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Women at Work: Jewelry Maker Dennae Tirrell

Instead of making stones and metals work around her design, jewelry designer Dennae Tirrell of Cannelita looks to the natural world of shed antlers, local leathers and turquoises to create stunning organic pieces. We chatted about where her inspiration comes from and how she stays connected to the natural world.

How did you come to jewelry making as a career? 

It snowballed as many things do in life. I was in the backcountry mountains of Montana a lot, in search of hidden bouldering spots. Often, I spent most of my day wandering around bushwhacking with friends. Inevitably, I came across a surplus of fallen antler sheds. So I thought it would be nice to make a few things for gifts as Christmas presents for friends and family. Other people were interested and it ended up becoming what I did most of my days. I still try to set time aside to hike and wander around. I find that I have a clearer head and am more creative once I've gotten back from being outside for a few hours. 

What brought you to Oregon? How has your time here changed your work and life? 

It was hard leaving Montana. I have a great support group of friends and a lot of people that I care about. However, I needed to jumpstart my career and decided to move to Oregon last fall. I am a self-taught jeweler and the Oregon School of Art and Craft has an amazing 3-month-long beginners metalsmithing program. I wanted to make sure I was learning the right techniques and hone in on the skills I had already acquired from watching my friends work and Youtube videos. I also wanted to become a part of Portland’s amazing community of artist and makers. I am hoping to become more involved in the Portland Night Markets and Saturday Markets over the summer.  

What do you focus on most when designing a piece of jewelry?

When I design, I want to keep as much natural beauty in the antler as possible. I use natural colors, Oregon leather and turquoise from Arizona. I focus on the natural curves of the piece and try to mimic those curves in the design, like where the turquoise lays, how it hangs from the leather and how smooth I can get the antler without taking away from its natural character. 

What inspiration does the outdoors bring to your work?

The natural beauty of the Northwest moves me. I love hiking in the rain, playing in the sunny garden and on the rare chance I have a few days off in a row, climbing outside. After living in Montana for eight years, I also became inspired by the Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana. They have an amazing talent for using colors, beading and leather work and have an incredible respect for living off the land. 

Where does the name Cannelita come from?

My family has deep roots in Italy. When coming up with a name, it seemed like a daunting task. I struggled for weeks trying to find a name that I connected with and that fit into the vision I saw. I ended up making a list of all the words I felt embodied my brand. While sharing it with my grandmother, she mentioned looking up those words in Italian. I ended up with Cannelita, which means garden in Italian. I feel deeply connected to the earth when I am outside, specifically while I'm growing or planting.   

What does a day for Dennae look like?

Well right now is a little bit different than my typical day-to-day.  My boyfriend’s farm has goats that recently birthed 21 babies, so it's been quite the process making sure everyone is healthy! We have been bottle feeding the ones that have been ignored altogether by their mothers. Bottle feeding happens four times a day. For the past month, my routine has revolved around them, but I love it. I usually wake up and make some coffee. While it's brewing I make the first batch of milk. I'll go feed the goats, come back, make breakfast.

If it’s sunny, I'll focus on whatever I can work on outside while taking advantage of the warm weather. Any cutting, sanding or drilling needs to happen with a lot of ventilation, so I have the garage doors of the shop wide open and the drill press or band saw pulled out into the sunshine. If it's rainy, I'll work on any metalsmithing, stretching leather cord, inlaying turquoise, taking photo's for the website...etc indoors in my studio. Then, I break for lunch, make more milk and feed the babies.

I try to take an hour or so every day to focus on myself, usually in the afternoon. Normally I will practice yoga, climb at the gym if its cold and rainy, or bike along the river if it's sunny. Lately, its been walking around the farm on Sauvie Island through the blueberry fields with the baby goats running along. It’s the greatest thing seeing their floppy ears bounce around. 

Unless I have a shop update the next day or I have a few commission pieces I need to finish, nights are usually spent with friends.  Pot-lucks, movie nights or at the local bar playing pool and sipping a good rye whiskey. Then I come back to the farm, make more milk, feed the babies and do it all over again!

What are the top things we'd find in your pockets? 

  1.  1. Lately...hay - So much hay from being around the goats. In all the pockets. So yeah, mostly hay.
  2.  2. Cut up antler pieces - I went out to dinner with friends yesterday and as I was leaving the house I put on a jacket I hadn't worn in a few weeks. Halfway through the evening I put my hands in the pocket and was surprised to find a rather large antler shed point that I had completely forgotten about. I almost bruised myself! 
  3.  3. Chapstick - Particularly the brand "Hurraw" in the Earl Grey flavor. I highly recommend it.
  4.  4. Teatree flavored toothpicks - It's my vice. A few years ago a friend quit smoking and always had them on her. I'm not a smoker but she offered me one every time she needed one and ironically, I became quite addicted to them. Now they’re everywhere! I have a some on my kitchen sink, a box in my car and usually a few lingering in my pockets or purse because the box doesn't usually like to stay closed. 

5. Nails - I just moved into my new house in January, I've been hanging framed paintings and prints, setting up my studio, making the dining room table and yes I caved and spent a Sunday assembling a 6-drawer dresser from IKEA.

6. Have I mentioned the hay?

Any last thoughts? 

I'd like to thank you! I was so excited to work with you ladies on this interview. I was stoked when I found your booth at the Portland Night Market, I ordered my jeans as soon as I could and I literally jumped up and down when they arrived at my house!

Dovetail Workwear Disclaimer: We are not the boss of our Women At Work! They say it their way and wear it their way.