With ancestors hailing from Finland and the ancient Haida people of Haida Gwaii, Alaska native Janine Gibbons is a born storyteller. As a Haida Raven of the Double-Finned Killer Whale Clan, Brown Bear House, Janine credits her indigenous heritage for her impressive work ethic and respect for the earth. She says Haida culture is based around meaning, respect and reciprocity; you give and receive gifts a lot, always trying to be kind, generous and thoughtful of others. This way of life has taught Janine to have a lot of pride and good intention in what she creates. She is always trying to create beauty and connection that will lift peoples’ spirits.
While pursuing a college degree in elementary education, she began experiencing frequent seizures that prohibited her from completing her degree. Janine had always had a love for jewelry, but after taking her first jewelry class at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, she decided to make a career of it. Starting out with beading, wire wrapping, and silver work, she eventually made her way into enameling, which is what she is now widely recognized for.
Drawing on inspiration from her ocean heritage, Janine’s enamel work is reminiscent of biomorphic forms in nature. While maintaining an active jewelry studio practice in Alaska, Janine also works as a photographer, sculptor, painter and as an illustrator for children’s books about the indigenous cultures of the Haida and Tlingit people of the Northwest Coast of North America.
Janine: When I was little, my grandmother was a bush pilot, and she passed away in an airplane accident. We are Haida and Finnish, from my mom’s side of the family. Part of what they did when someone died was they would get rid of that person’s belongings so that you wouldn’t be reminded of them. So, I didn’t have a lot of things of my grandmothers, but I did have some beadwork that she had done. She had this really beautiful belt that she had hand woven and then a few other things that were her pieces of jewelry. And so, for me, jewelry brought me closer to my grandmother, and I always carried those things with me. Later, when I was in my early 20s, I worked on cruise ships, and the only thing that I could wear with my uniform were earrings. Whenever I would travel into different ports, I would buy earrings. Jewelry always meant so much to me and had so much association with place and people. For me, it’s really about storytelling.
Janine: It kind of happened by mistake and then I loved it. I was trying to show and explain my process to someone and I accidentally mixed up my enamel layers and that’s how I ended up developing my own technique. I usually use about seven different colors in my enamel. I mix tansparents and opaques, and when I combine them and layer, they take on this biomorphic quality. I also make a lot of marks in the enamel when it’s dry. You really have to be in tune with color as well. Color theory is really important in enamel.
Janine: It took a really long time. I just had to learn the hard way. I had to try to figure out who to contact and go into stores and get doors shut on me. I didn’t ever have a leg up in any way whatsoever, and so I learned through figuring it out myself. I tried for 15 years to get my work into the Sundance catalog. One year I finally ended up getting accepted, only to find out later, after jumping through so many hoops, that they ran out of room in their catalog. But that experience made me such a better artist because I pushed myself for so long towards that goal and it made my work better. But, I’m not in all those stores anymore. I wasn’t treated like a human. I’ve done every part of sales, wholesale, retail, trade shows, trunk shows, and online sales. I’ve gone through all of that. I really enjoy working directly with the people who are actually wearing my jewelry rather than store owners. All of those things are necessary for people to experience because they give you perspective. The only way you get perspective is by getting your heart broken or having someone yell at you and then also meeting people that love you and love what you do. It’s all important and it’s all necessary.
Janine: You have to get up really early. I would get up at 4am and do yoga. Yoga is really important. Especially with enameling, because your body hurts. Usually it’s in the wee hours of the morning when I really get the creative time in. If there are things that require less creative energy, monotonous things like making earring backs or head pins, I would do that during the day when the kids are awake. We all balance all these different metaphorical hands and then sometimes we don’t know how it’s going to play out. I just trust that it will all come together. I do what I love and trust my instincts and I just keep creating. Being an entrepreneur, there’s at least a hundred different things you have to do at once, and so I think that it’s just like a different language. It’s like being a mother for instance; you have to multitask like crazy. Jewelry making and art creation is just like being a mom.
Janine: Just being able to be myself and fit with societal norms. Being able to be creative and say how I feel, and express how I come to know these things—that has been hard. But now I’m 40 and I’ve been divorced. I’m a single mom; obviously I’ve been through a gazillion different things and now it’s easier for me to just say it like it is. When you’re an artist, you always have to sell yourself. And honestly selling and promoting yourself that way is not part of indigenous culture. Part of indigenous culture is being modest and humble, just letting your work speak for itself. It’s storytelling too, you have to get comfortable telling your story and it’s not easy. I’ve never met anyone who was comfortable with constantly talking about themselves, which as an artist you have to do. It has taken me a really long time to get comfortable selling myself because then you also have to get comfortable dealing with critique.
Janine: Something that’s really important to me is good clippers. A really nice pair of Lindstrom wire cutters was an extravagance for me, and now it’s something I can’t live without. And the kiln obviously is something that’s really important to me. Also, good tweezers!
Janine: Just keep going. There are going to be so many times where you are crying, and having self-doubt, there will be periods where you have to take a break. Just know that nothing is permanent; change will happen. Look at the things that are sad— those are things that really change how you make things, like when people are copying your work, just use that as a learning opportunity. Think about how you can make it different so they can’t copy your work. That’s really what you have to do and it doesn’t come over night; it only comes when you keep going and keep working. Have good intentions. Remember in the end it’s about creating. Jewelry will be around forever, it has permanence; it’s going to be handed down through generations. That’s the really cool thing about being a jewelry maker. We are making wearable art and it really does impact people and our lives and what we feel about ourselves. People notice when you wear jewelry and they compliment it and it feels good. Jewelry just feels good when you have the right piece, it’s is so powerful like that, it just makes an impact wherever you go. Keep making jewelry, make sure it has good energy, and make sure you enjoy making it.