02/27/2013 04:51 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Sweetbird Studio: Wearable Shrines of Intention for Body and Soul... and Canine Companion

It was the doggie bling that caught my eye. Not long ago, I was cruising around Facebook when I saw posted photos of silver charms and medallions for dogs. I hate to admit that I've turned into a middle-aged woman who adores her canine companion, but alas, it's true. I rarely go anywhere without my Peke-a-Chow pal and I enjoy indulging in a little doggie bauble now and then. Miss Fannie herself could not care less about jewelry (or canine couture of any kind) -- preferring to live life au natural. But she patiently puts up with my indulgences -- letting me put a necklace on her every now and then.

As I checked out Sweetbird Studio's website, I quickly moved beyond the doggie bling and found myself savoring the sight of the most unusual jewelry I'd seen in a long time -- deeply spiritual wearable works of art -- with a sense of humor, too. Their motto: "Wearable Shrines of Intention for the Body, Soul, and Faithful Companion." Their jewelry spoke to me -- appealing to my own quirky, eclectic spiritual-but-not-religious beliefs.

Sweetbird's designs made me smile, even chuckle out loud: A belt buckle depicting the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples, with a caption: "Life of the Party." A guitar pick pendant that reads "Pick Jesus." A pair of earrings with tiny silver bowling pins and bowling balls that say: "Spare Me Jesus." Colorful guitar pick earrings that read "Jazz for Jesus."

Hmmm, I wonder... what Jesus would think about becoming an irreverent fashion accessory? I wanted to find out more about the woman whose soul speaks so clearly through her art, so I set up an interview.

Tell me about your background. How did you get into the jewelry-making business?

When I was college, I took one jewelry-making class as a respite from all the heavy business classes I was taking. That planted the seed, but the flower didn't bloom right away. When I graduated in 1984, I bought myself two business suits and took a job as a financial analyst for the Federal Reserve Bank of Denver. But I quickly discovered that working 9 to 5 in an office cubicle wasn't for me. The place was filled with worker bees who dutifully showed up for work each day, all the while hating their jobs and their lives. Nope, I decided after just a few weeks, I wasn't going to let myself meet the same fate. I needed to have a life and this wasn't it.

That's when Sweetbird Studio was born. I thought about what I really loved to do and I remembered that one jewelry-making class. I bought myself a 2x2 piece of sheet silver and I was in business, setting up shop in my little rented house on outskirts of downtown Chicago.

I recall heading down Michigan Avenue one day to look for accounts. I went into Saks Fifth Avenue to see what they were selling -- it was all really boring jewelry. So I phoned the manager and asked for 30 minutes of her time. "I'll show you something really different," I told her. I had to call quite a few times, as I had a hard time getting by her assistant, but finally got through, and she reluctantly agreed to see me. I went in, showed her the jewelry I had made, and that one sales call resulted in my jewelry being carried in 10 Saks stores. It was a good start, to say the least.

Where did you go from there?

For the next 25 years, I designed, made and sold jewelry. I went to trade shows and made a decent living.

Then about nine years ago, I found myself in a really bad spot. My personal life was a mess -- it had all the elements of a country-western song, except my dog didn't die. I looked at my jewelry and realized that everything I was making made no sense. So I closed up my business and called it quits.

I didn't know what to do next, so I figured I should just get a job, any job -- clerical, waiting tables, it didn't matter, just any old job would do.

What kind of job did you get?

Well, that's just it. I kept looking and looking but I just couldn't find a job. Then one day, I felt the urge to create something, so I went into my garage where I kept what was left of my jewelry supplies. I don't know exactly what happened while I was in there -- in retrospect, I fell into some kind of artist's trance or something. All I know is that six hours later I came out of the garage with a silver belt buckle with the Virgin Mary on it, and the words, "Release the Vision."

It's funny, I was raised Catholic but I never really understood my religion -- it was all pretty mysterious to me. I guess no one explained things to me. So I often wondered, "Am I a bad person?" and "Am I accepted into the church?"

Making this new belt buckle was a religious experience -- in the process of which I felt transformed. I was creating from a different place than where I'd been creating from for the previous 25 years. For the first time, I was "making from meaning." And I realized that when you find something you love, it follows you, even if you don't want it to.

I began making jewelry again. That was start of the second chapter of Sweetbird Studio.

So tell me more about the wearable art you're creating since your second chapter started.

My jewelry now has a deeper meaning. It's rooted in my respect for God and all the saints. What I experienced nine years ago was an awakening of faith and I suspect many others have had similar spiritual experiences.

My work is spiritual, but not deadly serious or uptight. We humans are deeply flawed creatures and my God has a sense of humor about that... about everything.

A while back I created a belt buckle with a vintage tin image of Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper. I titled it "Life of the Party." Because it was a bittersweet gathering that night -- the joy of all being together, but the sadness in knowing that this would be the last time.


I posted the buckle on my website and a week or two later I got a voicemail message on my answering machine from an old lady I'd never met. She said, "You don't know me but I saw your belt buckle and I just want to warn you that you're going to Hell. I'll pray for you, dear." I wish I'd saved the voicemail on a tape or something. I felt compassion for her because I knew she really believed what she was saying and I was touched by her concern for my salvation. But I have no worries that Jesus was offended by the belt buckle nor that I would end up in hell for my artistic creation. I think that by not taking ourselves too seriously we actually get closer to God.

That's pretty funny.

Yes, it was. In my mind, the jewelry pieces I create are all metaphors for life experiences, especially spiritual experiences. I have one pendant that says, "Your Heart is Free" about my liberation from fear, doubt, and self-loathing. Another piece is a nest builder, a homesick bird, and on the back of the piece it says, "Let Go."

I save a lot of money on shrinks by making art instead. I consider each piece a "wearable healing shrine of intention." My jewelry is humble I don't ask myself, "What do I need to tech the world?" but rather, "What do I need to learn?" And I create from there.

For more information about Nancy Anderson's wearable art, visit