STUDIO: Leah Staley Jewelry
I met the talented Leah Staley through ceramicist (and previous STUDIO feature) Gopi Shah - I love that the maker world is full of these wonderful connections. We had a great chat in her charming studio about her work, how she got into jewelry making, and the significance of art in today's society. Yeah, we got a little existential there. Haha.
Ana: So Leah, tell me a little bit about yourself.
Leah: Well, I am new to San Francisco... I guess you can still say that, it's been a year, year and a half. We moved here from Milwaukee, we were in Milwaukee for years and before that, Baltimore. I was born and raised in Pennsylvania, then lived in Baltimore for about 8 years and met my boyfriend there. Then we made our way out here together.
A: What brought you out here?
L: He actually ended up getting a job here and because I do this, I can do it anywhere. There are good things and bad things about it - mostly good - but it was nice to be able to pick up and try a new spot and be able to continue this. I have customers all over and I get to expand my customer base, so it's really great.
A: How did you get started in metalworking and jewelry?
L: I went to college for fine arts. I was going to be an art teacher and had to pick a concentration at some point. I ended up taking a woodworking class. I was terrified and terrible at it. I made the most hideous music stand which I was so proud of at the time. I was walking on the moon I was so excited that I was able to make this thing and not lose a finger. While I was doing the class, there was a guy in the class who was like, "You know what, I feel like it's the scale that's kind of intimidating", but the construction part wasn't. He was like, "Maybe you should try a metals class because it's kind of smaller scale, still similar idea." Obviously metal and wood are two different things but he was like, "Give it a try!" So I ended up taking a casting class and really loved it. And then took fabricating and all the other classes after that, so I ended up concentrating in metalsmithing. I did sculptural things at the time, I didn't do jewelry. So that's how I got started in metalsmithing.
Then out of college, I ended up not becoming an art teacher - that's a long story on its own. But I ended up not being an art teacher and was kind of burnt out creatively. You know when you have to - maybe it's not everybody's situation - when you are forced to create things with deadlines and all the time, it kind of gets to be too much and you kind of forget why you liked doing it to begin with. So I ended up getting an office job at a construction company in Baltimore. My sister was able to get me a job estimating take off, which is very not glamorous. But I was like, "Ooh workin in an office, how fun!" So I was really pumped about that at first and then did it for a little bit and was really missing the creative stuff. So on Craigslist, I found a jeweler in Baltimore looking for an assistant. I reached out but I'd never done jewelry before really - I mean, of course I did a little bit, but never with a jeweler. So I kind of moonlighted and did some work with her. Then I got layed off from my office job, didn't know what I was gonna do. I ended up meeting up with another jeweler in Baltimore and had this huge crush on her work and sent her an email like, "Hey, if you need any help, I've done a little bit of assisting another jeweler, I'd love to help you out if you need it." She shot me an email back and was like, "Sounds great! Actually, this is crazy timing, I need an assistant now. Would you wanna come in?" So my first day going to her studio, I walked in and I was totally nervous I was gonna have to do some kind of bench test and I was not prepared for it. Everything that could go bad, I was convinced was gonna go bad. I walked in and she had me sit down and I was just sanding things and cleaning up castings and stuff for her. She was like, "Alright, you wanna come back tomorrow? This seems good, I like you, I feel like your energy's good. We can work together." I ended up working for her for three and a half years and she became the best friend, best mentor - she's just the most amazing woman. We're still friends, still talk all the time. She gives me advice, she's just the best. I probably wouldn't be doing this now if it hadn't been for her and working with her. Just the best job, best boss. I learned so much more from her than I ever would've imagined and definitely more than I did in college.
A: More of the real-life experience, the day to day.
L: Exactly. So that was a super rambling story. Haha. But that's how I got into this. So after working with her for probably three and a half years, Tom ended up getting a job in Wisconsin and we decided to go ahead and give it a try in Milwaukee. That was my first step to being like, "This is what I'm doing for my job, I'm gonna try and figure out how to make this work as an artist, self-employed." So yeah, it started out slow and it's gradually growing. And I'm growing and learning a ton and still have a ton to learn.
A: Yeah, I think we all do. I constantly feel like I have so much to learn.
So when you moved to Milwaukee, you jumped right into this full-time?
L: Yeah. When I worked with Lisa - Lisa Cimino is the artist in Baltimore that I worked for - she encouraged me to start doing some shows and work on my line and I was able to use her studio to get started, which was awesome. I started doing a few little shows here and there while I was working for her so I wasn't brand new to that. And I had set up an Etsy shop at that point and was doing just a little bit but it was a small portion of what I was doing. So when we moved to Milwaukee, that was it.
A: You were like, "Alright, this is my chance!"
L: Alright, I've got bills to pay. So yeah, I dove in when I moved there.
A: What kind of challenges did you find in jumping fully into it, doing it full-time for the first time?
L: I think having a limited budget, it's really hard to try to figure out how to make something out of nothing. Especially as jewelers, our materials aren't cheap, so you start with what you can afford and there are some limitations to that. But sometimes it's nice to have the limitations because I feel like I'm more creative. When I'm limited, I can make the most of what I've got. So working with a limited budget is a challenge.
Trying to figure out the shows that are worth doing is really hard. You may feel like, "Oh, this seems like a great option. It's only $200, it's two days, of course there are gonna be plenty of people." And then you go and you set up and you make no money. Doing that a couple times, you're like, "Oh, this is silly, I need to talk to people. I need to find out what's worth my time." And then trying to figure out who your customer is - still at this point I'm not 100% sure who my customer is. I'll see someone come up and I'm like, "Oh, you're gonna love this!" And they look at it and they're like, "Ugh, no."
"Oh, I was wrong. Thanks for stopping, I appreciate that."
But it can totally bruise your ego. So that's tough.
I'm still learning accounting things. Very important tasks but it's hard to keep a schedule and wrap your head around. I guess the balance - when you're doing this full-time, trying to figure out business woman and creative person. Trying to figure it out and dedicate time to [both of] those things. I'm not great at that yet but I'm getting better at it.
A: That's definitely tough. The business part of it is always such a chore for me too. I have to make myself sit down and go, "Okay, you are gonna write these emails in the next hour and you're gonna do all your expenses." I totally feel ya on that.
So, having done this work in a few different places, how have you found the communities or the resources compare in San Francisco, Milwaukee and Baltimore?
L: I'll be honest with you, I feel a little bit isolated and like a little bit of a hermit here. I'm pretty busy, and have a pretty full schedule with doing shows and wholesale so I really haven't put myself out there to meet people. I met Gopi who's been a great friend and met you now, through her. So I'm slowly coming out of my shell and getting out and meeting some people. I know there's amazing creative talent here and I just haven't put myself out there to feel like I'm a part of it yet. I think it can take some time. I'm not really the person that puts myself out there right away. That's probably not the best answer. Haha.
A: It's all part of your experience! It's already a big adjustment - moving to a new place, having to find a new space, getting everything set up.
L: And I love my being alone sometimes. I love being able to destroy the space and listen to what I wanna listen to. I listen to a lot of really nerdy books on tape when I'm working.
A: What kind of books do you listen to?
L: Does it have wizards? Does it have vampires? Is it a steamy hot romance? I listen to it and it keeps me going. When I'm doing production stuff, that is the only way I get through. I can do it for hours and just get sucked in to this stupid story. And my poor studio mate, I know he can hear it. He'll hear something about wizards and hell be like, "Cool..." Judge if you want. Haha. So I like being able to be in here [by myself] but I also miss having someone else to bounce ideas off of. I think that's something I really would like in the future. It's nice to have your own space but it's also nice to have humans around who are going through it too. You can get some feedback and get some good ideas from them and get inspired by them.
A: What is your making process like? What do you find inspiration in? Do you start from sketches or just jump right in?
L: I do doodle a lot. I have books and books of doodles and sometimes I draw the same thing over and over again. But when I sit down and really start making things, I like just jumping in. We used to do paper models in college but I don't have time for that. Haha. I get an idea and I get really excited about it. Sometimes it works out the first time (it rarely does) but when it does, it's the best feeling in the world. Like, "I am awesome! I'm so good, look at this thing I just made." But it rarely works out like that. Usually, I'll have things I have to do and I'll be like, "Ooh, wait a minute!" and start working on this other thing and then two, three hours later I'm still working on this thing. I get it semi-done to where I'm like, "Do I like this or do I not like this?" And usually, I don't like it and then I'm pissed that I wasted time while I had other things that I needed to get done. So all of those things that I feel like I've wasted time on, they hover around and while I'm working on something I'll look at it and be like, "Wait a minute!" and work off of that. So that's my creative process - all over the place. I have little piles of crap on every space and I'll glance at them and meditate on them while I'm doing stuff that I maybe don't love to do like sanding things or forming ear wires. I'll think, "What can I do to fix this and make it better?"
I get inspired by - I started out [inspired by] industrial architecture and I still am inspired by structures and how things are made, industrial design. My boyfriend is an industrial designer and I see how he really considers how things come together and I think that's beautiful - to come up with a form and make the construction make sense. I want it to make sense design-wise. My dad and uncle and grandfather - this is my metalsmithing story - they're all welders, pipe fitters, industrial metal workers. So when I started doing metalsmithing, my dad was so proud. He was like, "I told ya - it's in the blood." Haha. So my very first round of stuff was super industrial and some of those pieces are still some of my favorites. I started incorporating tubing which was kind of an homage to them and that's how my jewelry line started. And I love that; I love that it came from some love and pride in what he does. You know when you're a kid, you're like, "Ugh, dad" - he'd take pictures of just pipework that he'd do in a factory and be so pumped. I would see him loving what he does and being really proud of the craftsmanship - the weld seams have to be pristine. It's just kind of funny, I get a little bit of that from him.
A: That's awesome. What sort of goals do you have for both your business and the more creative side of your work?
L: Business-wise, I'm just starting to get into wholesale so I'm really trying to amp up my wholesale game.
A: How are you working on that?
L: Right now, I'm going through and really getting a good idea of my numbers. I'm not a numbers person, so trying to figure out what my profit is per piece and really trying to get the formulas down to make sure that I'm making money on it. Because - I don't know if you do - but I undervalue my time.
L: Then I'm like, "No one is gonna pay that much. Is it really worth that?" And I have to keep reminding myself that I'm not my customer. I can't afford this but that doesn't mean that somebody else won't appreciate the time and the effort and the quality. Maybe I can't afford this but someone else can.
A: That's a really good point.
L: I've been really trying to embrace that that's okay - that someone can and to get over the being from a poor mindset and not selling myself short. It's hard. You want to be humble or you feel like you're being realistic, but in the end we're worth it! We spend a lot of time, a lot of energy, and we're putting a lot of ourselves into all these pieces that we make and it's worth it - we're worth it. I'm really working on that to make sure that I'm not selling myself short and I'm making sure that my numbers are in order so that I'm actually making profit for wholesale. Retail too, but wholesale for sure. So that's kind of how I'm working on that. Cleaning up my line too. I really like to make earrings (it's my favorite thing to make) so I'm very earring heavy and am trying to get a more balanced collection. Trying to push myself creatively is hard. I fabricate everything. So you're limited in what you can make with your material. I don't know if that means I want to start casting things, using wax and making more sculptural pieces. I'm not exactly sure what it means but maybe I need to go on a vision quest. It's sometimes hard breaking out of what I'm comfortable with. I'd really love to try some new things and not be afraid to try some new things. Make some big things. I'd really like to make some big, wild, fun things and just have some fun with it. So we'll see. I hope ill be able to do that.
A: That sounds great!
So, today I feel like I'd like to get your perspective on something a little "deeper". With everything that's going on lately, how do you see the role that art and artists play in our society right now? I don't know if that's too loaded of a question... But personally, I'm feeling a little drained right now and I sometimes feel like there are a lot "more important" things I should be doing right now because the world seems to be falling apart. But I do always come back to the feeling that art is important. Thoughts?
L: Yeah, I think about it a lot too. Like, "What am I doing? Is this just for myself? I'm not making a difference, this is silly."
A: Well, at least I'm not alone in that. Haha.
L: I've talked to friends and we've been like, "What are we doing?" Sometimes it seems self-centered in a way, like it's all about yourself - but it isn't. We're interacting with people. It's nice to be able to create things that people love and everybody needs that. Everybody needs to be excited about something, even if it seems like something trivial. It's nice to have something that you're excited about and you're producing. And isn't it nice that people are supporting us? By supporting us, they're supporting a dream. I don't know how to answer this really but I feel you, sometimes I think, "What is the point of this?" And I don't know the answer.
A: Maybe what you're getting at is more of a feeling than a concrete answer?
L: Yeah. Some days - I listen to NPR while I work in the mornings - and sometimes I have to turn it off because it really affects my mood. Even if you don't realize it. The day seems fine and then it seems terrible. I'll have to turn it off for a bit. I think art is very important. I think that it can bring people together in a way, bring some understanding. There are so many people that don't understand one side or the other and art is a great tool to communicate differences and communicate ideas that maybe are lost in conversation because walls get thrown up instantly. I don't know if jewelry is really the perfect tool, but I know that some other artists have an awesome opportunity to express themselves and express ideas that are invaluable. Art is definitely needed and necessary, especially to help cope and deal and heal. Same with music. It's very cathartic. Maybe I should quit my job. Hahaha.
A: No! No, I think jewelry is maybe not as expressive in certain ways, but it is about connecting with people and I think that's the part that is important.
A: I didn't mean to be all "existential crisis" about this. Haha. Sorry! That's just been my headspace lately.
L: No, totally. I have a good jeweler friend in Milwaukee and we would sometimes sit and talk and I would be like, "Do you ever just feel like this?" And she's like, "Girl, all the time. I'm so glad that you said that. What is the point?" But then so many good things come out of it - people that you meet. Doing shows, sometimes it's really great and I meet some really really awesome people. Sometimes you feel like maybe this isn't your place. But for the most part, I meet some great people that I never would otherwise.
A: Totally. So conversation with friends and other makers is awesome. Do you have any other things you do if you get in a weird headspace or in a creative slump? Do you have any things that you love doing outside of the studio?
L: Yeah, let's see, I love wine. I'm not very knowledgeable about wine but I love it. Haha. My boyfriend and I love going to the movies, we do that a lot. This is probably the most beautiful place I've ever lived, so getting out - walking and hiking and skiing. So that's kind of nice to feel centered. When you get inside yourself, which I tend to do, I'm constantly running things through my head. It's nice to be able to get outside and just be like, "You're such a small fry, just let it go. Whatever your issues are, like come on - look at this." I live out by the ocean, so I'll drive the Great Highway to work some days and I hope I never lose the feeling of, "Holy shit! This is the most beautiful!" That kind of snaps me out of it, whenever I'm having my days. Just take a breath and just enjoy this, this is awesome. Things are good, things really are good. So that's how I deal.