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Ester jewelry designer celebrates 50 years with jubilee

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Spotlight: Judie Gumm

Ester jewelry artist Judie Gumm poses in her shop Thursday morning, July 18, 2019. Gumm is the Spotlight for the week.

A lifetime of jewelry has come out of Ester and, because it’s her lifetime, Judie Gumm is celebrating with a jubilee.

“I’m celebrating 50 years of jewelry designing,” Gumm said. “I started in 1969 back in Denver, Colorado, and it’s been both a journey of learning and a journey of creativity, and I’ve gotten to work with some great people along the way.”

Gumm said she wants to celebrate these years with the people she designed things for and the people who have purchased her work.

Before a friend told her she might be good at making jewelry, Gumm was a secretary and a single mother with a 2-year-old. Secretarial work didn’t agree with her.

“No, I hated it,” she said, “and I wasn’t very good at it because I had no patience, but I had patience for this, which was surprising.”

After learning the “lost wax” process for casting, she came to Alaska in the early 1970s, when a friend who came to the state told her no one in the area was creating jewelry like hers. At the time, a lot of her work was fantasy oriented.

Gumm has been living in Ester since shortly after arriving in Alaska. She grew up in Kenmore, New York, outside of Buffalo, where she remembers the high temperatures and a similarly small community.

“We could go out, you know, and be told, ‘Come back home when the streetlights come on, and if you’re hungry come back and eat,’” Gumm said, “but otherwise we roamed. So that was nice, to be able to raise my daughters to be able to do that, to be able to ride their bikes anywhere around here and go visit neighbors.”

She and her husband, Richard, were around when Ester Community Park was established. In fact, he helped get the land for it. She’s been there to see Golden Eagle Saloon rebuilt and watch people come and go from town.

“It’s a great community to raise kids, and I’ve raised two daughters here,” she said. “When they tell stories about where they grew up, they talk about Ester and growing up among the people in Ester.”

She said she always knew when her kids went out to play, the miners in the area would be looking out for them.

She and Richard would eventually buy her studio and showroom in Ester and add on to it, paint the railings and fix it up for business.

After she started selling work in Alaska, Gumm was prompted to do more work for distribution by Gloria Fischer, a longtime Fairbanksan who died in March 2016. Fischer owned a gallery called The Artworks, and Gumm cites their business relationship as an inspiring one.

“She was amazing,” she said. “She really was a mentor for me because she kept saying ‘You’ve got to start doing production work. You’ve got to start recreating some of these pieces.’ and that’s when I started doing the blueberries and the cranberries, and it was Gloria who encouraged me to do that.”

The blueberries and the cranberries she produces are some of Gumm’s most popular, recognizable pieces. The berries crop up on earrings and dangle from necklaces — little pieces of Alaska. She said people have told her that they wear her jewelry for good luck while berry picking.

Fischer’s gallery was also the first to carry her work when she moved to the state. When she saw Gumm’s berry pieces, she asked her if she could make six more, and she would take them.

Gumm took classes at the university during her early years in Alaska. She still has positive feelings about the school, which she said has been distressing given the current situation wherein the university now faces a $135 million budget cut from the state. The same round of budget cuts saw the elimination of the Alaska State Council on the Arts this year.

“I think that with the closing of the State Council on the Arts because of lack of funding, I’m very concerned about the arts and the art department at the University of Alaska here in Fairbanks,” she said.

Gumm said she’s hired a lot of her workers out of the university and she learned a good deal there herself.

Nature plays a big part in Gumm’s work. Some of the pieces she is most proud of are in her “Animal Spirit” collection. Alaska animals — moose, fox, ravens and wolves — line the walls of her showroom. A rabbit brooch has a soft pearl tail and a sculpted raven carries a jewel in its mouth.

Another animal will be present at her jubilee: the rooster. It’s played a special part in Gumm’s life.

“When I was born, when I started making jewelry, all fell in the year of the rooster,” she said. The year of the rooster was also the year she started doing production work and when she moved into her studio.

She’s created a few rooster pieces to give away to the first five people who show up every day of her jubilee. It will start Aug. 2, and continue over the next two days.

She is hoping the people who have bought her pieces will come and share stories at the First Friday jubilee, which will be an open house at her studio and showroom. She’s taking the opportunity to bring out some designs that have been discontinued, to show and to sell, and to display some new pieces.

Gumm said her husband once said that they’re creating heirlooms for people because stories are told through them.

Wedding rings, anniversary gifts or a memory from time spent in Alaska — Gumm says she still receives letters and phone calls from people have come to her over the years.

She stressed that she isn’t retiring yet, either. Gumm would like to continue making jewelry for a few years. She and her husband travel out of state more and some of her new pieces have been inspired by the desert, where they’ve been visiting for part of the year. However, she said she feels blessed to be a part of the Ester community, where she said that both she and her art have been embraced.

“This will always be home,” Gumm said.

Contact staff writer Kyrie Long at 459-7510. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMlocal.