Jewelry business shines light on mental illness
For the past nine months, in her Fortuna June studio, Allison Haas has produced hand-woven bead earrings in retro colors, emboldened with zig-zags, triangles, and hearts, some even paying homage to “Bernie’s mittens.”
But look closer, and you begin to see that each piece is a step on a journey that advocates for mental wellness—her business takes its name from her great-grandmother, Mary Fortuna Haas, who was institutionalized with severe mental illness for the last 40 years of her life.
“I feel like I’m giving a voice to someone who would have otherwise been muted by the stigma of her legacy,” Haas said of her great-grandmother. “I’m reminded of my own privilege, being able to get help when I need it, and working to help others get assistance as well.”
And every tiny bead is a fragment of that commitment.
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The wife of a small-town Ohio doctor, Mary’s symptoms began in June of 1929.
Though Haas only heard small whispers of her great-grandmother’s story growing up, it loomed large in her imagination. Who was Mary before she became ill? What was her life like in an institution? Eventually, Haas was able to procure medical records and piece together a story of schizophrenia, grief, and postpartum depression. The lack of understanding during that period about mental illness eventually failed her great-grandmother. In 2019, Haas honored Mary’s legacy in a ghost walk, where she told her true story in a re-enactment.
While Haas’ art is influenced by the memory of her great-grandmother, it’s also affected by her own life experiences.
Her beadwork draws on a life rich with its own stories. Armed with digital design experience and a sense of adventure, she moved to Alaska in 2002. Though she intended to stay only a year, she was still there 14 years later. During the long, dark, rural winters, she designed knitwear patterns that are echoed today in the patterns of her earrings.
“A pixel is also a bead; is also a knit stitch,” she said. “I loved mapping out knitwear designs, stitch by stitch, and that’s what appeals to me about beading now.”
Haas moved back to Ohio in 2016 and took a full-time job at The James Cancer Hospital, but she struggled to find her bearings personally.
“Lives move on; I didn’t fit in where I used to fit,” Haas said. “I had to make my way into a new social and creative sphere.”
Haas had experimented with beadwork, and she decided to take the jump. The move paid off: She found a place in the beading community and a market for her earrings.
“This is my side gig—all evening, late into the night, and on the weekends,” she laughed. “I have a lot of designs just waiting in the wings for the right time to produce them.”
Haas designs with an Excel grid snippet that she imports into Procreate software on her iPad and colors cell by cell. Her colorways include shades of teal, harvest gold, pink, mauve, and gray.
“I like to pair quirkier colors together, kind of the opposite of what I’d wear myself,” she said. “I’m drawn to very classic colors, and I wanted something a little more bold. So I push myself out of my comfort zone a lot. Nothing that’s too wacky, but [colors] that work together in a unique way.”
Haas has created a few custom combinations but prefers to listen to her own creative voice, balancing it with what her customers want to buy. Pink and red is one of her emerging trends.
Right now, she produces mostly earrings, which take anywhere from 90 minutes to four hours to create. She’s also experimenting with mini-earrings, pendants, and loom-woven bracelets, hoping to offer them at summer craft markets. On a busy week, she produces as many as 12 pairs of earrings, plus prototypes for future creations and items for future shows.
But while Haas is focused on bringing her beading to a wider audience, the craft itself helps her stay grounded mentally.
“I’m typically an incredibly impatient person, so it’s a little bit ironic that I have chosen a slow-fashion art,” she said. “But it helps me slow down and enjoy the process, building something beautiful, bead by bead.”
Follow Allison Haas on Instagram @fortuna.june