Thank you to the SF Chronicle for the feature in Island Style Section October 18th, 2015. Below is a copy of the full article.
“NATURE SPEAKS TO DESIGNER”
By Leilani Marie Labong
Bay Area-educated jeweler finds inspiration in specimens that have fallen to the ground
As a young child growing up in Hawaii, jewelry maker Luana Coonen thought that everyone lived amid rich tropical greenery (her family home on the Big Island abutted a dense ohia forest) and could also recite the names of native plants on cue (the influence of her late mother, a botanist).
“All of this was just normal for my sister and me,” says Coonen, 33. “Our backyard forest was a playground. We’d nose around in the greenhouse all the time. On walks, my mother “would ID plants for us. Knowing nature was just second nature.”
Such lush and dewy botanical immersion raises the question: Is Coonen’s calling as a jewelry maker who encases the likes of katydid wings, coral tentacles and dried leaf skeletons within artistic compositions of metal and acrylic the result of nature or nurture? Even if she had grown up in a concrete jungle learning the names of, say, cars and architecture instead of flora and fauna, would her affinity for nature have emerged in her pursuits anyway?
These musings are inconsequential except to say that nature’s impact resonates deeply. When Coonen moved to the Bay Area in 2000 to attend the California College of the Arts, with aspirations of becoming a graphic designer, it took no more than 30 minutes in a dark classroom lit by one enormous computer screen for her to re-evaluate this technology-driven study.
“I wanted something that felt more natural,” says the Mission resident, who sustains big-city living with weekend rambles through Oakland’s Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve or easygoing paddleboarding sessions on placid lake waters (“I’m terrified of the ocean,” she says).
“I started experimenting with my course load, and in my first metal arts class, I discovered that I could almost complete the sentence of the instructor.” She graduated from CCA with a metalsmithing degree in 2004 and now teaches jewelry-making workshops at the Revere Academy of Jewelry Arts and the Richmond Art Center.
In Coonen’s downtown San Francisco studio, display cases “exhibit her nature-inspired work. As a gesture of hospitality, she flips the switch on an electric kettle before pointing out a few significant pieces: A cuff with a gothic silver outline of wings is filled in with preserved scarab-beetle airfoils. A veiny, flesh-colored rose petal adds a macabre, human-tissue-like element to a silver locket. Lacy dried citrus leaves compose hoop earrings.
Coonen excitedly approaches stacked plastic bins teeming with nature specimens that she’s either stumbled upon during her East Bay hikes or while wandering the family homestead on Maui’s north shore, where she spends part of the year. These containers are filled with everything from shards of robins’ eggs to silvery Hawaiian sage leaves to empty monarch butterfly chrysalises. Capturing them all in some poetic configuration of metal and acrylic would mean tens of thousands of pieces, were it not for Coonen’s artistic fortitude.
“Sometimes I’ll know the shape I want to create, but need to wait for just the right nature sample, or I’ll have a beautiful piece of nature that I need some time to figure out how to frame. But I never force the process,” says Coonen, who is adamant about “only collecting specimens that have fallen to the ground — no living insects or plants are ever harmed in the making of her jewelry.
By now, the kettle is furiously steaming and shuts off automatically. Coonen makes no move to fill the waiting mugs. She is in full swing, waxing rhapsodic about her craft. Sometimes she seems humbled to find the creative process so intuitive.
“I feel very lucky that my hands create exactly what I see in my head,” she says. She’s incredibly astute about her inspiration, even correlating her work to the way nature is constricted in urban areas — planted medians surrounded by blacktop, for example, or sidewalk trees confined within concrete. Her pieces, which sell locally at Gallery of Jewels and Ver Unica, have been featured in the New York Times Magazine and Women’s Wear Daily. Her necklaces have made big-screen cameos in Jennifer Aniston’s “The Switch” and “The Adjustment Bureau” starring Emily Blunt. With such colorful feathers in her cap, Coonen comes off quite self-assured. She flashes a dimpled and disarming grin.
“My creativity is limitless,” she says.”