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.
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 second part of a two-part episode. If you haven’t heard part one, please head to TheJewelryJourney.com.
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. Welcome back.
So, you came in with the idea that the artistry was metalsmithing and jewelry, but metalsmithing brought you to jewelry, and that was all part of the artistry. Am I understanding that correctly?
Anna: Sometimes it’s hard for me to articulate because one, I do feel like my work is a bit vague, so I communicate and it’s easier to read through that. The thing that probably got me to jewelry was this fascination and curiosity with the small. It just happened to be this perfect storm of, “Oh, I want to make small, detailed things that highlight the things I am fascinated with.” At the time when I was going to school, it was like, “O.K., if I want to make small metals, it’s got to be jewelry,” but I also love jewelry. In a weird way it’s a conflict, because I’m not saying that I never liked jewelry—because I do.
I love making jewelry, and it’s so important to make jewelry wearable. If it’s going to be jewelry, then it’s very important for it to make you feel good, make you feel right, make you feel good about yourself, make you feel good when you’re wearing it. In order for it to be jewelry, it does need to, in my opinion, fit into the framework of being wearable. You see big art pieces which are amazing but maybe not so wearable. Sometimes that’s intentional and makes sense with the concept of the piece. Other times, it confuses me with the way I think about jewelry. Why jewelry then? If it’s not going to proudly interact with the body, then is it jewelry? I don’t know.
Sharon: I understand that with a lot of jewelry. I’m sort of lost at where the bones and the plants came into place with the jewelry.
Anna: Those are my inspirations. Before coming into it, when you’re developing your creative voice, hopefully you grow in your medium. Especially with artists and craftspeople, people that are really connected to what they do—and I think it really works as a language for me. I was able to delve in and learn and explore in my own way. I had a love of plants and animals and stones, and I was interested in the shapes and forms across them. As I continued to learn jewelry—or metalsmithing, really—and I continued to learn that craft, I realized how they had come together. That was amazing for me, because I could cast the plants with the bones, and they were so beautiful. I was doing a lot of fragile, little elements, but to me it was so important. It was important enough for me to incorporate them into the work. They were so beautiful I wanted to include this in my pieces.
Then I had to troubleshoot to actually make it wearable and sturdy, so I added a whole other element to my work, and that was with the stones. I use a lot of raw minerals that would be more fragile, so I had to figure out how to stabilize them and back them in such a way where I felt comfortable putting them into the jewelry pieces. That became a big part of my work, and I think that also shaped it. I was constantly getting hit with different things that could have made me be like, “Oh, I just can’t include this in the jewelry.” It would be so beautiful to me that I felt like there must be a way. What could that be? It forced me to think outside of the box.
For example, if I had a casting of a leaf that didn’t come out all the way, and it had really delicate edges or something like that, that would normally be too fragile to wear on the body. They might get caught on clothing or something. I had to figure out a way to strengthen it to reinforce it. Then, with the materials I was using, I could set a possum tooth and do some stone settings, and those could create more structure to the piece to make it wearable. I had all these “aha” moments of realizing how much more interesting it would be. It might be more complicated for me in the beginning, but it was so worth that extra effort to get to the end result. The end result had a lot more weight and was more successful and different. That’s how I carved out a voice.
Sharon: Did you have to explain this to gallery owners and people when you exhibited? Now, today, do you have to?
Anna: Yeah, it takes a little bit of both. I feel fortunate that I think my work will resonate with a lot of people, and it has resonated with people who look at it. It will strike them in some way that initially grabs them. Sometimes, if they don’t realize what the materials are at first, they might get a sense of it by taking a closer look. Then I’m like, “Oh, you really like that piece. Well, this is a mandible, and this is a mineral that you don’t see that often. I’ve supported it to make it wearable. Then this is the bud of a daylily.”
I hope—and so far, it seems like this is the case—that the work speaks on its own, but it doesn’t need the explanation to make it speak. I think that’s a thing with art. It’s when it hits someone at their core. Especially if you’re thinking about social media and how everyone is getting constant simulation, if you’re walking down the street and there’s lots of chaos and a mural makes you stop and say “Whoa,” what is it? If you’re scrolling on Instagram and you see a piece of jewelry or a piece of ceramic, what is it that makes you stop on something and take a closer look? That’s when the piece itself speaks more than whatever the words are behind it. I’m not saying that the words aren’t important, but—
Sharon: No, I think that’s what I was saying, in that the design attracts you first. I still don’t know what the parts of the things I have are made from. You didn’t have to explain them.
Anna: I remember a couple of the pieces. You’ll have to send me a photo so I can tell you all the bits and pieces that are in them.
Sharon: I like the design.
Anna: Yeah, exactly.
Sharon: Is that what you mean by artistry?
Anna: Yes. You weren’t drawn to it because you were like, “Oh, there are bones and plants in there.” It was the overall composition. It’s just that the composition is made up of all these really beautiful things that exist in nature. I just pulled them out of context and put them in this form. We might walk by these things every day, and we don’t have the time to sit and contemplate and really take in the beauty that’s all around us. I think my work is repackaging it in a way that, consciously or unconsciously, it’s a connection to the natural world around us.
Sharon: This may be a silly question, but do you think that, if one of the little snakes or something that was alive saw that you incorporated their jaw and put a pearl next to it, they would appreciate that? Do you think they would like that?
Anna: I do. That’s another thing. It’s something that has been prevalent since the beginning of humankind and across so many cultures, and that’s honoring ancestors or animals. It’s really important to me that these are things I have found or people I know have found, so I can feel confident that they weren’t killed or anything for their bones. I need to find the things in nature so I know where they come from or that they came from someone who understands and appreciates that sentiment.
A lot of times, I’ll bury things. If I find something, I’ll bury it and let it continue its lifecycle, which I think is just as important. I’m pulling from things in nature, but it is number one that I’m doing it with the most respect for these different elements and the environment and sustainability. I feel like it’s convoluted, and I don’t think anyone who is creating objects and using resources can actually say they’re sustainable, but it’s doing as much as I can with as much respect as I can to move toward that as much as possible. At the point when I’m using it in my work, it’s completed; it has cycled in a lot of ways. With the tissue and everything, its energy has been able to transfer. Then I can take these things and give those another life as well. All that is really important. I hope they would appreciate it.
Sharon: To me, it’s nice. If the animal or the blade of grass knew what was happening to it after it died, it would be happy.
Anna: Yes. I also think there’s a disconnect. It’s so easy to disconnect from the natural world and not see these things that are living around us. You see a snake or something, and people are like, “I don’t know,” and get freaked out by it, but that snake is just living its life. We are living our lives too, and they probably see us and are thinking the same thing about us, acting more in defense. Their reaction is probably much more reasonable than our reaction. Another part of it is that it shifts a bit. Even if someone is wearing vertebrae earrings, there is some part of them that’s connected to that. They’ve looked at that. They’ve obviously seen something in that as valuable, which is why they’ve purchased the earrings and are wearing them. With that, maybe they’re able to show a little more appreciation.
It’s my way of creating this connection wherever I can. Songbirds are really protected, which is amazing, so I think we appreciate birds. There are great resources so you can identify bird sounds, and because of that, we’re like, “Oh, they’re beautiful. They’re wonderful,” and you’re not freaking out when you see a robin in a tree. In a way, it’s by identifying something. If there’s more understanding for things, then we empathize more. I’m not saying my work is doing that in any major way, but I do think it’s an interesting way of subtly crossing little wires, giving things a little more context, and that makes us naturally empathize. We name things. If you find something, you should name it. Say you were to get a stray kitten. If you’re like, “Oh, I’m going to call you Sebastian,” now you’ve become attached to it. I think there’s something in that. It’s like, “O.K., we’ve identified it,” and then, “Oh, this is beautiful. I’ll pay money for this, and a little more to protect it.”
Sharon: Anna, thank you very much for explaining this. It’s not easy to explain. It gives me a little more appreciation for what I have. Thank you very much.
Anna: Thanks for asking me. Sometimes I don’t know if I break it down in the best way, because I feel like there’s a lot of little things going on, and because I am really passionate about what I do with the materials I use. So, sometimes it’s hard to articulate that clearly, but I appreciate the chance to get to do that.
Sharon: Thank you very much. It’s greatly, greatly appreciated.
Sharon: We will have photos posted on the website. Please head to TheJewelryJourney.com to check them out.
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