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How making jewelry got me out of my creative rut

Clay earrings.
Natalie Walters/NPR
Clay earrings.

I have always considered myself an artist, from my earliest memories up until my adult life. This sense of self led me to my parents' living room sofa.

It was May of 2020. I was sitting on the padded cushions in a cap and gown, watching my name flash across a computer screen signifying my graduation from college. It was the peak of the global pandemic — companies were laying off employees, businesses were shutting down, and no one was leaving the house. What was someone with a Bachelor's of Arts supposed to do?

I wrestled with copious amounts of free time. I had been unemployed for months and lost the motivation I always had to practice art. I was in this funk until one of my (also unemployed) friends suggested we go to the craft store, buy polymer clay, and try to make something "cute" with it.

My friend was in a rut as well and was looking for an outlet to pour her pent-up energy into.

She was tinkering away at her clay animal figurine while I was on Pinterest scrolling through potential projects to use as guides. After some searching, I found myself returning to photos of big, bright, and beautiful earrings made of the same clay we had. I promptly abandoned all my prior ideas and pivoted hard.

For the rest of the night, my mind raced between potential shapes, colors, and designs of pieces I aspired to create. I searched established clay jewelry designers for inspiration and contemplated where to buy supplies. There was a rush of fervor emanating from the tips of my fingers as I scrolled and typed. That ferocity I was experiencing, for the first time in so long, was a terrific sense of aspiration.

An in-progress viewing of experimenting with shapes and colors.
/ Natalie Walters/NPR
/
Natalie Walters/NPR
An in-progress viewing of experimenting with shapes and colors.

A sense of pride — and a drive to do better

After buying some materials and setting up a makeshift workspace in my bedroom, I began making my first pair. I grabbed vibrant green and bright yellow colors from the small pre-opened packages my friend had left me with. I started by rolling the clay out onto a new cutting mat. Again and again I manhandled my figures until I was happy with the shapes they created. Most of the designs dwindled as I mashed them back into a lump in a rage, never feeling that they were good enough.

Once I had a handful of pieces I was relatively content with, I placed them in the oven at 275 degrees and sat in front of the opaque window watching the partially made earrings heat up. Immediately as the timer beeped, I pulled out my baking sheet to assess any changes. I grabbed the piping hot pieces and began throwing out the parts with excessive air bubbles or deformities.

What I was left with was exactly four seemingly perfect pieces to assemble into earrings. I used one of my grandma's old sewing needles to pierce holes in the tops and bottoms of the shapes to little avail. I then turned to a precision knife, hoping it would wield better results as I spun the blade in a circular motion through the soft material. Afterward, I used a pair of pliers to open my jump rings and connect my pieces.

The first pair of earrings the author made.
/ Natalie Walters/NPR
/
Natalie Walters/NPR
The first pair of earrings the author made.

It took me almost six hours to complete, leaving me with cuts all over my hands and broken nails from the knife and pliers. The earrings were riddled with fingerprints and other visible imperfections. I took a look at the completed pair and felt a sense of immense pride coupled with the nagging desire to do better.

Finding a community that shares my passion

I officially started my maker's journey by setting up an Instagram account to showcase my creations and to seek out other artists. In time I began following an extensive group of women who made clay earrings for a living. It was incredible to see an online community of all ages, who were so supportive of each other's work. What I found even more inspiring was that these women were in competition with each other. They were all selling the same products to the same market, and yet offered one another help at a moment's notice.

Being a newcomer myself, I asked constant questions that were always met with genuine enthusiasm and insightful responses. Using the knowledge that had been generously shared with me, I built upon my skills and continued to learn for months. I threw more money into my work, buying supplies on a semi-regular basis. I struggled repeatedly, but also found myself improving slightly with each new project.

Love letter earrings.
/ Natalie Walters/NPR
/
Natalie Walters/NPR
Love letter earrings.

Once I had become more confident in my abilities, I planned mini photo shoots where I staged new pairs, reached out to friends to use as models, and spent time editing each image. After posting photos of my completed pieces, hosting giveaways and promoting my work on multiple platforms, I gained a small following. I began receiving direct messages from interested buyers, motivating me to sell my work. I designed my own logo and packaging to build my brand. Each order I filled included a handwritten letter thanking my customers for supporting my small business.

I never could have imagined being in this position, watching my creations be bought and worn with pride by people with a flare for the bold, commissioned as holiday gifts from partner to partner, shipped across the country as a birthday present, and carried in luggage from a trans-Atlantic flight to be given as a memento of home.

Fast forward to today and I was lucky enough to find a full-time office job. On one hand, transitioning to a 9-5 work environment means I no longer have as much time to create. But I'm grateful to have an outlet to express my creativity and a community that shares my passion.


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Natalie Walters