Neenel Kharb’s jewelry puts pieces of the city and the sea in new Hands
When Plato famously declared that necessity is the mother of invention, he probably should have added another corollary: for some people, boredom can be the mother of creativity. At least that was the case for local jewelry designer Neenel Kharb, who first started creating her unique pieces, which are made almost entirely from found natural objects, because she really, really needed something to do. “I was living in this little A-frame hut at a permaculture site,” she recalls. This was while Kharb was earning her B.A. in the Community Studies program at UC Santa Cruz, where she focused especially on food, agriculture, and social justice. But while her stint in Marin helped teach her volumes about organic farming, it wasn’t exactly the most exciting time for her socially. “There’s nothing to do,” she says bluntly. “It was a totally desolate place.” What there was, however, was nature and solitude in abundance. “There were a lot of bird feathers everywhere, and these beautiful pine cones that would fall and look like roses. So I had all of this free time and all this access to nature. I would sit in this hut in the middle of the night and craft and experiment. This is what came out of that.”
“This” is Kharb’s small but burgeoning jewelry design business, which she’s been cultivating ever since her graduation from UCSC nearly two years ago. Her work is currently on display at Idle Hands, a new clothing and accessories store on lower Pacific Avenue. She’s also a member of the Mira Art Collective, an online community of nearly 40 Santa Cruz-based artists; members post photos of their work, swap comments and critiques of each other’s newest pieces, and trade links on upcoming shows and other work that inspires them. Kharb recently added photos of her newest venture. “The collection I made now is called ‘Tsiegnka,’” she says, “Russian for Gypsy. It’s a mix of fabrics, feathers, and pine cones, all sorts of different textures, colors, and patterns.” She also uses bits of shell, leather scraps, wood and stone to make her pieces; she collects her raw materials during rambling walks by the ocean or in the forest. But her process is hardly planned or methodical: “I’m not like, ‘I need to find all these things to hoard from the forest,’” she explains. “I’m on an adventure, and if I find something beautiful that I like that I can use to make something, then I will. I like experimenting, just sitting and playing with different pieces and textures and seeing how I can combine them and create something.”
“I love crafting and working with my hands,” she continues. “I’ve been doing that ever since I remember.” But while her current work focuses heavily on influences from the natural world, her background was very different. Kharb grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants. At 19, she started working with an L.A.-based clothing line; at one time, she thought she would study fashion design, or leave school entirely to go into business for herself. “But instead I chose to get my Bbachelor’s and move to Santa Cruz,” she says. “I wanted to focus on food and activism, my other passions.” Her work, she believes, is reflective of the contradictions between the environment she was raised in, and the influences she embraced in coming here: “In creating this jewelry, I combine two worlds—the urban L.A. lifestyle I grew up in, and then all of the natural beauty of this area,” Kharb explains. “I take pine cones out of their natural context and give them an urban edge,” she adds, laughing.
As a self-taught artist who is largely making a name for her work online, Kharb joins a burgeoning movement of young craftspeople who are using the Internet to bring their pieces directly to potential customers. She values the Mira Art Collective, as well as sites like Etsy, where she’s also a member, for their ability to show people the process and meaning behind a particular piece. She believes it’s one way for smaller local artists to distinguish themselves from mass-produced products. “If you’re making something like jewelry or T-shirts locally, then there are big corporations that can reproduce and sell that same image for way cheaper, sometimes even in the same store,” she says. But the motivations are different: “A lot of artists selling at a local, smaller scale primarily want to share their work with the community,” she explains, “and it becomes more difficult when there are products made in China that look almost exactly alike and cost half the price. But with the local piece, someone spent all this time on it creatively.” For Kharb, the decision to stay local is only natural.
Idle Hands is located at 805 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. For hours call 466-9305. Visit the Mira Art Collective online at miraart.ning.com. Neenel Kharb’s work can also be found at etsy.com.