Jewelry making offers healing and opens doors to friendship
Mary Campbell Miller has graced my life with a particular kind of beauty reflected in a line of jewelry that is both refined and a little wild. The real elegance, however, in that grace of beauty exchanged between us over the years is not in the jewelry or payment traded. The beauty that shimmers between us is the friendship that formed in the course of doing business and, line by line, sharing our lives with each other.
When I wear her jewelry I am also wearing a kind of armour, the kind that makes me feel brave when I am afraid, and loved when I feel alone.
Does that seem overblown for something as simple as jewelry bought online? I’ll argue, no. Because what is invisibly bound into the making of these pieces is the power of craftsmanship and prayer, purpose and conviction.
As makers, we leave indelible fingerprints of spirit and soul on what we make, just as our Maker leaves His fingerprints all over us. We create out of joy, but often also out of need, fear, pain, loneliness, and grief. Art is our answer to heartbreak and a world in chaos. We write, sing, paint, sculpt, make plays, build websites, and make jewelry. As makers we twinkle in the fading light and give courage to each other to keep running this race. This is exactly what Mary Campbell Miller does and this is what you will find invisibly bound into her creations. Love and Courage. Goodness, Truth, & Beauty. And a little something shiny to keep your hopes up and your sparkle on!
LES: Behind the founding of any effort, there is a story of what led up to it. What led you to create jewelry in the first place and then launch a business on Etsy?
MCM: I never get tired of sharing this story. I’ve never regarding myself as an artist per se, my sister was the identified artist in our family, and I was the identified teacher sibling. But, in college, I discovered a creative side I never knew existed. I took a class in water color and fell in love with the medium. Later, I took a class in stained glass and moved from simple sun-catchers to more advanced off the grid work. My husband allowed me to command half our garage for a studio and I created in my free time. When we discovered I was expecting my first child the studio I had to lay aside the hobby because of the unsafe lead. Baby came. Nursing. Again, no lead. Crawling baby, bits of glass were every where and too unsafe. So, my studio was packed away for a season. When my daughter came three years later, the entire postponement was prolonged. I needed a safe creative outlet.
One day while flipping through Real Simple magazine, a necklace caught my eye. This is remarkable because I rarely wore jewelry. In fact, I finally pierced my ears when I was 25. My sister had sent me a necklace the previous year which she had made. The light bulb went off. I bet I could make this myself. Hours later, with stacks of jewelry-making books from the library, I began making lists of necessary supplies. As a church planting pastoral family, our budget was tight so I bought tools one at a time at Michael’s Crafts using my 50 and 60% off coupons as they materialized. Fast forward a few months and I had made a number of pieces for myself and friends. I also discovered a huge bead warehouse in San Diego which offered terrific strands of pearls and gemstones at rock bottom prices. Heaven.
My house was overrun with jewels; and I needed to recoup my costs. I started selling a few pieces and considered entering a few craft fairs, but I needed a name—something catchy that reflected my creativity, the business, and me. One day my son burst into the room and declared, “Mom, look, I’m a Magpie, I like shiny things.” He’s right; they do. Hence, we named my business Magpie Madness Jewelry…Shop for Shiny Things. Years ago I had worked for an organization in Charlottesville, Virginia, The Core Knowledge Foundation, where I ended up learning the Adobe software suite—we created and laid out our training materials in Photoshop and InDesign, so it was a natural flow for me to step out and create my own marketing materials. Ironically, a few years ago, jewelry had been disappearing from my shop. My mind hearkened back to the break-in we had experienced the year before when someone used my garage door opener to open the garage, enter the shop and steal all the wedding jewelry and more which I had just created for a client. However, this time, Julianna found dozens of earrings packaged in their shiny plastic sleeves all over the hill beyond our home where the birds congregate in trees. Yep, shiny things. I now have my shop encased in bird netting which lends a princess-like feel to the environment.
As girlfriends asked about the pieces and how I made them, the suggestion was made that I should host home parties teaching women to make their own jewelry. I knew from personal experience it’s much easier to learn from watching someone as opposed to reading about the technique in a book. Voila, Magpie began setting up home parties around the community showing ladies how to make jewelry. This was successful for about a year, and in the meantime I continued to create my own pieces, offer them at these home parties, and sell at craft fairs. I opened at Etsy shop in 2010 but it was lackluster.
As time went on, it became apparent that the ladies were more interested in shopping and buying my pieces and not making their own. Home parties merged into me bringing in jewelry and tools, and customizing pieces as needed. The host earned a percentage of sales to buy her own jewelry. I still was working with chunkier necklaces and earrings—no chain—and named each piece. Names varied from Forget me Not to Julian Attic to Wind in the Willow. I would write about each piece in my blog spot, www.MagpieMadnessJewelry.com. I tried to capture the “heart” of the piece based on the stones and what the piece reflected to me. At times, people purchased simply because of the name. Twice I entered the renowned Oktoberfest 3-day fair at $500/booth and made a successful run.
Fast forward to the fall of 2014. I had been having migraines for quite some time and numbness in my hands. Eventually my left hand and arm became completely numb and I lost all feeling. My chiropractor told me he believed I was dealing with multiple sclerosis. All my friends pooled their resources together to purchase health insurance for a year. Yes. I had it. No more home parties. No more craft fairs. I just didn’t have the strength. Hence, Etsy. I now had an opportunity to expand my market from the comfort of my own home, on my time table, and didn’t need to travel. Back to the library for more books—this time photography. I learned about angles, light, and staging. As time passed, this aspect, which at first seemed so tedious, began to flow. Fast forward to 2018 and I occasionally bring my pieces for home parties, but 95% of my business is now managed thought Etsy. So thankful. I have over 1000 pieces in my shop and struggle to narrow down what to bring.
LES: Give us a little context for your family life as a kind of nesting place for Magpie. Married? Kids? Pets? Location? Activities important to you all as a family?
MCM: My husband, Mark, creates through design. He has an eye for color, placement, and spacing. A natural feng shui. We’ve lived in nine residences in our almost 20 years of marriage and “he” positions the furniture, hangings our art work, and directs paint colors. For us, it works. Mark has been supportive of my creative endeavors over the years and, as he is not a tools and cars kind of guy, has allowed me to commandeer half our garage for my studios. Mark loves Jesus and is passionate about leadership development, especially young men. Over the years we’ve had a number of fellows live with us in the context of in situ community. Our first born, Ian, now 15, captured my love of writing and off-beat sense of humor. Ian is also more emotionally natured like this father with the primary love language of touch. He’s completely disengaged from the business but as you can read above, jump started our name. Julianna, my 11 year old daughter, is my creative child. For several years, she managed her own business, ChickiePie, making necklaces for little girls. It was adorable. As time passed, her interest evolved in different directions and we let ChickiePie simple fade away. She is currently playing piano, painting, drawing, and making slime. Ironically, she excels at math and her language arts skills are a struggle due to what may be dyslexia. She’s left handed. Julianna was born at home and, as we had no insurance, has never seen a doctor in her life so has not been tested formally. She helps me in the shop putting earrings on cards and their clear plastic bags, stringing longer necklaces, laying out patterns, and pricing out cards. Her enterprising nature has emerged by now asking for payment for her services. Strong business mind in this one. Her savings account is twice that of her brother’s as she saves and he gives away.
Lord Peter Wimsey, our fluffy orange tabby cat I named for Dorothy Sayers’ fictional aristocratic gentleman sleuth, wanders about our house sniffing at my work and batting the occasional bead. I am partial to orange cats. Due to our proximity to Cowles Mountain, coyotes regularly meander through our parking lot. We know they got our first cat here, Elijah, a gray tabby, so Lord Peter is an exclusively indoor cat despite his great longing to capture lizards sunning themselves on our pack porch. The previous cat, Mr. Darcy, met his demise when Ian accidently miss-stepped.
We are currently located in east county San Diego—the county at large is divided into four quadrants named for their directional positions. East County has a reputation for being predominantly Christian, less formal and more on the red-neck cowboy end of the state. Think big trucks. Boots. Big hair. Manicured nails. If the Lord keeps us in California, we’d like to move in a bit further west.
We read. We cook. We enjoy people. As a family, we chose to not ever have cable television in our home, but we do enjoy good movies which Mark downloads on streaming audio. Family favorites are The Princess Bride, LOTR series and Pride and Prejudice. We have always been physically active, but due to my occasion relapses, I no longer cycle or hike, but Mark takes the kids on mountain hikes on Cowels Mountain down the street. We all enjoy entertaining people and cooking. Both of my children’s culinary repertoire is by far wider than mine when I left for college. I learned by years of restaurant work. A joyful weekend for us begins with a huge Saturday morning breakfast followed by Mark taking the kids for a hike while I clean up and mess around in my shop. In the afternoons the kids are with various friends at the park below our townhome, I’m in my shop or reading, and until last month Mark had been working on his sermon. We break for dinner, and often a movie or games. We enjoy Settlers of Catan and Scrabble. After church on Sunday we usually have friends over for a late lunch/early dinner, and enjoy cooking and just engaging one another in conversation. My brother and his wife frequently drive over from his boat with their three children. John enjoys aggravating Mark. They’re good for each other.
LES: How does homeschooling your kids and your love of literature affect the way you work and the climate in which you create?
MCM: I’m a reader. My parents will tell you they’d have to pry me out my books and off the sofa to get anything accomplished. I was home schooled from 6-9th grade. My most memorable year was 7th in which I finished my work by November and read books for the rest of the year. My dream was to be a librarian or teach English, and maybe, write my own books. I was introduced to C.S. Lewis when a friend gave me his boxed Narnia series for the 10th birthday. Entranced. I entered into an enchanted world. I fell in love with Anne of Green Gables, too, about this time. Later, I engulfed every series I could find—Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Bobsey Twins, you name it. I discovered Tolkien in college and entered a deeper level of fantasy and mystical thinking. Some years back someone introduced me to Dorothy Sayers. In love. I had studied the writings of C.S. Lewis under the tutelage of Father Walter Hooper one semester while studying in Cambridge, England. When my husband and I chose to home school our children I knew I wanted them to love literature as much as we have. This was pivotal in my disdain for television and keeping it out of my home. Possibly because of my guilt at being a working mom, we read to Ian from a wee lad at every opportunity. Ian has developed into a voracious reader and his room is strewn with books. My mother regularly sends him books on a range of topics. He is currently reading Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. My deepest regret in parenting is not spending more time reading with my daughter in these same early years. I’m not sure if it’s her dyslexia or her get it done approach to life, but she does not readily turn to the printed page as the rest of us do.
Many of the names I gave my early pieces emerged from literature as I mentioned above. I believe that great literature conveys truth and beauty, two strong values I pursue. I have creatively arranged my studio area in the shop, surround by princess-like thin netting (to keep out the birds), kraft brown paper, old books, and objects of beauty. I like to remind myself of days gone by of ink, old papers, leather, and heirlooms.
LES: Does creating from your studio at home help the flow of your work and family or does that pose a tension that you try to resolve?
MCM: Because I am a stay at home mom now, after years of working in the secular field, I value the privilege of being allowed this luxury. I enjoy my home very much. We have created it as a place of warmth and beauty with art work from family artists, carefully chosen pieces of furniture, and lighting. Working from my studio in the context of my home is a pleasure. My tension is making sure I place my family first. It’s important for my husband to have regular well-planned meals, a clean and orderly home, and to see me on top of my children’s education. I tend to be a workaholic so must make myself attend to these priorities first. There are particularly busy seasons when he’ll jump in to free me up, but we know they are seasons, and my first call is the home. I’m not sure I’d like a studio anywhere else as I like the ability to flow back and forth between the two.
LES: Much like every artist and craftsman I know, Mary, you are working in less than easy and ideal conditions. What are some of the obstacles to your creative work and how do you manage to create anyway?
MCM: I honestly think the best art is produced under adverse circumstances at times. I appreciate the opportunity I have been given for this season and am thrilled that God has allowed me to contribute to our family in some small ways. We are planning on allowing the children to attend a charter school next year in the area–one of a fine reputation, stellar teachers, small classrooms, and strong academic approach. This will free me up tremendously. I’ll be able to schedule my studio time while they’re in class and be free every afternoon to pick them up, cook, and “be” with the family, a value my husband appreciates. Seasonally, I also find that I am visionless. In those dark hours, I am still, fulfill orders, and just wait. I meander through magazines, places of beauty, and in time inspiration follows.
A significant obstacle is that in order to continue creating I have to make sales. I am not a sales person. It has been a tremendous hurdle to overcome and engage. I do not like the business aspect of running a business and wish people would just show up to buy! I’ve had to overcome this hesitation and learn how to run a business, take me own disdain for pushing sales persons, and cautiously make my produce available without any sales pressure.
LES: Given the difficulty of an ongoing illness, what do you see God doing in that condition and how would you say He has worked in you through it?
MCM: As I shared above, we were shocked to find out the fall of 2010 that I had MS. I’ve always been healthy. We didn’t see it coming. Oh, the grace of God. I like to take a natural approach, so immediately began researching alternative approaches to treating MS so that by the time I met with my neurologist, and he gave me the final diagnosis, I was prepared. After rendering the diagnosis, his first words were, “now, let’s talk about the drugs you can take” and seemed a bit taken back that I wanted to first try a natural approach. Right about this time, Dr. Terry Wahls, published her book, The Wahls Protocol, detailing her battle with severe MS–she was so disabled by the disease she had to be in a tilt-reclined wheelchair— and her full recovery with a nutritional ketogenic Paleo diet. I devoured the book and immediately began with a seven-day water only fast, a cleansing I had been raised on by my father. From here, I began her diet, starting on the second level. As I walked out this recovery journey, my left hand began to come back. I had been making jewelry with my right hand, and at times, my teeth. I was so thankful. Then, I had a relapse which hit my right leg. It was discouraging. Our budget was simply too lean to afford all the foods she recommended. I don’t care for liver so bought desiccated liver pills to take in these important nutrients. I read more and more, and started drinking and making my own kombucha teas. The MS affected my memory, too; I would blank on directions, commitments, even names and procedures. By now, the one year of paid-for insurance had waned and we simply didn’t have the $500/month to continue. I wasn’t terribly worried as I felt the doctors only knew drugs. My neurologist informed me he knew nothing about diet; just drugs. My skepticism in the medical community increased.
I had to learn to manage my time effectively. I had been rising at 5 in the morning to exercise and backed it up to 4. I needed Jesus time first. I’d be with Jesus, head to the gym at 5:15, come home by 7, then make breakfast and get the kids started in school. From here, I’d be able to work a bit in the studio, or have work on a tray adjacent to the school table (dining room table), while they worked through lessons. Afternoon naps, then a repetition of more school and/or house cleaning, dinner, and family time.
Through it all, I have learned grace. I have always been a just-get-over-it kind of person and I doubt anyone would have ascribed mercy as one of my attributes. I discovered personally how illness slows one down, affects communication, and also causes one to priority those things of greatest importance. I have experienced tremendous grace from my husband as I had to limit my church involvement and we both realized I couldn’t manage areas of ministry. He has never once thrown up my disabilities as ruining our family. We allowed other ladies at the church to lead women’s ministries while I supported. And it was okay. Our children have also learned to step up and help. They undertake all of the house cleaning now. We operate as a family better than I could have imagined.
And yes, we all pray for healing. I don’t for one minute believe God “gave” me MS, but it’s a natural consequent of the disease of a fallen world. I had been living on Ibuprofen for headaches and I believe it lead to a gut-barrier crossing. It has been a slow journey and I am pulling out of another relapse. I think I became cross contaminated with all of my holiday baking. The nerves to my left leg were severely damaged so that when I walk my leg simply collapses. This past week I’ve been able to stay on the strictest level of Dr. Wahls’ diet again, and am taking an essential oil blend my husband prepared with his Doterra oils, and am seeing great progress. The fatigue is lifting and my leg is gaining strength. I told him this morning that at the YMCA I walked 15 minutes on the treadmill, still holding on, but last week it was three, before my leg began dragging. I do believe the day will come when I am fully healed.
LES: How does that illness affect the way you create and why you do? Helped or hindered? Inspired or stifled? How would your creative life be different if that were not an element to your daily living?
MCM: In my healing journey I discovered the inspirational theology of the old hymns. I have always listened to music when I create, but found great comfort in the hymns. The year before last I ventured into trying my hand at hand stamping metal discs. It was wildly successful. I am convinced my illness lead me in this direction. It has also made me a much more compassionate person. I’ve been lead to give away numerous pieces over the years as the Spirit directs.
LES: What are your great joys in creating jewelry? Any particular frustrations? Do you have some favourite creations?
MCM: In the process of hand stamping, and listening to these hymns, I was struck with the profound declaration: It is Well with My Soul. I knew that no matter what was happening to my body, our family finances, my mental capacity, or even my children pushing boundaries as they grew into teenagers that it is truly well with my Soul. I was inspired one day to stamp this on a disc and turn it into a pendant necklace. And wouldn’t you know, it struck a cord with other women, too. I’ve been lead to give away pieces and carry one in my purse should I need it. I see it as a ministry of home and courage. It is my prayer that as people see my health journey, and my confidence in Christ Alone, that they, too, will be encouraged to give praise and not settle for victimhood. I never wanted my children to see their mother as a victim, but as a victor in all circumstances by the grace of God.
In the process of working with jewelry I fell in love with turquoise and pearls. One of my most favorite of pieces I named Wind in the Willows after Kenneth Graham’s well-known tale. I worked in turquoise, pearls and carved bits of wood.
I discovered wire wrapping as a technique a few years into designing. Love. I have so enjoyed hand antiquing wire, wrapping beads, and seeing what emerges. I am not a natural perfectionist, but enjoy the baroque nature of various pearls and gemstones—each one tells a story, just like my freckles and wrinkles, and now, gray hair, lead to my adventures.
LES: What are things in life that make you feel whole, that give you a sense of hope and purpose?
MCM: I believe I come alive when I worship. I’m not much of a singer, just ask my children, but find great joy in worshipping. I find great purpose serving, too. It brings me great pleasure to cook a fine dinner and serve, to see people enjoy their meal and feel satisfied. My dream is to have a larger house, with a spacious yard and dining area, and minister out of our home.
LES: What gives you courage?
MCM: The cross and blood of Christ give me great courage. I have never been a fearful person. I wasn’t even scared or fearful when I was diagnosed with MS. I accepted the diagnosis and went to work doing what I knew to do to heal. I’ve traveled around the world and wasn’t afraid. But I have encountered some very dark people and moments when I cried out for the blood of Christ. It never fails.
As part of the church planting process, my husband’s last day as pastor of Narratives Church, the church we planted eight years ago, was December 31st. We are in a waiting period with God’s words being, Be Still. Oh, how painfully challenging as we see our finances slipping away and wondering “what” is ahead of us. But we serve a glorious God. We have been reminded that HE is our source; not our paycheck, not my business, not revenue from any other stream. And he has never failed us over the years. Looking back, as little money as my husband was paid, it’s a miracle we made it these past few years. But look at the glorious provision of our God. We had no insurance, yet no one was catastrophically sick, or injured, or in need of these services. Out of the blue I’d get sizable orders in the perfect timing to meet financial needs. I manage our finances and at times needed courage to believe beyond numbers. God never failed us.
LES: In this next season of your life where would you like to see Magpie grow? What are your hopes for it as an enterprise and for you as a creative entrepreneur?
MCM: Since leaving the church, Mark has released me to devote more time to Magpie, and knowing the children will be in a charter school in the fall, I know I will be able to handle growth. In December I joined Christian Women’s Entrepreneurial Network, CWEN, which was begun by a woman here in San Diego. What a blessing. They truly put Christ first and discuss building relationships Before business. I have learned so much from these women about how to market one’s business, create online ads for Instagram and Facebook, and get out of my rut. I am told routinely that my jewelry is beautiful but for whatever reason I just haven’t been able to reach a larger audience. I’m praying this may open doors. I do not know what direction God has for us next regarding my husband but he’s wrapping up his doctoral degree, final chapters of dissertation, in Leadership Development at Bethel Seminary. Our passion has always been raising up emerging leaders, investing in them and their future. I envision a large house, with space for people to live with us, and learn in community. We have six more years of children in our home, so that will also be a new road. I am also asking God to create studio space for me in this home—a place to create and minister. As recently as this afternoon, a Magpie lover popped by to pick up jewelry and stayed for two hours pouring out her heart to me about her dying mother, disengaged husband, and distant best friend. I was able to listen and encourage. I know God lead me to seminary for a reason and the counseling degree taught me to listen and give wise counsel. I see Magpie as a ministry.
LES: Given all that you have learned through the years of doing this and all that you have had to overcome and push through, why do you still do it? What is your compelling reason for creating beauty this way?
MCM: Magpie is my door to reaching women, to hearing their stories, and to bring beauty into their lives and the world. As wrote Keats, Beauty is truth, truth beauty —that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” I see the two intertwined. I’ve had a life-long passion for truth and justice. And I passionately love beauty. If by making jewelry, an endeavor I once considered trivial and beneath my years of education, I can bring beauty into our divisive and increasingly ugly world, I am making a difference. Beauty can inspire, can bring hope, can lift our eyes to Jesus, the most beautiful person I know, not necessarily in visage, but in his great love for us.
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Happy reading, practicing, and shopping, friends!
May your blessings be many and your days fruitful and full of beauty.
Lancia E. Smith is an author, photographer, teacher, and business owner. A grateful lover of the Triune God, Lancia is the Founder & Executive Director of Cultivating & The Cultivating Project. She has served in executive management, church leadership, boards, and Art & Faith organizations over 30 years. She & her husband Peter have parented 7 children, & have a flock of beloved grandchildren. Lancia loves garden and website design, beautiful typography, road trips, being read aloud to by Peter, & cherishes every book she ever read by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald.