Bones, shells and seeds inspire jewelry design

Cumberland Island designer Gogo Ferguson’s work is subject of High Museum exhibition

Not so long ago, jewelry designer Janet “Gogo” Ferguson was walking along a stretch of beach at her family’s compound on Cumberland Island and having an animated conversation with Sarah Schleuning, the High Museum of Art’s curator of decorative arts and design.

They were preparing for the High’s show of Ferguson’s eponymous jewelry line, the first museum exhibition of Ferguson’s work. The show, “Gogo: Nature Transformed,” opens Jan. 19 and runs through July 7.

Wanting a deeper understanding of her motivations, Schleuning asked Ferguson — who everyone calls “Gogo” — about her process as an artist. Can you show me your sketches? Where is your studio? What’s your vision?

Ferguson, 61, stopped in her tracks.

“She just looked at me with this expression, like I was judging her for not having a process,” Schleuning said. Ferguson stared back. First, she as a lover of nature, second as a businesswoman with a wildly successful, high-end jewelry line. But an artist with a formal process?

“I have not documented anything,” Ferguson said. “I just find this amazing bean pod in the woods or some beautiful bones and I put them in a box with all the others and after a while I take them all out and spread them around into interesting shapes.”

And there you go. “She did have a process, she just hadn’t thought of it in that way,” Schleuning said.

One would expect an artist to have a highly refined method and be able to articulate it readily, particularly an artist who can look at rattlesnake bones, seaweed, or an armadillo’s sternum and transform them into necklaces and bracelets of silver and gold, pearl and bead. But for Ferguson, her “process” is the privilege of living on and exploring one of the state’s most beautiful islands, picking up a seed pod here, palm fronds there and animal relics all around. The bounty from these hunting and gathering expeditions is eventually transformed into jewelry and housewares, ranging in price from $25 to $21,000, and they are purchased by celebrities, socialites and collectors.

In many ways, the show also marks the transformation of Ferguson— a direct descendant of Andrew Carnegie’s brother, Thomas— from challenged single parent to prolific designer.

In the 1880s, her family began buying up plots on the barrier island, at a time when many wealthy Northeast families vacationed on Jekyll Island. Over time the Carnegies gifted much the island to the National Park Service, but they retained a family compound where Ferguson now lives.

Though reared in Massachusetts, Ferguson spent a substantial part of her youth vacationing on Cumberland. It was there that her grandmother, Lucy R. Ferguson, began to teach her an appreciation for the natural world. Her grandmother had lost her hearing at age 13, so her other senses were heightened, particularly sight and touch. She would take her granddaughter out for hours to walk along the shore, tromp through the woods and pick through underbrush, honing her eye for objects made perfect by nature and time: lichen, the bleached bones of a raccoon or snake, an alligator print in the sand.

“She’d have this huge buck knife on her belt when we walked,” Ferguson said. “For her the lichen on a tree was a pattern for fabric or we’d put feathers in our hair or make mobiles from the bones we found.”

Gogo Ferguson later went to art school and in 1986 she returned to the island a divorced mother with a baby girl. She likes to point out that it was at her generation that the Carnegie trust fund money “was depleted.” Work was a necessity. The island offered abundant inspiration.

She began by making pieces from actual bones found on her foraging trips. In fact her logo represents one of her earliest pieces, a formation of six rattlesnake ribs and vertebrae, which she fused, then strung on a length of fishing line, glass beads and brass ferrules from a mainland hardware store. Those early pieces got premium exposure when Ferguson’s longtime friend and fashion designer Nicole Miller began wearing the jewelry and using it in photo shoots. Over time Ferguson migrated to precious metals after her customers complained that some of the work, while beautiful, was too fragile. Others had trepidation about wearing the bones of dead animals.

Adorning the body with relics is as ancient as the ages. But the way Ferguson composes her pieces falls somewhere between the 19th-century practice of memento mori jewelry — which incorporates artifacts or even locks of hair from a deceased loved one — and sentimental jewelry, said Hyun Jong “Jay” Song, chair of the jewelry and objects department at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Sentimental jewelry expresses a time, event or memory using elements from those moments.

“Like her sea shell ring, she’ll remember where she picked that shell up, and it becomes more about self expression of her life through jewelry,” Song said. “Each piece is all a part of her world. It’s also a bit tribal in structure and very unique.”

Ferguson, who also splits her time between New England and Mexico, does not cast her own jewelry but works with the Mexican artisan Julio Miguel Perez Rodriguez, who fabricates her work. Her career highlight was designing the wedding rings for the late John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Caroline Bisset. Her work is sold in boutiques around the country and has been a staple in the High Museum’s gift shop for some time. In recent years her daughter, Hannah, now grown, has been brought on as company president.

So far, Ferguson’s loose “process” has not failed her.

To give viewers who have never been to the island a sense of how it fuels the artist, the curators have wrapped the floor-to-ceiling windows in the corridor leading into the exhibit with transparencies of Cumberland’s verdant forests. From there visitors step into what is essentially a room-sized jewelry box, the color of morning fog. Inside, silver, gold and alpaca castings of found bird skulls, sharks’ vertebrae, and boar’s tusk are among the treasures glittering in glass cases. Circling above is a mammoth mobile made from whale bones that washed up on shore.

For the exhibit, Schleuning pushed Ferguson to expand her method even more and to create two, new large scale pieces for the show, a sea urchin footstool, or pouf, made of alpaca metal and a New England seaweed wall sculpture made of lacquered nickel.

Each walk or horseback ride on the island yields new finds, new ideas. But Ferguson never strays too far from the lessons learned from her grandmother.

“I go through phases, like right now I’m into lettuce seaweed and pods,” Ferguson said. “But the song is always bone. The way a skeleton fits together is so precise, so beautiful.”

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