When it comes to dedicating one's life to being an artist, I believe there are two types of people: those who know early on they have a gift and can't fathom doing anything else, and those who follow a winding, often lengthy path prior to the realization that art is what they love and want to pursue.
I belong to the second category. It took me twenty-eight years, a BA in Latin American Studies, an MBA in Marketing, jobs in sectors ranging from public health to agriculture, and extended residencies in seven cities on three continents to get the message. It didn't come as a flash epiphany, however, as if one day over a cup of coffee I decided it was high time to become a jeweler. Rather it was a gradual crescendo, an internal voice over the years whispering and eventually shouting that life is too precious to spend going down a path that, although adventurous and intellectually stimulating, deep down I knew wasn’t the one I really wanted to follow.
Creating art brings me an unparalleled sense of inspiration, fulfillment and joy. This is a simple realization, but one that took me quite some time to mull over, unabashedly embrace, and then finally decide to act upon. After all, it takes a healthy dose of courage and determination to announce to family and friends that one is abandoning a successful career as an international development consultant to follow the dream of making jewelry. Suffice to say I was met with more than one raised eyebrow and concerned but polite, "Oh, really?" I am confident in my decision, though, and know that my journey thus far has been essential in acquiring the tools and experience necessary to make the goal of being a full-time, self-sustaining artist a reality.
Five years ago, I was living in Austin, Texas and working as the director of an HIV prevention program for a local non-profit organization. I enjoyed - and was quite accomplished at - my job writing grants and managing a team of health educators. Still, I longed for something more. I wanted to live abroad again, a seed planted by a childhood spent between New Mexico and Italy and nourished by two fabulous student exchange programs to Brazil, one for my junior year of high school and one for a more extended period while at business school. I wanted to shake things up a bit, reinvent myself, ensure that I wasn’t on the fast-track to a string of managerial desk jobs in a field that I liked, but didn’t love.
One day I got a call from a couple of old classmates from Rio who had moved to Mozambique, a country in Southern Africa, and were working as freelance consultants supporting local private-sector development. They were in need of a partner with proposal writing experience, a background in business and fluent Portuguese, and wondered if I might be convinced to move halfway across the world to join their efforts. I jumped at the opportunity and within two months had resigned from my public health job, sold my car and the bulk of my possessions, and packed what was left into two giant suitcases, ready to dive into my new challenge.
In Mozambique, my primary focus was to help local businesses identify and obtain the resources - financial and otherwise - they needed for growth, sustainability and success. The underlying belief was that private-sector development could be a powerful tool in poverty alleviation in a country that ranks among the 10 poorest in the world and is still struggling to recover from years of civil war and colonial injustice. As a consultant, I helped clients write multi-million-dollar funding proposals, develop business plans, conduct strategic planning and forge market linkages. Together with my colleagues, I worked on projects ranging from the expansion of Mozambique’s largest commercial banana plantation to the establishment of an eco-lodge. Sometimes our work would be directly with a community entrepreneur; other times it would be through a donor or similar organization supporting private-sector development. It was challenging work, but quite satisfying.
My time in Africa was exactly what I’d hoped for: a chance to further develop my business skills, travel to exotic places, and immerse myself in a culture and context very different from my own. One of the aspects I most appreciate about living and working abroad is the opportunity it presents for examining one’s identity, beliefs and goals through a new lens. Being from an international family, I have spent countless hours pondering the expatriate experience. Questions such as, “Where am I from?” “What is my relationship to the various cultures that have shaped me?” “What are my values?” and “Where do I belong?” have been on my mind since a very early age. The answers are complex, often unclear, and constantly shifting in accordance with each additional journey.
While in Mozambique, I began to explore my ruminations on life as a global nomad through art. Specifically, I found jewelry-making to be the ideal creative outlet: it served as a delicious counterpart to the feasibility studies and financial equations that occupied the bulk of my day, didn’t require specialized equipment, was travel-friendly and, most importantly, allowed me to incorporate materials from around the world in my pieces. I discovered it was possible to express ideas through jewelry that I struggled to put into words or otherwise define. For example, I could combine 300-year-old Venetian trade beads found on the beaches of Mozambique Island with turquoise nuggets from New Mexico to create a necklace that reflects my unique experience as an expatriate. Through the provenience of the component pieces and the designs in which they are arranged, my jewelry manifests the confluence of cultures, identities and traditions as experienced on an individual level in the context of our increasingly global existence.
Friends, both locals and expats, began to take notice of my pieces. They recognized the Mozambican elements - antique trade beads, precious hardwoods, horn and soapstone - and appreciated the fusion designs and precious metal findings. With their encouragement, I began to sell my jewelry alongside local artisans at small markets and at events sponsored by the diplomatic community. Along the way I gained confidence, and was accepted to show my work at the 2007 and 2008 editions of the Mozambican National Crafts Fair, a juried event organized by an affiliate of Aid to Artisans. I was thrilled by my modest success, but far from satisfied. Each new collection was an opportunity to professionalize my jewelry a bit more, both on the creative as well as the business side.
True to my roots, I set up my jewelry business with the same critical eye and bottom-line approach I would offer to any of my consulting clients. I built a comprehensive spreadsheet to control my inventory, help with costing and track my sales. I developed formulas for pricing and profits. I put together a marketing plan, had a logo designed, and set up a small shop online. Soon I was devoting more time and energy to my “hobby” than I was my day job, not to mention deriving much more joy from the former than the latter. The day someone asked me what I did for a living and I responded without hesitation that I was a jeweler, I knew it was time to follow my heart.
In late September 2009, after nearly 5 years in Africa, I relocated to the Bay Area to be closer to family and to pursue my new career. I am still producing and selling my fusion jewelry, but again I am not satisfied. I want to take my jewelry to the next level. I want to learn how to work with silver and gold. I want to take a gemology course and do my own lapidary work. I want to learn the history of my trade and meet fellow jewelers taking it in new directions. I want to receive critiques from peers and industry veterans, and further develop my image and refine my technique.
I believe that a Bachelor’s Degree from CCA is a fundamental next step in fulfilling my vision. I greatly look forward to joining the school’s community in Spring 2010 and to sharing my experience as student with an unconventional background, an appreciation of the important relationship between business and art, and an unshakeable desire to grow and succeed as a jewelry artist.