The Chatham Arts Council is investing in artists through our Meet This Artist series, introducing you to 12 Chatham County artists each year in a big way.
The fine folks at Hobbs Architects in downtown Pittsboro are powering our Meet This Artist series this year. Architecture is art, and the Hobbs crew values art in our community.
Take a look. Meet your very inspiring neighbors. Meet This Artist.
Alexander and Jenn aren’t simply co-owners of a small jewelry shop in Pittsboro called Cataleya Jewelry Studio; they’re also a couple who share a love of helping others and creating beauty in the world. With Alexander’s talent in fine arts and jewelry design and Jenn’s experience in social work, they make a deeply insightful and creative duo. Their jewelry studio is situated in a tiny cottage at The Plant, surrounded by nature and many other small and interesting businesses. We encourage you to read more about this interesting pair and their love of the arts and community!
Tell me about yourselves. Alexander, let’s begin with you.
Alexander: I was born and raised in Puerto Rico and started getting interested in art at a very young age. The earliest memory I have of my art was sending cartoon-inspired drawings to a TV show called “Cine Recreo con Pacheco,” where one of the most emblematic moments of the show was the portrayal of drawings done by children that watched the show and sent them to him.
I grew up with an interest in drawing but it wasn’t until college that I realized Fine Arts could be studied in depth, and that you could build a career with it. In 2000, I got my Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts with a concentration in painting and art history. I studied under Puerto Rican masters like Rafael Rivera Rosa, Martín García, Susana Herrero, Jaime Romano, among others. In 2003, I completed my Metalsmith/Jewelry Design certification, which gave me the opportunity to work with international and local fashion designers.
In 2005, I moved to New York City to pursue an art path. I was able to exhibit my work all over NYC and the US, as well as in the Dominican Republic, China, Greece, Germany, among others.
In 2016, I moved to North Carolina to be close to family and continue my artistic journey. After a couple of years in the South, we decided to open what today is called Cataleya Jewelry Studio at The Plant in Pittsboro, where we focus on genderless wearable art, and everybody is welcome. We are open on weekends and during the week by appointment only.
What drew you to design jewelry in the beginning?
Alexander: The process, the variety of metals and stones, the infinite possibilities of techniques, the challenges, and most importantly, the romanticism that this type of work carries. I’m making a type of art that people can create a relationship with, proudly identify with when they visit the store, and wear on a daily basis.
Talk a little bit about your focus on genderless jewelry.
Alexander: When I create a piece, I’m not thinking about the gender of the person who’s going to wear it. My jewelry is considered small fine silver sculptures waiting to connect with the right person. I create my abstract designs with these things in mind: elevating your inner power; inspiring your creativity; showing your strength; and challenging your way of thinking about jewelry and its gendered orientation.
Do you find there’s a crossover between your painting and your jewelry?
Alexander: Yes. Even though the processes are different, you can see some similarities. In some of my paintings, you can see the use of drips and texture as main characters—two elements that are very visible in my jewelry as well. The similarities happened involuntarily because they are both parts of my existence and they both help me to cope with my grief, mental health, and the world’s insecurities.
What type of painting did you do in New York?
Alexander: The same type of painting I keep doing to this day, which is big format abstract painting with a lot of action, a lot of color, bold texture, and unapologetic emotions. I owe my style to my Puerto Rican heritage and the Caribbean light. The intensity of my colors comes from there, from those sunny skies, from that super green vegetation, the blue of our oceans and the warmth of my people. Having all these in mind, I focus my energies into creating a safe space for my emotions through art. During my search for the perfect art language, I allow myself to be vulnerable and connect with those hidden feelings.
Tell me about some of your jewelry commissions.
Alexander: I love commissions because they are a great way to connect with your clients in a more elevated way. Recently, I had the honor of making wedding rings for a friend from middle school and her partner, and right now I’m working on a bracelet for a local client, which will have a 27mm moonstone and eight 2mm faceted citrines.
I’m also finishing another non-traditional wedding ring where one side is a dragon tail and the other is a fox tail. It will be a very interesting piece once is done. We have other commissions on the schedule for the next few months. I’m extremely grateful for the support people are giving to Cataleya. They come in as strangers and leave as friends.
Jenn: What’s cool is how Alex keeps the clients very informed along the way. He sends pictures of the process the whole way through.
Alexander: I love to involve my clients in the process as much as possible because they are putting their trust in me and I want to honor that at all times. I find that sending pictures and videos of their special piece along the process helps them to understand metalsmithing a bit better. I enjoy building relationships in general so jewelry making is just the excuse to build those relationships.
Jenn, let’s talk about you. Tell me about yourself.
Jenn: I grew up in a small conservative town in North Carolina. But my parents are both from Los Angeles so I feel like they’re pretty open-minded. We lived in a very impoverished area of town. The kids I hung out with in my neighborhood were all poor. I had a pretty stable home compared to a lot of my neighborhood friends. My mom cooked a lot so there was always food and a safe place for people to be. The kids who were often getting me in trouble were the same ones who my mom took care of the most.
In high school, I worked for a really cool catering company. I got to go to barbecue festivals and help with weddings. When I got to Appalachian State for college, I thought I would double major in interior design and apparel and textiles with a minor in marketing. When I got to school and called the work-study office, I was assigned to work at a homeless shelter. I switched majors quite a few times but landed on social work.
At a certain point, I got pretty burned out, so I left school and came back home for a little bit to Union County and decided to go back to the catering company and do wedding designs and coordination. I also got a job working for the Union County Community Shelter doing overnights because I missed the community. I just didn’t want to case manage. With the help of a mentor, I became Director of Philanthropy. Then I went back to Boone and finished my social work degree. After graduation, I got a job with a public health department, and later moved to Raleigh and worked for the Raleigh Wake Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness.
Alex and I met here in the Triangle. I remember him pulling a little box out of his closet that had all these little bags in it with pieces of unpolished jewelry. It felt like he had been hiding this piece of himself and was trying to get a reaction from me about it. He had been carrying these few pieces with him for years. So when he bought that jewelry equipment and started using it all a few years ago, he was having so much fun, explaining the process to me in far more detail than I could actually understand. He was so joyful.
When he started thinking about opening the business, I’d been working in nonprofit management for a long time so I thought I could help him apply for all the stuff needed to create a business. It’s really become a partnership. I’m also about to start a new position in marketing, which is a career shift for me. Marketing has become my new artistic outlet.
How long have you been living in Chatham County?
Alexander: We’ve been in Chatham County for three years now. It feels like it was yesterday when we moved to this hidden gem about to be discovered.
Jenn: Before we moved here, Pittsboro had always stuck with me as a place I wanted to come back to so I started taking Alex on day trips to Chatham. We walked the bridge, floated in the river, and ate at the bakery. We love it here.
Alexander: We really do. Is very nostalgic for me because Chatham reminds me of the area where I grew up in Puerto Rico.
Have you gotten connected to the artist community here?
Alexander: Yes, this is my first year as a member of the Chatham Artist Guild. I’ve been invited to exhibit my work at Smelt Art Gallery before and just got invited again for the new exhibition for the month of August. I was also one of the recipients of the Chatham Arts Council’s JumpstART grant in 2021 and 2022. In 2021, this grant helped me to complete three sculptures made out of wood found in Jordan Lake. In 2022, the grant will fund the completion of a jewelry set (a necklace, bracelet and a ring) and 100% of the earnings will be donated to Equality NC, the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights advocacy group and political lobbying organization in North Carolina. It is the oldest statewide LGBT equality organization in the United States.
Is anyone else in your family artistic?
Alexander: Not at all. I was the first one in my entire family who was interested in the arts. It was difficult for my parents to understand the path I was taking. Their mindset was a bit more inclined towards money than mine.
Is your daughter artistic?
Alexander: Yes, she is. Naya loves painting and singing the most, but whenever I’m in the studio creating, she likes to join me, working alongside me, asking questions about the process. I’ve always encouraged her to be creative without pushing her, and she seems to enjoy that outlet. A couple of weeks ago, she was in a Beat Builders Camp at Clapping Hands Farm, where after an intense week of learning to play musical instruments, write an original song in collaboration with other campers, and learning a cover song, she chose to sing in front of everybody to break with the fear of singing in front of people. She did amazing. I feel that Naya has so many talents and she is starting to define herself in many different aspects of her life.
Who or what inspires you?
Alexander: I would say the daily life struggle is one major inspiration, along with my need for a new challenge within the medium, my self-healing process, and how the arts help me through it. I like being able to communicate a message without having to speak about it. My love for color, texture, and the process of painting are always there. And last but not least, my devotion and commitment to the craft itself guides me. I would not be able to co-exist without art in my life.
I also want to teach my daughter that you can achieve anything you put your heart to and work hard for. If you keep your focus and have the right mindset, there’s no limits to your accomplishments.
Art saved my life in the roughest of times. There were moments that I could’ve taken a different direction because of where I was growing up—drugs, fancy jewelry, cars, and designer clothes were part of the scene. But I decided to stick with the brush and canvas, and take a different path.
What do you see as the future for you and the business?
Alexander: When we daydream, I can see a second and third store in NYC, Miami, or Raleigh, with the help of investors. I’d like to explore how to integrate customers in the jewelry-making process so it becomes a bit more educational as well. I feel that our shop is not only a place where you can purchase a sculpture for your finger, your neck, ears, or wrist—it’s more about the experience when you come through the door, and the knowledge we both acquire by working together. We also created a safe space where non-traditional people can be themselves and feel comfortable and welcome.
Jenn: We boldly put on our website that one of our values is an inclusive community and it just keeps coming to us. We don’t even really have to seek it out. It’s been a great journey. We’ve gotten a lot of support from Chatham County, plus the energy of The Plant, the business owners, and the people who support The Plant. It’s a team effort. Just being part of that feels great.
All photos by Five Feathers Photography