From Grief to Beauty: Artist Nicki Lang's Journey to Becoming Found
Written by: Janel Davis | @janeldavis
FEATURED ARTIST: NICKI LANG
Nicki Lang is the artist and creator of Found Leather Goods. Each piece is hand cut and sewn one at a time in their studio in Bellingham Washington. Designs have always been inspired by functional beauty, reflecting vintage character and incorporate repurposed materials when possible.
"As long as we are creating, we're cultivating meaning."
-Dr. Brene Brown
Somehow the leather bag on her shoulder is a little bit like finding her dad by her side.
As a teenager, Nicki carried around a cross-body saddlebag stuffed full of bad poetry and gel pens. The bag had been picked up at a street market in Guatemala, an easy souvenir on a youth group mission trip.
She carried around this bag for years--a faithful companion on every journey--even to college. Then on one trip home from college, her dad noticed the dental floss holding pieces of it together. He said, "What's this?" pulling on a wayward string. "You need a new bag," he had said with a laugh. Her treasured find had become a tired old dog, but she still couldn't give it up. So he simply measured its dimensions, saying he'd keep an eye out for a new one.
After months of looking, he never quite found what he was looking for. So her Pastor Father became an Impromptu Maker for his daughter.
But that was really no surprise; he was always stitching things together. Scriptures into sermons. Jokes over breakfast cereal. Holding pieces of their church and their family together in unusual and challenging ways. Like dental floss in deteriorating Guatemalan leather.
He found a leather jacket at a thrift store and commandeered a friend's industrial sewing machine. Looking back Nicki realized that he was making something that would impact her for decades. “It wasn’t the gift that was so important.” She said. In her eyes you can see that she's a little ashamed of her remembered mediocre reaction to his act of creating for her. She looks up at me, “It was the seed he was planting”.
And then only a few years later liver cancer took his life, unexpectedly and quickly.
Five weeks later, her mom died--complications from MS.
And then, in 6 months she would walk down the aisle, without her dad on her arm...and get married to the love of her life.
Life is funny that way. The Bible talks about marriage with the word ‘cleave’. And that word, well it actually means two opposite things--come together & pull apart. And in the midst of grieving, moving, changing careers, there may not be a more fitting word. She was coming apart and being pulled together.
She was uprooted, disoriented, and even more so when her newlywed husband Kevin got a job in Portland, OR.
At 28, she was orphaned. (Her only sister had passed away many years previous of childhood Leukemia.) You think of orphans as being babies and kids, but now she was facing having her first baby without her dad to dote on her and the new babe. Or her mom to even tell her what she was doing wrong. But here she was, in an unfamiliar city, not only Portland, but this new town of grief and impending motherhood. Unmoored, a ship without a port, she struggled to put down an anchor.
As her husband went off to work, Nicki stayed home and tried to come to grips with a floundering attempt at starting a non-profit in the deep recession of 2008. And then one day, she went in search for something at a neighborhood thrift store and found a leather coat. There was solace somehow in taking apart something unwanted, and then, being the one who found the beauty--who imagined a new life and helped it take form and begin again. And how could it not remind Nicki of her dad. So, the spare bedroom became her studio. Her days began to be measured by what was created, instead of what was being lost.
And so, being a Maker began to build a new world around her.
When grief strikes, it's ugly, “I think there was something within me that was trying to create beauty against all the ugly crying I was doing...or mostly not doing, and to somehow patch the void left from all the beauty that had left my existence,” says Nicki.
It is ten years later. And she is gradually being stitched down to new roots again. Leather and thread and brass rivets are setting anchor, finding the places that bind her heart and her young family into a new community and way of life.
Sometimes, the truest things that we have are what we find and build ourselves...or at least, learn to make together.
And so, somehow that leather bag on her shoulder is a little bit like finding her dad right next to her....And then it somehow became how she found herself, making meaning by creating.
So, how have you been found?