Anna Johnson is known for her nature-inspired jewelry that incorporates materials like bones and plants. After working at Mora Jewelry in Asheville, NC, Anna recently decided to focus on creating her jewelry full time. She joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to talk to host Sharon Berman about the process behind her work and offer advice for jewelers trying to go out on their own. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, I’m pleased to be talking with jewelry artist Anna Johnson. Anna uses plant and animal life not only as an inspiration, but she also physically incorporates them into her jewels. She’s received numerous accolades, including being named by American Craft Magazine as one of sixteen exceptional artists using unusual materials. She’s taught at Penland School of Crafts and is based in Asheville, North Carolina. Anna, it’s great to be talking with you.
Anna: Sharon, thank you so much for having me on. I’m excited to be here.
Sharon: I’m very glad to be talking with you, especially since I’ve seen so much of your beautiful work. It’s great to hear more from the person behind what I’ve looked at. Can you tell us about your past? Did you always know you wanted to be an artist, and when did you decide that you wanted to express yourself through jewelry?
Anna: In a way, I did always know I wanted to be an artist. I started at a really young age creating things that, I think, a lot of makers and artists can relate to. Jewelry was actually one of the first things that I started with at a really young age. I think I was five or six. I tried other things and messed around making things, but jewelry was the one medium that held steady into adolescence. I can recall the exact moment when it locked into my head that being an artist was a career path that I could actually pursue. I was probably 16 or 17, and I was working at this toy store. One of the guys that worked there was talking to me about what I wanted to do and what I wanted to go to college for, and I didn’t really know. He asked me if I could do anything, what that would be, and I said that it would be making jewelry. He was an artist and he told me that was something that you can go to school for, and it was at that moment exactly that my brain locked in. It was like, “Well, that’s what I’m going to do,” and I never looked back. It just made sense to me.
Sharon: That’s a gift in many ways, to learn something like that and then just move forward. You were working at an art jewelry store in Asheville, Mora Jewelry, and then you decided to go out on your own full time about a year ago, so congratulations. It’s a huge step.
Anna: Thank you.
Sharon: What pushed you over the edge and made you decide to make jewelry full time?
Anna: I was working at Mora Jewelry, which is this really phenomenal contemporary jewelry gallery in the heart of downtown Asheville that’s owned by Martha Le Van. If the listeners are involved in the world of art jewelry, this is probably not the first time they’ve heard her name. She is super involved in the field and is a really passionate business owner, and she’s also a truly incredible person to work for. I had been there for right under four years, and it was the best place I could have found myself. Martha was supportive, not only as an employer, but also as a person in general. It started to be clear—basically from the beginning of this endeavor in being an art jeweler—that eventually the goal was to go full time. My business had been doing well and was steadily growing, and I was more stable. I was getting more opportunities and my time was getting more pressed, and it was getting harder to keep up with things. I knew I had to take the leap at some point, and I just had to make the decision, which was a really crazy, scary thing. It felt kind of nuts to make that decision to achieve a lifetime goal, to go full time in my studio. It was a really hard decision, mainly because I loved Mora after being there for so long. From the beginning, it felt like a family. It was a small group of us that worked there. It was Martha, me and Laura Wood and Emily Marstead, who were also studio jewelers, and we all loved the gallery and cared about each other and felt passionate about art jewelry. So, it was a hard jump to make in many ways, but I just had to make the decision and go with it.
Sharon: It’s a hard decision no matter when you make it or why. Unless you happen to win the lottery, it’s still a decision.
Anna: Yeah, it’s one of those things. I wonder if I’ll ever feel stable—and I have a feeling that I probably won’t. A lot of things were going through my head, like if I was being crazy for attempting to do this, but over the past couple years, it has been pretty steady. You cross your fingers and hope that it works out, but it’s been going well so far. I feel really lucky.
Sharon: I think it’s something that every entrepreneur, every independent person faces. It’s scary and it remains that way for a while, but it gets better. So, what is it that you like about working in your own studio and what are the drawbacks? You and I talked a little bit about isolation. ,That can be one of the challenges, so how do you overcome that?
Anna: Definitely, and I don’t have a great answer to that, but I can tell you where I’ve gotten so far. First, what I enjoy about working in my own studio.
Sharon: Or love.
Anna: There are so many things that I love about working in my studio. I feel like my studio is my space that I can communicate best in. It’s this area where I get to be myself without any expectations, except for the ones I set. I’m there doing stuff for myself. Of course, it’s also a job, so I have to do that, but I get to go in there and work and be creative, and it feels like my home. That’s a good and bad thing, but it really is—it’s my space. The drawbacks being, that naturally I’m a very unorganized person and that doesn’t always serve me in a lot of ways, especially when I come to the business of the whole process. My studio is at home, so a lot of times I feel like I have to be working when I’m at home. Also, I think there are many of us who can relate, I never feel like I’m doing enough, like I’m focusing enough or that I’m being as productive as I want to be with my time. That’s something that’s been a personal struggle. I’m trying to figure out how to cope with that and feel at ease. I think working from home works for some people, and for some people it doesn’t. I do tend to have odd hours and I have a dog, so I think in a lot of ways it works for me to be here. When it comes to isolation, I have definitely felt isolated in my studio, but luckily for me, Asheville is filled with such a rich community of makers and amazing people in general. If I can recognize I’m feeling isolated, then I just have to step away and get out of the studio, which usually means I have to leave my house and go engage in my community a little bit. That’s the best answer that I have at this time.
Sharon: I think that’s what it is, you have to get away from the isolation and be with other people.
Anna: Yeah, it really is. I think this lifestyle is a unique one, but when you’re in a place like this, there are so many other people that are experiencing the same thing. There’s so much support and so many people that are inspiring. It’s pretty good.
Sharon: It helps when you’re surrounded by people and you don’t feel like you’re the odd man out. If everybody’s dressed in a suit and going off to work and you’re the only one staying home and working in the studio that can feel even more isolating I would presume.
Anna: I can’t really even imagine it. I have so much respect for people that do have that.
Sharon: I don’t know how many people get dressed up in a suit to go to work, but that’s another story. I know that your inspiration comes from nature and you incorporate a lot of bones into your work, which some would say is a little bizarre, but you see beauty in them. What is it about bones that attracts you?
Anna: I have a deep love for bones, but not more so than other elements in nature. I feel like there is this taboo in our culture around bones and death, but they’re just as much a part of us physically and a part of our environment as all the other components I use in my jewelry. They are these beautiful, intricate forms that have served such solid purposes, and I try to introduce them in my work in a way that almost makes them more palatable for the wearers and viewers of my work. In that, I’m hoping—I don’t know how it comes across—I’m doing it in a way that is creating a connection between the wearer and the work. The bones are representing this other part of nature in my work, so by people viewing them in a way that’s not really in your face, I try to introduce them in a subtle way. It allows people to appreciate the beauty of the pieces in a way that’s slightly less, “This is a bone. This represents death.” That’s my goal in incorporating them, just as much as they carry vestigial weight, these beautiful, intricate designs. I do just love them.
Sharon: We’re not talking about a thighbone from a human being or something. They’re small bones. I remember I was at one exhibit looking at your work, and somebody else was so surprised that they were bones, because you made them look very beautiful.
So, how does nature as your source of inspiration work? Do you look at a tree? Do you look at a leaf and say, “That would be an interesting design”? How does that work?
Anna: A lot of the time, that is how it works. There are so many intricacies in nature, and that’s always been an inspiration. It’s one of those things that the closer you look, the more interesting it gets, and it has aesthetic possibilities on so many levels. For me, I go and walk around, and I feel really fortunate with my process that I can see something that’s striking and then make it into a piece of jewelry. A lot of how I work starts with collecting things, and then the plants I use, I cast them.
The process of casting is a traditional jewelry-making process. When you do it with plants, it’s not as consistent, so I cast a lot of pieces. They don’t always come out like they went in. A lot of times they come out imperfect, but to me, it’s like nature. It’s not perfect and a lot of times, that just opens up space for me to be creative and have different pieces fit together. Then with the bones, either I find the bones or people I know find the bones, and I’m fortunate in that I’ve been working with them for so long that I’ve developed a reputation and people will bring me pieces that they have. I have many a good story about how I’ve come to have the collection that I do, from animals that have come to the end of their lives in their natural environment. I take them through a deep cleaning, and that could mean burying it until nature takes care of it and then taking it through a deep cleaning process or using different stabilization methods. If it’s something that doesn’t feel like it would be stable for long-term wearing, I might fill it in with resin; I might use a stabilizer that they use for stabilizing fossils. It’s just getting creative and treating each piece in its own unique way. It’s kind of fun, like I am running science experiments in my studio.
Sharon: It sounds like it. Where do you want to go from here? Do you want to be distributed through more galleries? Where do you want to take the business in the next couple of years?
Anna: That’s a great question. I want to continue growing in the aspects that I’ve developed so far. Right now, the components that make up my business are my one-of-a-kind jewelry pieces that I sell to galleries or directly through the web. I also do a lot of custom work, so I do custom weddings and engagements and then also lots of fun custom products. Then I teach in the craft environment whenever I get the opportunity. I’ve also started doing shows recently, so I just steadily grow all those skills in a way that I can manage. I have an employee working for me right now, and I’m hoping that will push up my production so I can expand. One of my main goals right now is to increase my web presence and see what that does. I feel like right now, with technology and social media, that the method of how people make a living as an artist is shifting, and I want to be creative in my approach to my business as well. One thing that I would really like to do is reach an audience to make the work a bit more respectable outside of those gallery walls. What that looks like, I’m not exactly sure yet. I’ve been trying to figure out how this would come to fruition, but the subject matter of my work is about evaluating nature and at the end of the day, I have this idea behind it. There are so many things going on with that culturally and I would love to find a way to partner with someone to do something where the work, the concept behind the work, makes an impact. In the past I’ve donated a certain percentage of sales to non-profits. I’m not sure what that is going to look like in the future, but I’ve been brainstorming ideas, whether it is working with a non-profit or just trying to reach a larger audience in general and making it more accessible. We’ll see what happens.
Sharon: All challenges that go along with being a jewelry artist and somebody who wants to flourish and see their work in a broader world. We will definitely keep our eyes on you and check back in to see how that’s going. Thank you so much, Anna, for being here today. To everybody, that wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thank you very much for listening.
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