One cannot really speak of Gogo’s work without discussing Cumberland’s history, natural beauty, and the cultural remains it holds. Cumberland is 40 square miles which is not a bad size for paradise. For thousands of years this area and coastal Georgia was inhabited by indigenous people. It was first the Timucua Indians that lived on Cumberland, and they left their mark. There was a Spanish mission in the 1600s, Oglethorpe’s two forts erected in the 1730s, the Greene family, the Stafford plantation, descendants of freed slaves, and the Carnegies. Now, a person could write a book on Cumberland, and in fact many people have done so.
Gogo is a direct descendant of Thomas Carnegie and granddaughter Lucy Ferguson, daughter of Margaret. Janet, aka Gogo, has quite a knack for finding fossils, like shark teeth and an eye unearthing interesting natural remains of all kind. Not to mention her interest in the Native American history of the island. She caught my attention, as someone who understand and appreciates nature. Her interests align with my anthropology and archaeological experience, but I was also drawn to her because of my jewelry obsession. With her work coming in different finishes or metals, the price points vary, allowing for one to buy multiples in silver or to focus on the 14k pieces depending on your style.
Her work is really an extension of earth and all of its treasures, what it leaves behind, what it can teach us, the beauty of life and death. Like glittering glamorous fossils, her jewelry catches the eye without trying to hard. My favorite pieces include her cast metal boars tusk necklaces and the rattlesnake rings. Delicate, yet tough at the same time…..her work is not restricted to jewelry. I’d love to have one of her seaweed sculptures hung on my wall. Yes, she dabbles in sculpture and décor.
I personally discovered the island when I was living in Atlanta about 10 years ago and have been going about once a year since. At heart, I am a country girl who enjoys wildlife, nature, and the peace the island gives me. I relate to what many of the people drawn to Cumberland see, pure nature and history coexisting. You either love it or it’s not your cup of tea. You have two options in terms of staying on the island, take the national park service ferry over and camp out or stay at the historic Greyfield Inn, still owned by the Carnegies. There are a few private land holds, but nothing public. What you find there are wild beach trails, clean sand, and so much space for just an “island”. I did not stay at the Inn (which Lucy opened officially in the 1960s) until last year on my birthday when I met the talented Gogo. Her work is truly art, not just jewelry but an extension of her place in nature and Cumberland. Her line includes home goods, sculpture, and jewelry. Mikhail Baryshnikov photographed on Cumberland’s beach by Annie Leibovitz in 1990 with Rob Besserer….explains his first experience with the island and Gogo:
“Like many, my first experience of Cumberland Island was a field trip of sorts. I wanted to see the wild horses that famously roam its dunes-relics, like so many things on Cumberland, of past attempts at domestication. What I didn’t expect was the mystery, the majesty, and the simple raw beauty of the place.
I don’t exactly remember when my encounters with Cumberland led to meeting Gogo, but at least thirty years ago, when she welcomed me into her modest house with a bright smile and the offer of an oyster roast, it was clear that she and Cumberland were two parts of an organic whole (Gogo Nature Transformed, Introduction 11).
Her work has garnered lots of press, celebrity wearers, magazine articles, and even her own exhibit at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. She grew up enjoying summers on the island and spending time with her ecologically minded grandmother Lucy, before finally returning to live there in the 1979, as a single mother. Her work slowly evolved when she began making pieces for guests at the inn and looking back to her roots and the island. Her 1989 spread in People magazine, helped propel her work forward. She designed the wedding rings for Carolyn Bessette and John in 1996.
What is your educational background and how do you use it in your life today?
I went to high school in Providence and art school in Massachusetts.
Favorite piece you ever designed or made?
That’s hard to say… each new piece I design becomes my favorite. But if I had to choose one for sentimental reasons it would be my logo which is made of rattlesnake rib bones and vertebrae. It was one of the first pieces I ever created and cast it into gold and silver. It symbolizes 30 years of blood, sweat and tears!
Describe your process from start to finish.
My process is to be out in nature and walk the shore line after the tide comes in or after a storm and search for new inspiration. The design process is constantly running through my head. Every six hours, the tideline deposits new inspirations for me to discover. I’ll take it back to my studio and sometimes look at it for up to a year until I get a creative flash of what to do with it. The colors and patterns in nature are what are really mind boggling to me. They all have a purpose and I feel my place is to transform that into wearable art or something fabulous for the home.
What are your first memories of Cumberland?
Being a young child with my grandmother on the island – we constantly went clamming, horseback riding, and exploring the island. I learned from her about the land and how the magical process of nature worked on it.
Why do you think you feel so connected and inspired by it in terms of your work?
Seven generations of my family have lived on the island – it’s literally in my blood and I consider it the soul of my family. It is my sense of place on this earth and I feel very fortunate to call it home.
What other places have inspired your jewelry line?
Anywhere I travel — I was recently walking down the street in Martha’s Vineyard and saw a beautiful skeleton of a leaf on the ground. I now have it taped to my kitchen window where it will stay until I decide how I want to incorporate it into a design. I don’t have to be in an exotic location to be inspired… as long as there is raw nature to see and study.
How would you describe Lucy’s role in your work or understanding of the island?
Lucy was an original naturalist. She taught me everything about the intricacies of the island and to respect it and always learn from it. She had a keen sense of her surroundings — she was deaf at an early age so her sense of nature was far more attuned than most peoples. She handed that wisdom down to us.
What piece do you wear from your jewelry line?
Everything! I am always wearing multiple pieces everywhere I go. I’m currently wearing a new arrowhead opera-length necklace, dolphin disc necklace, rattlesnake rib bone earrings, sea urchin ring, rattle snake multi rib cuff, and a spiny murex conch cuff. I think that’s the great thing about my line…they are all statement pieces, but they all complement each other very well.
Do you feel your jewelry or home decor is art or sculpture?
Art — that is my goal — to design pieces that are wearable art or functional art for the home that then inspire the owner and those around them who see it.
Your work is now made in the artist community in San Miguel de Allende, please describe your relationship to them and Mexico city?
I started going to SMA in the late 60s through an artist program with the Rhode Island School of Design. I fell in love with San Miguel, its architecture and the culture. I have been going back ever since and now own a home there. I work closely with a local artist named Julio Miguel who I take my inspirations to and work with him on transforming them into designs. I’ve brought him to Cumberland so he could see the island firsthand and understand my source of inspiration. I have great respect for Julio and his creative talents.
Describe your work with Nicole Miller if possible?
Nicole is a dear old friend of mine who often hosts shows for me in NYC. She also designed a beautiful silk custom-made scarf with a map of Cumberland Island on it to commemorate my High Museum exhibit in Atlanta. We still have them in stock and they serve as a great souvenir of Cumberland.
Do horses at all inspire your work or design, experiencing them riding with Lucy and then as they are now on the island daily? Yes, the horses have been on the island since the1500s. They’ve acclimated beautifully to the island and I love that we all live symbiotically.
What is your work day like? I understand you typically “work” and “hunt” during the fall and winter or early spring?
I explore and hike year round, but when I’m on Cumberland I love to walk the tideline to see what has washed up, especially after a big storm comes. I find sharks teeth, shark vertebrae and other natural treasures.
Speaking of home, I have seen inside of your house and the decor is pretty fabulous, as is the history of the home’s construction. Can you speak about it a bit and how you decorate?
Thank you. I always incorporate nature into my home. Deer antlers become towel racks, shark vertebrae become door pulls. Driftwood becomes center pieces for the table. My husband Dave and I designed the house and built most of out of reclaimed items from old carriage houses and barns on the island.
Is it fair to say you have a gift for finding artifacts and fossils as well as the bones you use in your work? Is this something that you have worked at?
I think I have a natural eye for seeing unusual things in nature and I have reinforced it over the years.
What is your most current line and is there a new piece or commission you are currently designing? I created a line of pearl designs to mark my 30th year in business this year that have been very popular. I also just finalized an arrowhead pendant that comes in gold-plated, rhodium, and brass. This one is great because both women and men can wear it.
Are you experimenting with any new materials or ventures? The above-mentioned arrowheads are all made of new materials.
What piece of jewelry can you not live without?
Raccoon penis bones! I make earrings, bracelets and necklaces out them and they are the best conversation starter ever.
Do you have any books you would recommend for those discovering Cumberland for the first time? There are great photography coffee table books by my cousin, Mary Bullard. I would love to do one of my own, to showcase the island through my eyes.
What is your trunk show agenda like, how can people interested in your work see it off of the island. I know you spend time in Martha’s Vineyard? We are on the road frequently for shows, and I love to do speaking engagements. I have my summer shop on Martha’s Vineyard in Vineyard Haven that is open through September. My shop on Cumberland is open year-round, and we have a permanent store on Saint Simons Island. We have wholesale accounts in Atlanta, Charleston, Fernandina Beach, and Memphis, and of course the website is always open for business!
Describe how your jewelry has evolved from the very first pieces to now?
I have never try to deviate from natures designs, however over the years I have begun to combine precious stones to some of my beads. I have evolved in growing my line into homewares, serving spoons of New England sea clams, cockle shells, oyster and mussel servers, candle holders of seed pods, sea urchins and votives of Maine sea kelp. I am always transforming in my mind the treasures i have found on the tideline or in the forests to some wearable of functional piece, it is how I look at my surroundings.
I know your daughter was involved in your business, has continued?
My daughter Hannah remains as creative as ever and even though her priority immediately is raising her precious son Ronan Zephyr Carnegie Thomas, she has started her own line in England where she now lives. One of her designs was auctioned at the Princess Trust for the largest amount in the auction. I am so proud of her and know that she will soar, she is so very creative.
What do you hope your legacy will be and the future of your brand?
My desire is for my designs to be considered art, that my clients become collectors and understand and appreciate the beauty and perfection of natures designs.
Gogo Nature Transformed. Sarah Schleuning. High Museum of Art.
Cumberland Island (GA) (Images of America)Jun 9, 2004
Wild Horses of Cumberland Island – Pre order… November 30, 2017
Cumberland Island: Strong Women, Wild Horses. June, 2004
- All photography unless otherwise stated, taken by Sara Brandon the author, rights reserved Sarara Couture. Images of jewelry displayed reflect her original and personal shop/home experience on Cumberland.