Episode 201 Part 1: How Anna Johnson’s Jewelry Connects Wearers to the Natural World

Episode 201

What you’ll learn in this episode:

  • How Anna finds the plants and animals she incorporates into her work, and how she does so sustainably
  • Why even art jewelry must interact with the body to really be considered jewelry
  • What techniques Anna uses to make delicate materials sturdy and wearable
  • Why Anna hopes her jewelry will connect people to the natural world

About Anna Johnson

Anna Johnson is a studio artist, craftswoman and educator residing in Asheville, NC. At a very young age she stumbled upon jewelry making and from then on it became not only her creative outlet, but a space of untampered personal expression that guided her through her educational, professional, and personal development. Equally taken by the depths of the natural world, organic elements began to be her main source of inspiration as her language in jewelry developed.

?Today her work revolves around the question of where and why our culture perceives value by creating jewelry – often used to display worth, lineage, cultural hierarchy, believe affiliations, etc – with raw elements from directly from the natural world, unique and unpretentiously beautiful, in efforts of providing a fresh line of visual communication, a display of acknowledgment, consciousness, and in alliance with our natural world.

Additional Resources:



Most people who are drawn to Anna Johnson’s jewelry for the first time have no idea it’s made from leaves, animal bones and other items from nature—and that’s exactly what Anna wants. Adapting techniques to highlight natural materials, she hopes that her jewelry will make people reconsider the world around us. She joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about what attracts her to delicate materials and how she works with them; how she defines jewelry; and why she considers herself an artist first. Read the episode transcript here. 

Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. This is the first part of a two-part episode. Please make sure you subscribe so you can hear part two as soon as it’s released later this week. 

Anna Johnson’s jewelry is very different. It’s made of the bones of small creatures—for example, the mandibles of small reptiles—mixed with gems. You’re so taken with the designs that you don’t even realize what they’re made of. That’s exactly what happened to me. I loved the earrings I saw, and I have several pairs, but I didn’t realize they were made of different parts of animals until a jeweler said to me, “Oh, look what these are made of.” I didn’t even realize it. 

Anna is a city girl who grew up in Appalachia and went to college in Boone. She’s won several international awards and has been exhibited in a lot of different galleries, but she’ll tell us all about that. Anna, maybe you can tell us. I know with Covid, it must have been really hard for you. Can you tell us about how you came to work with all these animal parts?

Anna: First, thank you so much for having me, Sharon. I’m so excited to have the opportunity to chat with you again. I’ve been working with lots of different elements from nature, and those have really spoken to the development of my body of work.  I think of all the little bones in the same way I think of plants and the gems and minerals I use in my pieces. In looking at nature, the animals and their lifecycles, which would include the bones, are equally important to highlight. They’re also so beautiful and interesting in their shapes and textures and all of those things. The bones are also durable, especially when you pull the idea of taboo off of them. I feel like a lot of times when bones are used, they’re used in the context of the taboo or the macabre. I’m trying to take the focus away from that and put them in the same context of how I use plants and minerals, which are elements that you see highlighted and recognized as being beautiful more regularly. It’s leveling the playing field a little bit, if that makes sense.

Sharon: It makes a lot of sense. From what I understand or what I’ve seen, all of it is one of a kind, right? It’s not production.

Anna: I do have a body of limited-edition pieces I can repeat. Those are things I would be able to multiply. For example, I have a collection, my serpentine collection, and that whole collection was born from this little scientific specimen a friend of mine found in an abandoned high school in Boone, North Carolina, which is where I went to college at Appalachian State University. She had gone in and found all these specimen jars. There was a crawfish and hermit crabs. One of them had this perfectly coiled little snake. It was just incredible. She gave it to me, and I cast it because I couldn’t know if I wanted to have an infinite supply of tiny snakes. One, I have a great respect for snakes, and two, when do you come across an item like that? I was able to take a mold of the original casting and make multiples. Because of that, I was able to develop a limited-edition line of the serpentine collection. But for the most part, my work is one-of-a-kind pieces.

Sharon: That’s what I thought. You’re in a lot of different galleries, right?

Anna: Yes.

Sharon: I first saw you in Mora Gallery, but looking at your website, I see you’re in a lot of different galleries I’ve never heard of. Maybe you could tell us.

Anna: I’m in Mora Contemporary Jewelry in Asheville. I’m in Hecho a Mano, which is located in Santa Fe. I’m in the gallery shop at the Metal Museum located in Memphis, and I’m in Galleria Alice Floriano located in Brazil. 

Sharon: Are you a distributor? Do you go to these places, or do they come to you?

Anna: These were places that came to me. I used to show at a lot more galleries, but because of how I produce and how I work, I can’t produce as quickly. So, I had to limit the amount of places because if I show somewhere, I want to have a strong, full collection of work there. The galleries I work with now are places where I value the relationship I have with the staff and where I know they want to know my work and share that with the consumers. It’s enabled me to focus on them and create that relationship. Because I make my living off of it, it’s important that I’m working with places that are going to actually connect the work with the clients. I really like the places I work with. 

Sharon: What did you do during Covid? If you’re doing one-of-a-kind, did you line them up and hold them in your studio and then release them?

Anna: Somewhat. Covid was a funny time. It’s interesting, especially talking to creative people and people in general. Covid affected everyone in a bunch of different ways. Talking to different artists, I heard a lot of folks that dove in and thrived during that time and were able to be really creative. Unfortunately, it really shut me down. I think the brain is such an interesting thing. I heard it described this way: think of it as though you’re trying to sip through a straw, and stress and anxiety start to close that off. The creativity is what you’re trying to get through that straw, and all of a sudden it’s constricted. It’s funny. It’s weird, because I would have never thought it would have affected me in that way. 

In a lot of ways, when everything was happening at the beginning, I was trying to find the positive in it and thinking that I was going to have this time I wanted. I could go in without having as many deadlines and having to focus on producing rather than the artistic and creative side of it. I was like, “O.K., this will be great.” Except that it shut that down for me. It was a struggle, but it was interesting. I think I was creative in different ways, but not necessarily where I normally expressed it. There was a lot of gardening. It was such a weird time, and I wish I could say I was able to go in and just produce, but that wasn’t the case for me. I feel like after that, I was with a lot of people also in that boat, trying to regroup and reprioritize and feel grounded again. I feel like it put a lot of things in perspective. Yeah, it was a weird time.

Sharon: When you talk about reprioritizing, did you say that gardening was more important than jewelry making?

Anna: No, because I wanted it. I would go in my studio and try. It’s just that things weren’t flowing the way they normally would. It was really frustrating, having to force something that normally flowed pretty well. Another thing was the structure of the business. I’m running a business as a creative person and having to do the business side of it, but also the business is based off my passion and that spirit and how much I believe in what I create. I kind of lost my train of thought. I think the gardening thing came in with things that I didn’t have time for before. Then when I started doing it, I really dove into that. 

Another reason was that it was very much in the creative vein and still feeding the work. Because I do cast a lot of plants, I was able to focus on getting out of the studio and looking at different plants. A lot of plants I grow I am actually able to cast. I think it brings it full circle, that I can be working in my studio but also be outside. Examining and cultivating plants is also cultivating my work, in a sense.

Sharon: How did you come to the fact that you like plants and animals so much? Your videos and your website show you’re looking for these things. How did this come to you?

Anna: I think it’s just in me. As a small child, we would come up to the mountains a lot and go hiking, and I think it sparked a lot of my imagination. Actually, the other day, I was going on a hike in this area that I specifically remembered going to when I was a child. If you’re hiking, sometimes there are little offshoots; they might be little deer trails. I called them bunny trails. I would always want to go down them, and I appreciate my parents for being really tolerant of letting me follow my imagination, which in that sense would be following a little bunny trail. It was like, “Ooh, what’s going to be there?” 

I remember this one trail I went on. I was walking, and I specifically remember following a little trail. It was a rock face, and I remember it being filled with tiny, little garnets. It very well could have been, because there are garnets found in this area. It was so magical. Of course, I loved hiking to the big landscapes and waterfalls and all that stuff, but I was really engaged with the tiny, little elements and animals. That was something I always liked. I just loved animals. 

I was talking with one of my old assistants a couple of years ago. I told her this story, and she looked at me like, “Well, this makes sense of what you do.” This was probably in early elementary school. It was kindergarten, I think. It could have even been before that. There was a little baby robin that had fallen out of the nest, and my sister and I found it. It was in my backyard, and we took it in and were feeding it. You have to feed baby birds constantly, and my mom was helping. The bird stayed alive through the week, but then my sister and I both went to spend the night at friends’ houses. When we came back, the bird was not in good shape and ended up passing away. We buried it in my backyard.

I had three pet snakes when I was little. We would find lizards and frogs and all these little things. Sometimes we would keep them, and sometimes we would bring them to the nature center. Anyway, we buried this little bird. Some of my best neighborhood friends down the street were at the beach. When they came back, they had missed the baby bird, but I wanted to show Hannah, my neighbor. So, not understanding, I was like, “I’ll just show you,” and I started to dig up the bird. My dad comes and sees it, and he’s like, “Oh no,” and stops me. I just didn’t understand. Luckily, I didn’t open it because I probably would have been mortified, but it was interesting at that point. 

I wonder if that had an effect in some way on what I make. At that point, there was this innocence of not understanding the separation between life and death and what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. There are these little events in people’s lives that might tick them or might not. Aside from that, I always had this fascination and this really strong imagination when it came to looking at these elements. 

Sharon: So that’s how you got interested. Coming from a city girl aspect, were you afraid to touch some of these things or pick them up or look at them?

Anna: Going back to the snake thing, I was little; I just loved them. Now I don’t love them quite as much. I don’t seek out holding them, but I still have a tremendous amount of respect for these different animals. My mom was and still is a wonderful gardener. I used to go out and help her with gardening. There were worms in the yard, and I’m like, “Hooray!” I would get so excited about these different elements. 

For some reason, it didn’t dawn on me to be grossed out or scared of those things. I just embraced that. My grandfather also always had a big vegetable garden, and I would be out there helping him. I think there was this fascination in watching the plants grow. Seeing this cycle really resonated with me. l never lost that. That fascination stuck with me, and I found this way to not only express and continue that curiosity, but also share it with others so people can be like, “Oh yeah, that is amazing. That’s not gross.” I feel fortunate that I found what I consider a gift. Hopefully I can share that excitement with other people in my work.

Sharon: What led you to incorporate it into jewelry?

Anna: That was another love as a small child. That’s something that always stuck with me. I’ve loved doing things with my hands ever since I was a small child, and jewelry was one of the first things that landed. I think it was because I could, going back to what I said before, enjoy focusing on these teeny, tiny little objects. I first started with macramé, little friendship bracelets, very simple things. Then I went to a bead store. At some point in elementary school, my brain exploded with the possibilities and all of these tiny, little curios that were filling space and how I could put them together. 

I always liked to pick up different mediums. I went through an origami phase. I was playing with sewing, but jewelry always popped back up. It continued to challenge me and intrigue me. I could always make things that were different, which was exciting. There were textures and colors. It was engaging for me as a child, through adolescence and into adulthood. 

Sharon: First of all, I want to know about Boone College. Were your professors or teachers supportive or understanding about what you wanted to do?

Anna: I went to Appalachian State University through their metals program. I went into the program of studio art knowing I was there to go into the metals program. I knew that coming into it. It’s in the Appalachian Mountains, so because of the area, it makes sense that I was pulling from nature for subject matter. So were other people in the class. I think if people are going to that school, they’re probably there in part because they love the outdoors. 

Margaret Yaukey was my metals professor until she went on sabbatical. My senior year, Angela Bubash was my professor. I was very lucky to have had both of them. They were really supportive. The first casting class I took was when I discovered casting plants. It was so exciting because all of a sudden, I could take these plants I loved and actually put them into jewelry. Otherwise, they wouldn’t hold up; they’re not permanent. This was the amazing alchemy of turning plants into metal. That was so exciting. 

Sharon: You are described in different places as an artist, a metalsmith and a jeweler. I didn’t understand how the artistry came in. What do you consider yourself? 

Anna: I love this question, especially because I’m at a point right now where I’m looking at that a lot. The first thing I consider myself wholeheartedly is an artist. I came to that because I really consider art an expression. To me, it’s a language. It’s also a space for me to feel innovative, even if I’m working within a medium. So, because it’s such a form of expression to me, I consider myself an artist. 

Again, I always like the little, tiny, small things. I love jewelry, and I am a jeweler for sure. I make jewelry, but I didn’t come to it to be a jeweler necessarily. I think it was the fascination of focusing on this small scale. I was also into miniatures and collections and things like that. I was attracted to that, so jewelry made sense because it’s the idea of little things that don’t have a function. They’re little tchotchkes. I feel like it doesn’t get enough credit for the potential it can hold, but jewelry has this innate sense of preciousness. I also have always loved jewelry. I always wear jewelry, so it was enjoyable for me to make something I could actually put on my body and bring out into the world.

I think jewelry is also interesting because it’s a craft. It’s considered a functional object, but it’s not functional in the same way that a cup is. It doesn’t serve a utilitarian purpose necessarily. It’s site-specific, which seems like that’s the function of it to me, but so is sculpture. If it’s a sculpture that’s meant to live outdoors, you have to accommodate the space it’s going into. With jewelry, it’s site-specific, but it can still be artistic and sculptural.

Sharon: We will have photos posted on the website. Please head to The JewelryJourney.com to check them out.

Sharon Berman