A conversation with Georgia artist Gogo Ferguson

The jewelry maker gets a High Museum exhibit

Three decades ago at her downtown Atlanta loft, Georgia artist Janet “Gogo” Ferguson first unveiled the nature-inspired pieces for what would become an internationally acclaimed, multi-million dollar jewelry business. As a descendant of Thomas Carnegie who bought Georgia’s Cumberland Island in the late 19th century, the granddaughter of Lucy Ferguson spent much of her childhood growing up on coastal Georgia. Today as a year-round resident on Cumberland, Ferguson operates her Gogo Jewelry business and an artist studio there. 

 In 1996, her name ricocheted around the world when she designed the wedding rings for her old friend John F. Kennedy Jr. and his bride Carolyn Bessette. In June 2004 during the 30th G8 Summit, first lady Laura Bush brought Russian president Vladimir Putin‘s wife Lyudmila into Ferguson’s shop where she promptly purchased nature-inspired earrings for all the wives of the visiting dignitaries. “It was thrilling,” Ferguson reflects. 

 On the eve of the first-ever museum exhibition of her work, Ferguson sat down with Atlanta magazine for a fascinating exclusive chat about her life on Cumberland, her work, the scarf she collaborated on for the High with designer Nicole Miller and the art of teaching ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov (who, incidentally, also contributes the introduction for the High Museum Gogo exhibition catalog) how to search for a raccoon penis bone.

 Q: Thirty years ago in Atlanta, your jewelry started out under glass at Rich’s. In 2013, it’s under glass at the High Museum of Art. As an artist, does it feel like you’ve come full circle with this first museum exhibition of your work happening back in Atlanta?

 A: You know too much! (laughs). This is just incredible. It’s the ultimate honor, especially because I love Georgia so much and to be recognized in this way by the High is huge. [High Museum of Art Director] Michael Shapiro has been coming to Cumberland for years and he’s watched me grow, expand and evolve. 

 Q: How did this exhibition originate?

 A: I was sitting by the fire with Michael and his wife Lisa down on Cumberland. And he just said, “Gogo, I think it’s time.” A few years ago we did “An Evening with Gogo at the High” and that was so successful, it jolted us. We sold $40,000 or $50,000 worth of jewelry in an hour or so. Four hundred people came, the governor came. I think this was something that had been in the back of Michael’s mind for a while. When he asked about doing this, it was a really good time for me. I felt strong and creative and here we are.

 Q: Going back to the 1980s, where did those first pieces come from?

 A: Walking the beach on Cumberland. It’s just luck. But you have to walk to find these things. Rattlesnake ribs and vertebrae turned out to be my logo. Walking the beach is my yoga. I adore it. My meditation is to walk the beach. I often find the full white bleached skeleton of something out there. It’s just time, patience and lots of walking. Once you get those things, you’re in business.

 Q: What’s the most difficult thing to find out there on the beach?

 A: Probably a male raccoon penis bone (laughs). I had Mikhail Baryshnikov and his wife in the bushes over Christmas bushwhacking! Mikhail said, “Gogo, look! White raccoon bones!” I shouted over, “Look for the penis!” The next thing I know, everyone is digging around, looking for a raccoon penis bone!

 Q: Thirty years ago when you first began selling your nature-inspired pieces here in Atlanta, how difficult was it? Did people get it right away or was there some education involved?

 A: Rich’s got it, for sure. But typically, I don’t sell in large department stores because, with my jewelry, you have to tell the whole story. It doesn’t work thrown in with other semi-precious jewelry and stones. It doesn’t make sense to people. They have to see the whole collection. They have to understand nature, that story has to be told and my life on Cumberland Island, and all that. Department stores are hard. Boutiques, where the entire collection can be shown in a specially designed case for each store, works best. Now on Cumberland, it was a totally different story. I’ve always had a studio there and a store there. People who come to Cumberland always want to take a piece of Cumberland home with them. Plus, we were always adorning ourselves with jewelry growing up there. The kids, my grandmother, all of us would find a skeleton and make earrings or whatever out of it. The people there get it immediately. It was an instant market and an easy sell.

 Q: You started out using this ancient wax process to achieve molds for your work. Now, you’re using 3D imaging. I find that transition fascinating but I don’t know anything about it. 

 A: I don’t either and I use it! (laughs). That’s the amazing thing. I firmly believe in the lost wax casting process. The Egyptians used it. You just don’t lose any of the detail in what you’re casting that way. Most of our jewelry is still cast that way. But a 3D scanner is amazing for things like a bird skull and duck skulls, things like that. It can carve inside and go inside for that detail. For intricate designs, it comes in handy.

 Q: For the exhibition, you’ve created two new pieces exclusively for the High. You’ve created a six foot by eight foot lacquered nickel wall sculpture inspired by New England seaweed?

 A: It might actually be six by nine now! (laughs). I think I stretched it a little bit. Anybody from New England will look at this and say, “Oh my God, I remember that stuff!” It hung off the rocks and we used to pop the pods. Over the last few years, I’ve become fascinated with seaweed. I have a lattice seaweed cuff bracelet. I just traveled through the San Juan Islands [in Washington] and up into Victoria looking for seaweed. Of course, I didn’t realize the seaweed there is 75 feet long. It didn’t work quite as well but the New England seaweeds are just absolutely breathtaking. I just thought a giant metal seaweed wall would be perfect for this exhibition. My metalsmith in Mexico just rolls his eyes whenever I come in with a fresh chunk of seaweed!

 Q: For this show, you’ve also created an ostrich leather sea urchin ottoman. Walk us through that creative process.

 A: I just thought how wonderful would it be to have a sea urchin in your living room to sit on! (laughs). It’s eclectic but then again so is my house in Cumberland. We’re actually going to make the sea urchin ottomans available for sale through my home furnishings line.

 Q: What are your plans for the seaweed wall after the High exhibition?

 A: I don’t know yet. I would love to see it hanging at the Trust Company Bank or somewhere. It’s not going to fit inside my house.  

 Q: So, you’re looking for a good home for it?

 A: I’m looking for a really good home for it here in Atlanta. It’s available!

 Q: You’ve also installed a massive humpback whale bone mobile for this show?

 A: I got permission, an educational permit to do this incredible mobile my husband created out of whale bones. It’s just phenomenal. Aside from a few pieces of my early jewelry, it’s the only real bones in the exhibition. I wanted to bring a horse we have that is completely re-articulated. I found it last Christmas while hiking, lying behind the dunes, completely sun bleached. It was in a lying position and everything had just disappeared except for the bones. Even the tailbone was in still in place. We just loaded it in the truck and wired and re-articulated it and now it’s at a trot on our back deck! I just thought, “How much fun would it be to bring it just for the opening.” But the High was like, “Eh, we don’t think so.” (laughs). I wanted it running down the bridge to the exhibition’s opening which we’ve created to look like the trees on Cumberland. 

 Q: You also collaborated with your fashion designer friend Nicole Miller to create an original scarf for the show?

 A: I was envisioning this leopard crab print and I sent her images of it and she said, “Gogo, it looks like a leopard.” I said, “That’s because it’s a leopard crab!” (laughs). And so she said, “How about this?” and sent along this design that had armadillos everywhere. And then she asked, “Do you have a map of Cumberland?” I remembered this beautiful book plate the Carnegies had designed for all of their libraries. It’s a book plate my grandparents did, a map of Cumberland Island. And Nicole did a wonderful job of creating this quirky and wonderful scarf for us.

 Q: In 1996, your work was put on the international map when you designed the wedding rings for John F. Kennedy Jr.‘s very private wedding to Carolyn Bessette on Cumberland Island. After their 1999 deaths in the plane crash, did you ever learn the fate of those rings?

 A: No. I imagine they’re with them. It was so tragic. I had known John for 20-some-odd years. He had searched around the world for a private place for them to be married. He didn’t ask me about Cumberland until he couldn’t find another place. It took us maybe six or eight weeks to get the entire wedding organized. The rings were really beautiful. They were a rattlesnake rib and said “JFK, Cumberland Island” and had the date engraved on it. 

 Q: I’ve always wanted to ask you this: In your line, you have a special order only, $10,000 necklace made from a series of rattlesnake jaw bones. I’m hoping the rattlesnake was long gone before you ever created a cast for this piece?

 A: When you find a six-foot long skeleton of a snake along the sand dunes, you immediately begin looking for the two jawbones. Once I have those, we make a mold and then I can cast as many as I want.

 Q: Have you ever seen a six-foot rattlesnake on Cumberland when it wasn’t a sun bleached carcass?

 A: Oh, yes, I have, and I have great respect for them. Their territory is theirs and my territory is mine. If they get into my territory, watch out! I can be as viperous as they are. I remember my daughter Hannah running out to the outside shower when she was a tiny girl. I followed her out and looked down and there was a snake coiled right there. Let’s just say there was no snake there five minutes later.

 Q: How did you get Hannah out of harm’s way that day?

 A: I didn’t say a word. I let her go on down to the shower and when she was out of sight, I got rid of the snake very quickly. With a huge cement block. 

 Q: One of your quotes the High is using in the press materials for “Gogo: Nature Transformed” discusses the benefits of simple living. You say, “You can’t improve on nature’s designs.” In this wired age of ours with these vibrating boxes in our pockets, what secrets of living can you pass along from your life on Cumberland Island to the rest of us?

 A: Easy. Come to Cumberland and let me walk you down the beach. Walk down the tideline. It’s the biggest gift of living on Cumberland. The solitude and discovering how to be happy on your own. It just opens up your creativity. As much as I need my phone and my texts and all that, I also need to get out and see my surroundings. Whether it’s a park here in the city or the beach on Cumberland, take that time to listen to your surroundings. Walking the tideline and touching shells and the water can completely transform you. It’s very important to do.

 “Gogo: Nature Transformed” opens January 19 and runs through July 7 at the High Museum of Art. Visit the High’s website for details. 

 Instagram images by Rich Eldredge