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A Wearable Connection to Earth & Humanity

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Photo credit Taylor Jones .jpg

Most days, Paige Pettibon and her boyfriend will walk around their neighborhood — not far from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma — to spend time with her biggest muse: nature.

They’re like little birds scavenging for materials, she said. During their walks, the couple plucks flowers here and there and snaps photos of the flora and fauna. When they get home, they’ll lay out their treasures and examine how the colors look and feel together. The local environment is so giving. Inspiration is everywhere — in the way unlikely colors sing together on the petal of a flower, in the texture of bark, in the spiny veins of leaves.

The fruits of their beloved finds often manifest into jewelry handcrafted by Pettibon, which she sells online and at local makers markets under the moniker Plain to Sea. She developed the name several years ago as a play on words — the phrase “plain to see,” but also a nod to the land she calls home. “Plain” represents the plains of western Montana, where Pettibon’s ancestral people of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes spent most of their time. “Sea” represents Western Washington and the Salish Sea, where Pettibon has lived for most of her life.

Cedar hoops photo credit Blair Alexander.JPG

Her Plain to Sea jewelry is a clear homage to her multicultural roots. Pettibon is Black, white, and Indigenous, and her jewelry borrows heavily from traditional Native artistry. Her Instagram, where she sells her jewelry, also serves as a digital portfolio. Within it, necklaces, earrings, and cuffs made with abalone and dentalium shells, strips of cedar, porcupine quills, animal bone, and stones — materials that are precious to her tribes — are honored as wearable art.

Growing up in Tacoma, in a mostly white neighborhood, Pettibon knew of her multicultural background, but she wasn’t raised with Native traditions and didn’t actively participate in Indigenous practices until she was an adult.

“You don’t know what you don’t know as a kid, and you take it for granted,” she said. “I did feel out of place, though. I didn’t feel like my Black or Native history was being taught in a way that I felt represented me. That was something I was lacking as child. I didn’t start becoming in community with my people until my late-ish 20s, and that’s when I started making jewelry and art.”

Porcupine skulls Photo credit Blair Alexander .JPG

To be “in community” with her people might look different to different people, she said. But for Pettibon, it’s meant going to Indigenous ceremonies and events, learning the Lushootseed language and tribal histories, and surrounding herself with Native people. Doing that was easier before the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, which is when she was actively making connections. But the pandemic also gave her time and space to really slow down and focus on her art — and it gave her the confidence and desire to make Plain to Sea a full-time business.

Though Pettibon’s ties to her roots came later in life, she was raised in a crafty and creative family. Some of the beads she uses in her jewelry were inherited from her grandmother, and it was her cousin who first taught her how to flat-stitch beads. As a child, her parents fostered artful expression, so she was always coloring and making things with her hands.

“My parents had a lot of books, and I would always see if I could make what was in the books on my own, without having any guidance, and I would come up with my own way of doing things,” she said. “My parents always praised that. They gave me the confidence to stick to it. And my mom was so resourceful. Instead of buying something, she’d say, ‘I bet we could make that.’ Like, we’re special, too; we can make things.”

Montana Rainbow

As an artist, Pettibon hopes her work brings positivity and happiness into the world, making people feel good when they see and wear her jewelry. Her ability to work creatively feeds her soul, whether that’s found in making jewelry, painting, cooking, baking, or creating with other media.

When asked whether making art helps her feel connected to her cultures, she said, “The experience of selling it does, in a sense. Being an Indigenous person, it’s more than making things that are traditional designs — it’s those connections you have with people. … It’s healing for me to make jewelry. The part that connects me to my culture is those experiences with others, even if the person buying it isn’t Indigenous. At that point, I’m doing something that’s even more Indigenous — I’m having a direct connection.”