January 14, 2016

Artist Profile | Tashina Lee Emery

The world is so big, yet it also can be very small and intimate. I met Tashina years ago when I visited the University of Michigan for an event. The students there were very inspiring, and I'd go on to keep in contact with them. I've seen them ace their finals, graduate, take on competitive internships, and become bright young professionals. And I was so happy when one of them, Tashina, sent me a message last month that she had just launched her own online boutique featuring her handmade jewelry, though she also creates fashion garments.

Her design voice is very distinctive - it is clearly inspired by the natural environment of northern Michigan, where she comes from. Her work is enchanting, modern, and a celebration of the beauty of the natural world. We added her beautiful gems to the Beyond Buckskin Boutique, but you can also visit her website and poke around - there, you will find a lot of inspiring images to take in! Scroll down to read our exclusive interview with this young star.

BB: Hi Tashina! Thank you for taking the time to chat with us. Since you're new to our audience, can you introduce yourself and tell us more about your background?

TLE: Boohzoo! Aanii! My name is Tashina Lee Emery, “Clearing of the sky cloud woman” (Misanaquadikwe in Ojibwe). I am the one who can clear up a cloudy day. My optimism comes from my upbringing on a small Upper Peninsula reservation of Michigan. I was raised traditional, straight from the projects of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. My business name is currently my own name! Tashina Lee Emery Designs is an online boutique sharing Indigenous Style, Designs, and Storytelling. I haven’t come across a name that encompasses all my visions yet, so for now, Tashina Lee Emery Designs (which has a nice jingle) will work.

Through my brand, I create contemporary wearable art influenced by my own Ojibwa roots, the natural world, and a fascination of post-colonization. My work is fabricated by my own hand, is purposefully raw yet lasting, and holds an overwhelming presence of history and spirit. I am just starting out and my shop has only been opened since this past November, but I look forward to more stories, rings, and necklaces! I can’t wait to explore other outlets too, so stay tuned! I’m not going anywhere.

BB: I remember when I met you in 2012, you were wearing your own designs. When did you start creating fashion and accessories?

TLE: I have always been a sewer. First, I learned from my Nana the very basics and what was needed to fabricate my own regalia. Even then, I had to be fancy and intricate with my designs, especially if I was going try to be a future head dancer! After that, I needed the bling that went with the regalia. I signed up for my first beading class at age 12.

Although, I had all these creative influences surrounding me, I knew school and education was so important. I mean, just growing up in one of the most beautiful places in the world (right on Lake Superior) can instantly make your creative juices flow, but I put all my energy into science and math classes. Once getting into to my dream school, I noticed I was still gravitating to art history, public art, and children’s illustration courses. Finally, I knew it was time to switch schools, within the gigantic institution of the University of Michigan (yes, there are schools within schools within schools that can be mind blowing to a small-towner). The art school housed an incredible metal studio, which I am very slowly and steadily trying to recreate in my own little apartment.

I do what I do because I want to wear it! When I create, I create for me. I love having total creative control. I am so nit-picky that I have to fabricate my own wearables, because I can’t always find exactly what I want. I am a girl of many visions. I appreciate process and have a passion for creating timeless pieces that blend my two worlds, as an Indigenous woman and intellectual cosmopolitan. A mix of Indigenous aesthetics, the natural world and the contemporary spirit. I love taking traditions and revamping them!

BB: We love that idea of updating traditions, and different artists go about it in different ways. What is the general process that you go through to create your work?

TLE: I am a one woman operation now, but in art school (8 months ago) all I did was create. I had all the equipment, material, and space I needed. Torches, drill presses, casting equipment, powder coating cases, chasing pits, you name it and they had it. At first, I created a lot of conceptual, abstract work with no meaning. I wasn’t creating art for myself, I was creating it for a grade or for others. Once I started creating work for myself and wearables I wanted to wear and keep, my mixture of metal, beadwork, found objects and fur projects turned out to be the highly-regarded pieces because it had meaning to me.

After graduation this past May, I knew I wanted to setup a online boutique. I turned from the artist/maker to the CEO, in what seems to have happened overnight. Gratefully, I was able to work 2 years with an amazing artist (Rae of Made by Rae), while attending classes, who I now model my own business after. I studied her steps and am following her guidelines. She runs an incredible business and has inspired me to do the same. I am still learning along the way though, and the study and research never ends. I can’t wait to expand my shop and see what the new year has to offer!

BB: I think I have an idea of what inspires you, but can you tell us more about your various inspiration points?

TLE: My inspiration comes from my mom and strong Native American women in general! I am so honored and appreciative of the women who get up everyday and persevere through the morning adversities. My mom represents that same motivating story. She went through a childhood no one should have to endure, yet she still remains one of the kindest and loving women you should ever have the privilege to meet. Like most Native women, she is the caretaker. She is tough. She knows sacrifice - to the point no women should have to. She has been my inspiration from the start, the motive to all my madness. I do what I do because she deserves a stable rez-mobile, a comfortable house among the projects, and whatever else she deserves. I can’t wait to give back to her someday!

Lake Superior is this gorgeous body of fresh water outside my front door! When I was little I always wanted to see the ocean and the white sandy beaches, but I never even fully understood the power, the beauty in my own backyard. I wonder if people near the ocean beg to see the Great Lakes? My memories of purple lips trying to get used to the freezing temperature, the sunsets, colors of the deep, dark waters and the family gatherings near the sands are the fuel to my work. The lake will continue to influence and inspire my soul.

Other inspiration points include Stevie Nicks - she is a free and mysterious being. I love her look, style and music! Enough said. Also, Native American renaissance writers inspire me. There is a truth and whimsical essence in their words. They defined a lot of what Native Americans believe today (which is crazy). I am fascinated by their lives and thoughts.

BB: What does Native fashion mean to you?

TLE: I think it means defining an image created centuries ago. It means creating a contemporary Native identity. Native fashion is part reclaiming and part reinventing. It is maintaining traditions while reinforcing the idea that change and growth is okay.

BB: What are you passionate about?

TLE: I am passionate about fashion, more specifically timeless looks. I love following along in the fashion world and keeping up with the artists who are making dramatic waves. I love eccentric and bold art, and I love learning about processes or the behind-the-scenes stuff that others take to create their work. I am an avid lover of traveling and have visions of going across the sea again very soon. I am a seeker of coffee shops and small town diners, watching the food channel helps with my cravings.

BB: Finally, what are 5 very random things about you?

TLE: I drink a ice coffee every morning. After moving back to my small town and not having coffee shops on every block, I now make my own home brew! Another random fact: I lived with a Ghanaian Chief in his palace for a month! Surprisingly, the Ghanaian culture is very similar to the Native American culture and traditions. Third, I've worked since I was 12 years old: a accountant's assistant, daycare helper, watershed fish fin clipper, gas station clerk, sandwich maker, youth supervisor, Native artist curator, nanny, artist/studio assistant, bartender, English teacher, tribal professor, assistant librarian, and a fill-in receptionist for tribal court and tribal social services. Fourth, most my wardrobe is from goodwill or a thrift stores! Last, I was in a sorority but not your typical one you see on TV, I was in a Latina based but of every race sorority. It was the support system I needed while attending college. I lived 9 hours away from my home but still lived in MICHIGAN! We were and are still a family.

Follow Tashina Lee Emery on Instagram, and shop her selection at Beyond Buckskin or at www.tashinaemery.com.