On May 17, 2016, I found myself touching down on the other side of the globe. I was in the biggest city in the world—Tokyo, Japan. I was about to meet delegates from around the globe and bring my work to the world stage at the first ever G7 Craftswomen Symposium. It was a big step for me personally and as a business woman; I wasn’t planning on exporting or looking for foreign markets, but they were about to come to me, or rather, I was on my way to them. If someone had told me six weeks earlier that I would be rolling into Narita International Airport in Tokyo, I would have laughed—but that’s the wild and extraordinary life of an entrepreneur: you never know where your work will take you.
I began making jewellery in 2011, just after university, when job prospects for a recent graduate with a degree in Folklore and Heritage Resources were slim to none. I had finished my degree almost two years before my husband, and had been working at low-paying florist jobs while I looked for ways to gain experience in my field. Call it my Millennial Existential Crisis, but I have always felt that the work I do in my life has to be meaningful, that it has to have a greater purpose than just a paycheque. Through jewellery design and working in the craft industry, I have made that happen.
My work is created from reclaimed copper water pipe; every piece used in my craft is one more that doesn’t end up in a landfill. I am very conscious of the ecological impact of my work and use environmentally conscious techniques and materials, from the reclaimed copper base to the lead- and heavy metal-free enamels I fire on their surface. I am also the Eastern Representative of the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador. Since starting my own business, I have also founded Dozen Odd Galleries, a social enterprise of artists working for artists. Dozen Odd uses the standards set out by the Craft Council to offer local artists the opportunity to have a storefront and a place to teach classes and educate the community. Dozen Odd has also got me interested in economic development and helped me to get involved at the ground level in the Carbonear downtown redevelopment that is taking place. Dozen Odd is at the core of the downtown and is a shining example of how great things can be achieved when people come together. It took me almost seven years after university, but I am finally using my degree and filling a role in public sector folklore as an economic developer.
All of the things I had been working on began to come together, and the community started to take notice. After being contacted by Global Affairs Canada, NLOWE nominated me to be part of a pool of our country’s craftswomen. One of us would be chosen to represent Canada and take part in the G7 Summit in Japan. Many other people in the pool were craftswomen I look up to and admire. To my great surprise, I was chosen.
The G7 Craftswomen Symposium was a two-day event created to elevate the status of craftswomen and promote the future of traditional crafts through their hands. Over the two days, these women were invited into the private ateliers of participating Japanese craftspeople and had a firsthand opportunity to see some traditional skills being performed. A panel including one woman from each country discussed what it meant to be a woman in the high-end craft industry and how we could move forward into the future. The whole event was recorded by Google and a video was made and presented to the world leaders at the G7 Ise-Shima Summit that took place the following week. I have tried to describe what it felt like to be on that stage and speaking for the whole country, but it always pales in comparison to the actual sensation. It was one of the proudest moments in my life.
Since that experience, my world view has changed considerably: I have opened myself up to a whole new world of business opportunities and supply chains I could not have imagined before. My work is now globally known; I just need to decide what the next business step is. I have connections in each of the G7 countries, and I plan to forge partnerships based on the friendships that were created over the shared experience of craft.
Top Five Moments
- Sitting down to the table at the Traditional Craft Centre at Aoyoma Square on the first day and seeing my name as ambassador of Canada on my name tag and table sign.
- Meeting and sharing a meal with Hawaiian quilters who were living in Japan. The quilters were students of Cissy (the delegate for the United States)
- Getting an inside look at the ateliers (studios) of the Japanese craftspeople and watching their creative process, especially the use of ancient techniques and tools. Many of the craftspeople sat on the floor, holding their tools with both hands and the piece they were working on with their feet.
- Going back to Aoyoma Square when the symposium was over and meeting a Japanese enamel artist. His technique was cloisonné, wet enamel inlaid into wire cells to create designs on the copper. Watching him has given me a new direction in my craft and has inspired me to try some new techniques.
- Seeing my work and the work of the other artists on display at the YouTube studio. This was the first time I had displayed my work internationally, and it was also the first time that someone else had displayed my work for me.
- Business cards are really important! You hand them out to everyone you meet; it is part of the formal greeting.
- I visited the same temple (Meiji Jingu) as Prime Minister Trudeau did while in Tokyo.
- I was the only natural redhead I saw in all of Tokyo, and many of the local people wanted to take their picture with me. (I am on quite a few foreign Facebook pages.) I felt like a celebrity.
- Tokyo was the cleanest urban space I have ever been in! The sidewalks and roads didn’t even have clay or gravel on them.
Pictured above: Natalie (center) with two representatives from Italy at the Meiji Jingu Temple dressed in Yukata (Summer Kimono).
If you would like to meet Natalie or purchase a piece of her work, you can find her at 195 Water Street in Carbonear, at Dozen Odd Galleries, and at the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador in St John’s.
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Natalie Austin Jewellery