We’re back with another installment of Forces of Nature, this time featuring jewelry designer Anna Kikue Levenson of Anna Kikue. Anna recounts growing up in rural California, plotting a winding path from law to finding her passion in jewelry, and explains a motto that anchors her: “Things of quality have no fear of time.”
How do you connect to nature? What was a specific moment that reminded you that you are part of the natural world?
Growing up in rural northern California, nature was an implicit part of my daily experience, so I didn’t really think about how it made me feel. Now, having lived in a massive city my entire adulthood has made me notice this contrast whenever I am in nature; something inside of me becomes enlivened. I gotta get out and be around something that's much bigger than me, or whatever is right in front of me.
The COVID-19 pandemic and quarantining inside my tiny Brooklyn apartment drove home for me how important it is to be close to nature and to access this perspective shift. I left New York in July 2021 and came out to see my parents in California for the first time since before the pandemic. The thing that struck me the most there was the silence, and then the different kinds of ambient noise–cicadas or crickets or birds or tree branches or rustling leaves–compared to the constant loudness of the city, specifically where I was living.
I started to register the increasing effect that these two auditory experiences have on me, and in general, the transformative impact on my mental and emotional health and my creativity. It seems obvious, but it actually hit me in a profound way where I was like, oh damn, I have to prioritize being closer to green and being closer to nature, otherwise I don't feel right, like I don't feel whole. It was then that I decided to drive across the country and move back to California.
From a creative standpoint, translating inspiration from the natural world into my designs and different mediums has also become more intriguing and reflective of the stories or feelings I try to communicate through my work. A lot of the designs I’ve been working on for my latest jewelry collection will feature amorphous and organic shapes and forms, which I now have a stronger aesthetic appreciation for. It’s less linear and predictable, whereas a lot of my earlier work has been almost architectural–reflecting so much of the cityscape I was energized by. I enjoy harmonizing both of those aspects in my designs–just as I love to have access to both city and nature.
How do you find balance between the multitude of things that you do? Is there a universal theme underneath it all?
Nearly four years into working as an independent jewelry designer, expanding my craft, running my own business, and actively cultivating a bigger creative vision is still a balancing act. I’d say the most prevalent theme is honoring my curiosity, not being afraid to try new things, and knowing when to lean on my community for support.
I came into this work later in life and have an unconventional design background. I’d always loved fashion and worked at a boutique while in school, but after graduating from college in 2009 at the height of the Great Recession, I started my career working at a law firm in Tokyo, then fell into marketing when I got to NY. For the longest time, I struggled with the compounding feeling that my values weren’t in alignment with my work and my creative potential was untapped. It felt damaging and soulless, and was a complete byproduct of being socialized to equate a very linear path with my self-worth and success.
I finally mustered up the courage to take a leap of faith, quit my job, traveled, and started regularly working with my sister Eda on Lady Fancy Nails, her nail art brand. It was during this period of transformation that I became like a creative sponge and started to confront all sorts of fears around experimenting with my own art. I more seriously picked up jewelry making and metalsmithing as a hobby. Quickly after, without me even realizing, it turned into a portal to something much more than that.
No doubt, it can be extremely tough to have to be so self-directed sometimes. I also recognize that my path has taken immense privilege, and also straight up foolishness, including risky decisions where I’ve just ripped the band-aid off with no safety net (please, whoever is reading this, don’t do that!). But no matter how long it takes, I'm committed to the difficult praxis of capacity building, overcoming fears of experimenting, and nurturing a keener sense of self to help translate whatever obstacles that may arise into growth–humanistically, artistically, financially, all of it.
03. Tradition + Routine
What is a tradition you honor from your heritage? What is a new habit you're just starting, or sticking with this month?
I am a descendant of a long line of brave and eternal students on both sides of my family. In becoming a jewelry designer, I’ve almost unexpectedly followed the footsteps of my parents who are truly self-directed multihyphenates–my mom, who’s from a tiny village in Shikoku, Japan, is an incredibly creative and talented seamstress, cook, gardener, bookkeeper, and my dad, who's from Brooklyn, is a sociologist turned traditional Japanese bamboo flute maker and inventor. Somehow, they ended up in a tiny Northern Californian town during the Back-to-the-Land Movement and built their lives and communities there.
Looking back even further–to my grandparents and great-grandparents–I can see clearly how our intergenerational history of migration, homesteading, farming, artistry, and even survival, has shaped so much of my family’s approach to our lives. What I mean by this is that we are all very craft oriented and resourceful in our own right–there's also a sense of passionate, almost idiosyncratic, curiosity and autonomy that was passed down.
I'm constantly in a learning mode–trying to understand methods, tools, different mediums–and how to authentically stay connected to myself and other people along the way. I really do aspire to be like my parents in that sense–they are perpetually learning and innovating on how they take care of and create from the land, their business, and most importantly, their family and community, which literally spans several continents and life stages.
It takes a lot of self-motivation and focus on a daily basis to realize that, and since I’m still in the middle of a cross-country relocation, I’m learning what small things I need to fill up my cup nowadays. I’ve made a daily practice of sitting on my back porch for at least 15 minutes to enjoy my tea, stretch, meditate, or just zone out and sunbathe (this is new and I’m so inexplicably grateful to be able to do this). I’m also just starting to use the Pomodoro Technique to keep myself from task switching or getting distracted too much. I’ve been taking baths at night or whenever I’m cold or my nervous system needs a hard reset.
What's challenging you right now? How are you rising to meet the challenge?
What I'm challenged by now is first and foremost the kind of existential instability of living in a time of extreme loss, climate change, and social injustice, while finding my place and also contributing something of meaning to society. It's really hard for me to separate what's happening on this planet or in my personal life from my work. But I’m both trying to let things flow nonjudgmentally and be more deliberate about implementing the best possible conditions for surviving and thriving in these times, even if they are unfamiliar or evolving on what seems like a weekly basis.
After more than a decade in New York, I recently moved to LA–in large part to be closer to my parents and to nature, and to just slow down a little. I’m still transitioning to what often seems like a different country and I habitually have to remind myself that change is necessary, but I feel deeply grounded in this decision and am grateful for the ability to make this shift, which is in essence a homecoming. Since I’m still focused on nesting and getting set up in my space, I have a lot of furnishing and DIY projects all while fully operating and growing my business and planning for my next collection. It’s overwhelming and exciting all at once, and I’m very ready for this shift.
There’s a quote I think about a lot that goes, “Things of quality have no fear of time.” We put so much pressure on ourselves to overproduce and externalize everything, but you really have to follow your internal compass–whether that dictates how or where you spend your day, when you release your work, or who you spend your time with. I ended last year mourning the unexpected loss of a good friend in Germany and my uncle in Japan, which really punctuated an already growing sense of isolation and inexplicable grief unique to the last few years. It’s undeniably also added a lot of perspective to what I want to prioritize going forward and the importance of moving with purpose and ease when our time here is precious. In the face of so much loss and heartbreak, I’m really starting to grasp that every day is an opportunity to define the legacies that will trail us. That’s not something you can rush either–it’s about trying our best to live a life of kindness, connection, and virtue and making sure we’re honoring our dreams bit by bit.
What gets you moving everyday? Is it physical exercise, creative expression, social engagement? Tell us about your chosen method of being active.
I know this sounds nebulous, but I think what’s motivated me the most is meaning-making. Essentially, everything I just mentioned, and also offering something tangible to the world that I feel genuinely passionate about. My mission is to create objects that I know will impact other people by helping them to feel closer to themselves or more like themselves, or that same bond with another person. Even if it's on an external basis, jewelry is extremely personal. It’s identity, it’s armor, it’s symbolism–it's an immediate way for someone to communicate or affirm who they are or what they stand for. To be able to create that for people is a gift I don’t take lightly, especially when it can be worn every single day and passed down for generations.
The other thing that keeps me going is my community. Far and near, I am so proud and inspired by my friends and family. They give me so much hope and purpose–they are my beacons. Also matcha, lots of matcha.
What creative media are front of mind for you right now? What’s one work you’d share from your reading list, Netflix queue, etc.?
I finally caved and joined TikTok, which I’ve probably learned more from in two weeks than I have on Instagram in 900 years. I’ve definitely gravitated toward the ASMR sewing and art process videos, cooking and home DIY explainers, marine biology and history lessons, vintage/thrift styling clips, and of course, cat anarchy. Welcome to my brain!
TV is actually more of a group activity for me, but I’ve been watching a lot of basketball and I will be a lifelong fan of Bob’s Burgers and Tiny World on Apple TV. It’s amazing–it’s narrated by Paul Rudd. So wholesome and cute, which is basically my threshold these days.
I have not been reading physical books as much as I've been listening to audiobooks. Lately, the Ocean Vuong book, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. It is a really interesting story and brilliantly written, impactful piece on one of many Asian American experiences. Per my sisters’ recommendation, I’ve also been listening to “Everything is Alive,” a podcast of one on one interviews with inanimate objects. It’s hella good.
What's your favorite product of ours?
I’ve really healed my skin a lot the past few years and I love the facial cleanser for its deep clean without stripping my skin and the mineral sunscreen for spending time outdoors. And I can’t wait to try the toner!