alive by the heat of your body — the metal warms, the stone softens next to your skin, the molecules that build that metal and stone record the data of your heartbeat, so that you become a part of the crystal lattice that builds a jewel. If you wear a diamond that was your great-grandmother’s, a pair of ancient earrings from Oaxaca, or a piece of carved jade from the North country, all of that metal and stone holds a record of the maker and of the individual that wore that piece before you; their pulse, and the melody of their life labor will ring true in that piece of jewelry forever. That’s cosmic to me. As I build a piece of jewelry, my own life is pressed into that crystal lattice, so that I am remembered in that piece forever, in a minute, physical and electrical way. The memory of me, the maker, mingles with the owner of that piece, and her daughters, and her daugther’s daughters. It creates a story and a connection that cannot be broken. How beautiful is that? So beautiful and so intimate.
How do you balance your life as a jeweler and photographer? Do you prefer one over the other?
I like both, though I am stepping back from freelance photography work right now to focus more on studio work. I find it more grounding. I didn’t set out to do freelance photography work, I simply made pictures because I wanted to tell my story, document beauty, and translate beauty for others. I will continue to work for companies if they suit my lifestyle, but I don’t like to be on the road constantly, and that’s what freelance work was becoming for me. I was perpetually traveling and began to feel separated from the natural world and my rhythms in it. I love to travel, but I would like to be able to take more journeys that are about exploration and seeking inspirations, instead of getting a great shot of a coat being used in a beautiful landscape.