Jewelry artist and former Juneau resident Leah Sturgis lives in Alexandria, Va., but her ties to Alaska are still strong. She’ll be back in town this week to show her latest jewelry designs at Annie Kaills as their featured First Friday artist.
Sturgis, a jewelry artist, lived in Juneau for more than 10 years before moving east in 2003 to accompany her husband, musician Frank Solivan. Solivan had managed to do the almost unthinkable: earn a stable income with benefits for his family as a bluegrass musician. He did it by taking a position with the U.S. Navy’s official bluegrass and country band, Country Current, an honor for a musician and one which took the couple to Washington, D.C.
“He got the job and we moved to D.C., next thing you know I was a Navy wife,” she said.
While in Juneau, Sturgis had begun designing and selling her own line of jewelry through Rock, Paper, Scissors, a store she co-owned in Juneau with partners Lindsay Campbell and Amy Fletcher. At that time her jewelry business, though very popular, was more of a hobby than a profession. Once in D.C., however, Sturgis had more time to devote to perfecting and expanding her designs. She learned about wholesale jewelry and her business expanded from availability in five stores to 100 stores from Chicken, Alaska to New York City.
“I think what’s unusual about my jewelry is the design,” she said. “I don’t use unusual materials, I don’t use unusual techniques — I have an architectural, Asian aesthetic. And I love natural materials.”
Porcupine quills and caribou antlers are among the elements she uses, pieces that have long been popular, but that she includes in unsual ways.
“I want to combine it in a way that looks really fresh, clean and contemporary.”
Sturgis credits most of her creativity to the Waldorf School she attended her first three years of formal education. She said they taught her to clean and spin wool, make her own bread and soup, and explore other languages.
“I think it shaped my creativity really early,” she said. “I learned you can make anything from anything.”
She took her first basic jewelry-making class while working in a new age bookstore as a teen in Chicago, and that was virtually all the training she needed.
“I learned the basics and didn’t feel the need to master it,” she said. “I just ran with that because my techniques are pretty basic.”
Part of her design influence was Native American jewelry; as a kid she attended powwows in North Dakota with her family, and that is where she first saw animal quills used.
“My best selling piece of jewelry is the abacus with a Juneau porcupine quill in it. I get the quills from my mom.”
Sturgis’ mom, Mary, still lives in town.
Ties to Juneau
Sturgis moved to Juneau soon after high school because she had a beloved aunt, Grace Elliott, also known as the “Blues Goddess” on KTOO, who lived here.
When Elliott left Chicago for Juneau, she blazed the trail not only for Sturgis, but for six of her siblings to make the move eventually.
As an eight-year-old Sturgis said she was particularly crushed when her aunt moved.
“She lived with us when she was 18 and she was like another parent to me — she was like my fairy godmother — and she went to visit her friend in Juneau and was so captivated she never came back. It pretty much broke my heart.”
Sturgis was 10 when her mother Mary brought her to Juneau to visit Elliott. During her trip she experienced the Alaska Folk Festival and fell in love with Alaska.
“I was 19 and following my spirit of adventure, but I was also following my aunties who were replanting themselves in Juneau from Chicago.”
Many years later, she met her husband Frank at the Folk Festival when he was visiting from Anchorage. He eventually moved to Juneau to join her, but soon after the couple began discussing other options.
“Juneau is a really difficult place to be a professional musician,” Sturgis said, adding that this spurred his move into the Navy.
She said it was really hard to leave her Juneau friends and still maintains strong connections in Alaska. Despite her distance, she’s been showing her jewelry at the Eastern Market and says she always has someone from Alaska stop by.
“Every single weekend I see somebody from Alaska at the market.”
After six years of creativity and hard work, income from Sturgis’s jewelry sales now support the couple. Solivan recently left the Navy to pursue his career as a musician.
“For the last two years he has been with his own band, the Dirty Kitchen Band. They just got hired by the Anchorage Folk Festival,” Sturgis said. She’d like to show her jewelry at all his stops.
“We have been kind of been trying to combine our two creative worlds — which is hard — but easier in Alaska,” said Sturgis.
Sturgis credits her success with the generosity of successful people in her craft who were willing to openly share their experience.
“I feel like generosity of spirit is key,” she said.
For more on Sturgis, visit www.leahsturgis.com. For more on Solivan, visit www.dirtykitchenband.com.