ARTIST INTERVIEW: Jeanette Sawyer of MAAARI
Artist: Jeanette Sawyer
Inspired by indigenous Filipino crafts and American modern art, Los Angeles-based graphic artist and exhibition designer Jeanette Sawyer fuses contemporary sensibility with traditional filipino techniques to create uniquely Filipino-American handcrafted jewelry.
Under the sage guidance of skilled jewelry smith Misty Summers, Jeanette creates striking statement pieces with simple shapes and smooth lines that compliment the beauty and power in all women. All pieces are made with ethically-mined metal and sustainably-sourced earth stones.
Describe the path that led you to do the work you do now:
Oddly enough, jewelry and metalsmithing has nothing to do with my artistic background! I learned everything know from my best friend Misty Summers who produces all of our MAAARI jewelry with me. My creative path started with a BA in graphic design from CSUF, which then led me to San Francisco to work with Juxtapoz and Thrasher Magazine. After that, I moved to Washington DC to receive my MA in Exhibition design from The Corcoran College of Art + Design. While there, I interned at The Smithsonian National Museum of American History & Culture, working on an exhibition that is still ongoing today, entitled ” Food: Transforming the American Table“. After graduation, I moved back to Los Angeles, where I currently work as an exhibition designer for a small company producing a whole array of art related events. The projects range from small gallery shows in LA and NYC, to large scale productions like Hello Kitty Con, and the most recent ongoing project, called Beyond the Streets. Working 3 dimensionally really inspired me to make jewelry. I am an artist at heart, and I wanted to make things with my hands again. I found metal smithing a really meditative process and fell in love with it! From there… MAAARI was born.
MAAARI is the dream of modern design, rooted in consciousness, inspired by cultural traditions. There are 3 co-founders, Samantha, Ivy and myself, living in San Francisco, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles. We are all Filipino-American so we wanted to create a brand that allowed us to connect with our Filipino roots, give back to our culture through empowerment, while also being sustainable and ethical. Each of us has our own reasons for coming together to start MAAARI, but for me it was a need to satisfy this creative void that I was experiencing in my professional career as an exhibition designer. I wanted to get back to creating and making things with my hands, which is why I dove deep into metal smithing. Even though I DO love my job, it wasn’t my “ikigai”—a Japanese word, which translates to “reason for being”. Ikigai is an idea that represents 4 ideals: that which you love, that which the world needs, that which you are good at, and that which you can be paid for. Maaari encompasses this idea for me.
Do you have any objects you like to keep around you as inspiration? What are they
One special object I keep is a coin bestowed upon us during our welcoming ritual to the Daraghuyan Bukidnon indigenous community. Not only does this coin act as a symbol of us being welcomed into their community, but it is a constant reminder to continue to reconnect with our culture and rediscover these traditions that are so sacred to indigenous Filipinos. These ideas represent one of the main reasons WHY we set out to create MAAARI in the first place. The Daraghuyan Bukidnon are one of the weaving communities we partner with, through Anthill Fabric Gallery, a social enterprise in the Philippines. Together we created our line of pillows and woven buckets.
MAAARI visited this community back in 2016 and had to participate in a “welcoming ritual”. First, before we even stepped foot on their land, they had to perform a ritual asking their gods and ancestors if we were even allowed to visit their sacred land. The ancestors and gods received our “positive energy”, so we were given the green light to go and meet the women behind our woven textiles. We made the journey to Mindanao, Philippines—3 flights, a half-day car ride through pineapple fields, jeepney rides, a motorcycle ride, and an hour hike up a mountain later, we finally found ourselves amidst the community. As a sign of respect, each of us 3 founding MAAARI members were instructed to bring: cookies, candy, cigarettes, Tanduay (Filipino rum), 3 coins and 3 live chickens (which had to be raised and purchased on their land, at the bottom of the mountain). The ceremony was lead by Bae Itewan, the head spiritual leader of the community. We sat in a circle on the floor as the ritual began with a multitude of prayers recited by Bae. We watched her lay out all of our offerings, and we placed each of our 3 coins on a plate. The chickens were then sacrificed as an offering to the ancestors. As the blood drained, she took feathers, dipped them in the blood, and went around the circle blessing our foreheads, hands, all of our electronic devices and belongings. We were told that Bae has never let anyone film this part of the ritual, but she believes so much in MAAARI’s mission that she allowed us to do so. This was permissible in hopes that we would share their story with the western world. Once the first part of the ritual was complete, the men sang songs and played instruments, while the women and children danced. We all shared a dance together, while other members were preparing the sacrificial chicken for the ritual’s second half. Boiled with ginger, salt, and pepper, the chickens were brought out, paired with rice and placed back on the floor next to the rest of our offerings. Together we ate. Bae gave back our coins as something representing a “key to the city”. When I feel overwhelmed with life, that coin reminds me of the struggles my ancestors had to endure, to get me here today—and I am forever grateful. These things have become my main motivation to keep going and creating meaningful work to help empower other women.
We made a video of this entire experience and you can take a peek HERE.
Here is a link to our blog post about the experience, which was written by co-founder, Samantha Roxas.
Do you think community is important to creativity? If so how?
Absolutely. For me, so much of this is all about my community of jewelers, makers and artists, who advise and inspire me so much. This whole thing is a constant learning process. So much of my youth was spent trying to be ‘white’, and I was ashamed of aspects of my Filipina side. Sharing these stories of our ancestor’s sacrifices to get us where we are today, need to be honored and shared. This is a BIG source of inspiration for MAAARI. I hope that people appreciate where our goods come from, the story behind them, the makers involved, and the hands that they passed through to get to you. Our mission is to provide a communal space for artisans and to share their stories behind their crafts.
Do you have a favorite creation, artwork or design of your own?
I love our Pendulum Drops. I wear them almost every day or night, with whatever outfit. When designing things, I always try to create pieces that make whoever puts them on feel empowered and beautiful, while enhancing their natural intuitions with the stones we include in any given piece. What I love most about the pendulums, is that it is made with the simplest of shapes—a deconstructed large circle and two smaller circles to hand form to the stones. The process of making them is extremely meditative, and I find myself setting intentions with each one made.
What is a new idea you have been working with recently?
Im working with the T’boli community – an indigenous community from the mountain province of South Cotobato in Mindanao, Philippines. They hand cast our Sebu rings and wavy jewelry from recycled church bells, broken and melted down from buildings that date back to the Spanish occupation of the Philippines. Currently, I’m working with them on a new pendant, traditionally called “Lingling-o”. As I began researching traditional filipino jewelry shapes, I discovered the lingling-o. It dates back to 500 B.C., is found amongst various indigenous communities of the Philippines, and always represents FERTILITY. In the (Pre-Hispanic) Philippines “Linga” was the god of fertility. There are strong similarities between “Lingling-o” and “Yoni-lingam”—a tantric symbol of male-female genitalia found in Hindu temples and household shrines. Hindu and Buddhist Tantra teach that the utmost goal is the perfect state of union between male and female energies. The yoni is the female vulva representing origin, source, or womb. The linga is the male phallus that represents a plough used to prepare the earth. The shape represents the union of the two energies.
What do you do, or where do you go to seek fresh ideas or renewed creative energy?
Traveling is where I get my biggest inspiration from. A more local fix… ALL OF THE MUSEUMS. I also draw a TON of inspiration from lamps! I love their forms and construction.