Art Jewelry Decorates a Family Tree

An afternoon with Annie Hinkes, Portland artist and jeweler, discussing her product line, Ana Eugenia. We talk about her evolution as a craftswoman and the great influences of family and the arts.

Annie Hinkes’ jewelry designs bring to mind the metallic surfaces of northwest rivers. And the spectrum of blue and gray textures on the Oregon coast. Others evoke sand and the hot sun of arid desert regions that I’ve never been to. She posts images of her latest productions on Instagram and they’ve all got this earthy candor to them. They are not showy as much as they are refined and versatile in style. Some necklaces link pieces of metal, with gems inset or without, varying in shape and size. A necklace that resembles paperclips linked together is made of sterling silver wire, bent into oblong, straight-sided loops. Rings and earrings bare natural shapes like imperfect circles in fractions and half-moons, in bronze and silver finish. In some photos, women model the necklaces, and there is an understated elegance that recalls what Audrey Hepburn gave to every accessory she wore, from pearls to sunglasses.

Annie's designs
Annie’s Designs

It was a cloudless fall day back in October when I first visited Annie’s house in Southeast Portland, where she makes jewelry in the garage. Her house is shaded from the street by trees and overgrown bushes obscure the nearly windowless front of the house; upon walking in, it feels like you’ve opened a door to the outside. You’re immediately looking across her sun-suffused living room at long, wide windows showcasing a verdant backyard and much cultivated garden.

Annie makes coffee and we sit at her kitchen table. She is wearing a long sleeved white T-shirt and blue jeans, no make-up with hair tied up in a high bun. This makes her look younger than her early 30s. Her slender, tall physique, and the rhythmic way she moves around the kitchen makes her look how I imagine a ballerina does on a day off.

It’s compelling, the mindset of people who work from home, lacking the massively-held distinctions and borders of “work” and “personal” life, and conceptions of these things as separate. I imagine how she shifts to and from with focus and diligence everyday as I follow her after coffee on her 10 second commute to the garage  studio where she works.

Her work desk reminds me of my Dad’s tool bench, only less cluttered and there aren’t grease-stained towels lying around. There are tools and staged materials that look like dental equipment, pliers, a hammer and squares of silver. Annie is a metalsmith, a silversmith she later specifies. She is an art jeweler and I learn the distinction soon into our conversation. Unlike the jeweler producing on a larger scale, reproducing the same pieces for standard retail shops, she makes one-of-a-kind pieces for sale in art galleries. Silver is her medium of choice, but sometimes she employs other materials such as rubber, and other metals like brass and copper.

Annie's office
Annie’s office

On another work bench there is a collection of necklaces, rings and earrings that she’s getting ready to ship to the the Heidi Lowe Gallery gallery in Delaware. She also sells at the The Rising States in New York City, and in Portland at the Beam and Anchor. She sometimes hosts a studio sale at home where  other craftsmen are invited to join in and sell their own work.

While talking about the Delaware-bound line, Annie points out a picture on a shelf above the bench. It’s of a woman smoking a pipe in a blazer not unlike the one I wear to Annie’s, except mine is from the Gap and has electric pink lining. It’s an old photo, there is no Instagram filter work done here. It looks like it’s from the 1940s because it is, and the woman is her grandmother, Carmen. She is young in the photo and even while striking a playful pose, there is intelligence and tenacity about her.

The photo and Annie’s emphatic tone in recalling the role of her grandmother in her life steers the conversation away from what she’s making and doing now toward her past. And to the history of her family which encloses the garage for the next few hours from the outside and time, and it feels like Carmen and other members of her family are there, in spirit or something, that exceeds the presence of a photo. We go from standing to sitting Indian-style on the floor like a couple of teenage girls in an attic who’ve discovered hip dresses their moms used to wear or incriminating photos. Annie starts to drag out boxes she wasn’t expecting to look through, and in stories and things, pieces of Annie’s life and work are unpacked before us. “I haven’t looked at this stuff in years…”, she says.

Nearly ten years ago, when Annie was a senior at the University of Oregon, where she earned her BFA in metalsmithing, she decided to do her thesis project about the fragility of relationships. Her parents divorced when she was a young girl and as a young woman she was exploring the impact of this and her own first impressions of love. Her thesis was a necklace. “This is obnoxious and when you put it on, you can’t hug anyone.” I try it on for the full effect. It is obnoxious and though it has no weight to it really, it feels cumbersome around my neck. I feel like someone has bent a few wire hangers in the shape of soda cans, linked them and dropped the construction over my head. You do feel cut off, like the beginnings of a cage are being built around you.

Another piece from school is an engagement ring– two rings actually. “This piece represents my philosophy on marriage, and that philosophy is that you have to be your own person.” She puts it on; it’s a simple ring with smooth edges, no engravings or stones. Its sterling silver band curves up around her finger and at the top, where a stone would typically mount, the band cuts off. It stays firmly on her finger but there is a gap, like it’s unfinished. She takes it off and assembles it with the other ring, its better half, and the two rings fit inside each other and spoon to create one closed S shape, meant to be worn separately but complete together.

After graduating, Annie took a few years off from making jewelry. “We were critiqued all the time in school. Without that, I was unable to work.” She lived in Albuquerque for a bit working on a movie set there, and interned at the Heidi Lowe gallery in Delaware. When she returned to Portland, she attempted making work for a production line, not the pursuit of an art jeweler, but a production jeweler. She laughs and blushes searching for the collection. “Let me show you how failed it was. It was just terrible. I’m embarrassed to show it to you”, but she shows no hesitation to open the box and is even eager to, and I sense this might be therapeutic for her, if not amusing. The pieces are necklaces with flowers and birds. They’re nothing like what she makes now, lacking originality and depth, and would look at home in a Claire’s jewelry store.

It’s not the ultimate look that annoys her about them, but the way she approached it. “It went against everything I learned in school. I should be making pieces that are conceptually-based and craft-based. For me it just didn’t work.” But she adds, “it was invaluable. I wouldn’t take it back. It taught me what not to do.” She has hundreds of them and she tosses them around in the box in a what am I going to do with all these way. She says through a smirk, “this was before put a bird on it was popular. When that happened, I was fucked.” “It’s just boring,” she says looking up at me, “You want one?” I laugh, saying that I was wondering what the perks of the interview would be. “My little brother,” she says, “who is 21, every new girlfriend, she gets the same necklace. Shit, I gave him three last time he was in town. He was stoked.”

Annie at work
Annie at work. Photo by Pareja Creative

Of the production line, she admits, “I realized that’s not my strong suit. I am a processed based designer. I don’t know what I am making. I don’t know what it’s going to look like. I just pick materials and work until I figure it out. Constant construction and deconstruction. The production line was designed beforehand.” Manipulating the pieces of the failed production line led Annie, as she puts it, “to make lemons from lemonade”, and design her first one-of-a-kind work since college and it propelled her back into making jewelry on her own.

She recalls with pride and enthusiasm a show she did in 2010 in New York City called Costume Costume! For the show, she joined The Opulent Project, a concept-based design group founded by two friends and jewelry designers from U of O. The show was based on costume jewelry and The Opulent Project invited 20 art jewelers from around the world to design their takes on costume jewelry for sale under $500. A very high price point for this author, and Annie, but she gives me some context.

The show was held at the Armory in New York as part of a SOFA exhibition (Sculptural Objects and Functional Art), a fine art show where galleries from around the world bring their finest art and the clientele has a lot more than $500 to spend. The Opulent Project was invited by Sienna Art Gallery in Massachusetts. Annie models an ornate, bronze costume ring she designed for it, and it takes up most of her finger. “It’s just ridiculous. But it’s awesome.”  She sticks out her hand, “Darling…” she says in her best high-society inflection.

The Opulent Project set up a photo booth at the New York event. People could try on the ostentatious jewelry and take photos, leaving with those as souvenirs even if they didn’t buy anything. From her description I envision the booth off in the corner, a tiny installment not getting much attention at first. Then as people were made aware,  heard others laughing and bouncing around in the photo booth, they become the most fun attraction at the show, people happy to be a little silly. Of course, I can’t know for sure, this is just how I imagine it.

“Jewelry are heirlooms and we give them so much meaning.” Annie’s jewelry line is named after her great-grandmother, AnaEugenia. Most of the things in Annie’s home have been passed down from her great-grandmother. She shows me Japanese prints over a century old she has in her garage. A hair brush sitting in front of Carmen’s photo was her great-grandmother’s. I’m kind of awe-struck frankly, as I don’t have anything of family value extending back more than one generation. Most of what I own is from thrift stores or Goodwill picked up over time, surely with some stories of their own, just of other people’s grandmothers that will always be a mystery to me.

I ask some more about her grandparents. “I come from a long line of entrepreneurs.” Her great-grandfather co-founded Lewis &Valentine Company in 1918, a mature tree moving company. “You can look him up at the Smithsonian,” she tells me. They moved full-grown trees on the East coast to the estates of their wealthy clients. We look at a book with photographs of Long Island mcmansions, the before and after pics of their newly landscaped lawns. Her great-grandmother wrote horticulture stories for The New York Times. Annie describes her as strong and competent, she came over from Norway pregnant to live on Long Island where “she cooked, killed chickens. Gardened.” She would go to estates and buy stuff at auctions—this is the stuff Annie inherited and has in her home. She points out two lime green vases that were passed down on a shelf, over a century old.

Her father is a pilot, a builder of spec homes and high-end condos, and a realtor. He started flying planes at the age of 17. She smiles and says, “he was the kid that went to the airport and stared at the planes.” He met Annie’s Mom this way—he was her flight instructor. Her mother is self-employed too and Annie reflects on this, revealing more insight as to where her own entrepreneurial leanings come from. “They were working all the time. But they made their own schedules, and because of that you can go to lunch with your kids or whatever. But you might be working until ten pm…”

Annie’s recollection of her heritage is replete with many more details and I see her 31-year-long life being traced in diagonal lines across a map of the United States in my mind, following her family’s course, and ultimately stretching out in one singular line landing on Portland. She has her own relationship to the East coast as she attended Northfield Mount Hermon boarding school in Massachusetts after being raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico until she was 15. Growing up in New Mexico, there was a huge art influence. Navajo, Native American, Mexican. Architecture, tile, rugs, food, religion– you were surrounded by art and history all the time.”

When her great-grandmother died, her grandmother, Carmen, loaded pallets with all the valuables from Long Island and they were driven to New Mexico; the treasured east coast auction findings joined the native New Mexican artifacts of Annie’s childhood. “My design sense has always been influenced not only by where I grew up but also the objects I grew up with”. Her mom, too, was a huge art lover and informed Annie and her siblings about it. “We went to museums as kids. Theater. We didn’t want to do any of those things at the time. But we grew up with an appreciation for it.”

Rutilated quartz bezel set in brass necklace. Photo by Pareja Creative

Annie remembers how she got into metal-smithing in college, originally favoring other art disciplines, entering school armed with a portfolio of paintings. She recalls the control she felt over the medium in her first metalsmith class. “Metal moves slowly, you can mess up.” I can’t help but think it’s the tactile nature of the materials and the production of an object, as opposed to a representation, that may have drawn her to the craft. Annie isn’t sure how the influences of her upbringing manifest themselves in her jewelry though she doesn’t dismiss that it does. Maybe the effects are more evident in why she does it than how, like many artists who concentrate passion and apply discipline to the process and let the ideas and vision come as they will, sourced from a core shaped by experience and knowledge, and complete mystery.

It’s not lucrative for her but she makes it work, taking part time jobs including one teaching a Fundamentals of Metalsmithing course this past Fall at Oregon College of Arts and Crafts. “I’m happy to be a starving artist. Took 7 years to realize where I am happiest now….and making one of a kind stuff. I haven’t spent a year on a piece since college. Being an artistic person, I want to do that. Spend time on something.” She points to the Delaware collection. “There’s a necklace up there I’ve made five times. I think I’m finally getting around to it.”

Looking at the Instagram photos, I notice the smooth surfaces, the clean character of her design. I like the matte quality of the onyx finish, dark and reserved. They don’t look heavily worked over, chiseled or polished. But I’ve seen the tools, learned what it meant to solder something. The deceptively simple lines belie the effort and focus Annie puts into her work. Her style achieves this untouched look somehow, like the natural elements are preserved, as if she found the beautiful piece in the sand, fastened and linked it on a chain, especially for you.

By Kathleen Dolan

I studied writing and English at Purchase College in NY State and graduated from PSU with an English degree. I contribute content, edit, and brainstorm at THRU.

2 replies on “Art Jewelry Decorates a Family Tree”

Great feature, Kate! I felt like I was hanging out in the apartment with you while I read along.

I got a good laugh at picturing a 10 second commute and relating to having someone else’s grandmother’s stuff.

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