Ace McCasland and her Studio Luna Verde have a following. The hard-won creative voice that calls to lovers of her jewelry design and metalsmithing is one she’s honed through nearly 30 years of living rugged and ready, open to adventure and … mostly not at the flame and workbench.
Ace, 49, was introduced to her craft only six years ago. What she brings daily to her one-of-a-kind work and nearly 11,000 Instagram followers is born of her story on the road and her willingness to live life on her own terms.
When Ace sat down to share her story with Humanitou, she talked about escaping the bubble of her childhood on an Oklahoma farm, of seeing mountains and oceans for the first time, of gaining life experience, and living and creating authentically.
She talked about the grueling reality of isolation, long hours and many miles as a circus roustabout and performer, and the need for walking her own line in balance, somehow, with a sometimes-desire to still be part of community.
We get into the truths of life as an artist, and how through years on the go and a spirit of freedom Ace has developed what she wants to say with her work.
Humanitou: I see a natural element to your jewelry. Is that something you draw from, a connection with nature, inspiration from it?
Ace: Definitely. It’s easy enough to say nature inspires my work. But if you want to go back into the past a little bit, I grew up in Oklahoma and was lucky enough to escape when I was in my 20s. (laughs)
I remember just being this naive farm girl. Didn’t really know what to do, where to go, what she wanted to do with her life, and I got a job offer in Seattle. I loaded up my little car and headed due west until I hit the ocean, and headed due north until I hit Seattle.
I saw the Grand Canyon for the first time. I saw snow-covered mountains for the first time. I saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time. Suddenly, my passion for landscape was ignited on that road trip. I ended up being on the road off and on for about 10 years after that, just exploring, especially the Western United States.
I wasn’t one of those people at, like, four years old, saying, “I’m going to be an artist.” I had no frickin’ idea, but I always had that creative urge. I had my degree in photojournalism but never pursued it. I felt too inexperienced and naive. When you’re 21, 22, it was like, “I have nothing to write about.”
I needed some experiences. That was my intent when I traveled in my 20s and early 30s, to gain experience and exploration, to discover different ways of living and thinking and being, because I was in such a bubble at home.
The experience was very nature-based. I wanted to be in the canyon, I wanted to be by the ocean, I wanted to be in the mountains. I did a lot of that alone. And a woman traveling alone, it can kind of get intense, but I was always really careful about it.
This was why I enjoyed staying in the mountains way more than I ever enjoyed staying in the city. I never felt safe in the city. It was really calm and you’d just be under the moon, and if you hear a branch snap you’re thinking it’s more an animal than a person.
So, my connection with landscape, in general, has been kind of what drives everything.
Humanitou: On your Studio Luna Verde website, you mention having joined the circus. What’s that story?
Ace: That was that whole striving for experience. I was open for trying anything.
I think one of my faults is I don’t work well for other people. I don’t do well when somebody says, “You have to be here at nine o’clock and you have to be dressed this way.” So I always sought out jobs that I could learn something from or get a unique experience from, and just see what happens.
I think I was 26. I had been living in Northern California and I got restless. So I decided to pack up my truck. I had a 1972 Toyota Land Cruiser. It was like my dream car. When I was 25, I was like, “I need a red convertible.” Then I came home with a Toyota Land Cruiser. That was my red convertible. At least the top came off, right? (laughs)
I ended up hitting the road in that. Just fearless, whether I was going to break down or blow a tire, or whatever. I had a friend in Florida. I hit the road from California and just kind of meandered for several weeks to get to Florida. By the time I got there, I think I had, maybe, $40 in my pocket.
[ Jewelry photos from Ace McCasland via @studiolunaverde ]
I saw an ad in the newspaper for horse groomer needed. “Must be willing to travel. Females encouraged to apply. Roberts Brothers Circus.”
I had worked a lot with horses. I had worked a lot at race tracks. That’s what got me out of Oklahoma to Seattle, was grooming race horses. I thought, “Well, I’m a groomer. I’m female. Love to travel. It’s a circus. Why not?!”
I think I interviewed on a Monday. As I was interviewing with the woman, she was going to her closet and pulling out sequined outfits and sizing me up. I was like, “What do sequined outfits have to do with being a grooming horses?” She was like, “Well, you never do just one job in the circus. You do, like, 18 jobs in the circus.”
So not only did I get to shovel the horse shit and get dirty, and do all that stuff, I also got to dress up and perform in the show. The horses were what was called free rein, so all I did was lead them in and the ringmaster dealt with the horses.
But I also worked in the whip act– It was a family show, so don’t go there! (laughs) I dressed up like a saloon girl and would do this silly performance while this guy does whip tricks and rope tricks. And then I worked in the magic act, and I rode the elephant in the grand finale.
So, I applied on Monday, was hired on Wednesday and on Friday we were already on the road, and I was taking care of horses, shoveling shit and riding an elephant.
I ended up doing it for a year. It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, just because of the schedule. You were up at five o’clock in the morning, loading up and heading to the next town. The next town could be 20 miles or 200 miles away. And then you set up all this stuff to setup this miniature portable city.
You might get a break for an hour or two and then the performance would happen. Usually, there were two performances. And then you got to break down. By the time you break down, it’s about 11 o’clock at night, or midnight. Wake up at five again.
In the 10-month period I did it, I think we had three nights that we didn’t move. It was go, go, go. It was exhausting. Working 18 hours a day. Room and board, but I think I made $600 a month. That was strictly for experience. (laughs)
Humanitou: That’s grueling. What did you learn from that, about yourself, about life?
Ace: I could still be a loner and kind of keep to myself, and still have community around me. But it made me realize how much I enjoyed being alone and doing my own thing.
I wanted to quit, like every other week. It was crazy. And it was interesting dynamics because I was a performer but also what you call a roustabout. The roustabouts don’t hang out with the performers and the performers don’t hang out with the roustabouts.
Because I was doing both, I really got to do my own thing. It was a whole different kind of isolation. It really made me appreciate doing my own thing and being fiercely independent even with that kind of group.
I think it showed me perseverance and adventure, and adventure isn’t always romantic and perfect and happy. You don’t always have to come out unscarred or unscathed. Doing your own thing can be really hard. I was proud of myself for pulling it off.
Humanitou: How has that translated to the success you’re having with Studio Luna Verde, where clients are champing at the bit to see whatever piece you’ve just finished?
Ace: I had a bit of a meltdown when I was 42-ish. “What the fuck are you going to do with your life, Ace?”
Yeah, I’ve done things, but there wasn’t a focus on anything. I knew I had all this energy and passion to focus on something, but I had no idea how to channel it.
I felt like all my wandering was kind of a distraction from that, even though it was also what was making my work what it is now. So I can’t discount that at all. It was the experience I was trying to build up so when I sit down and draw a painting or do a mosaic, or bang on metal, I had something to draw from.
But at 42, it was kind of like, “Let’s do something.” Two weeks later, I enrolled in a community college just to get some focus on design. They had a metalsmithing class. I wanted to draw, I wanted to paint, I wanted to try anything. “OK, you say you want to be an artist, so let’s see what happens.”
The reason metalsmithing stuck was the three-dimensionality of it became really appealing. Plus, I like to play with fire. (laughs)
I think the hardest thing is, when you have those experiences, you don’t consciously know how they’re affecting you and how you’re going to express them. That’s the hardest part, was finding my voice. I’ve been doing the metalsmithing for about six years, but I feel like I only found my voice about two years ago.
You’ve got to do all these screw ups and you’ve got to experiment, and you’ve got to play. You’ve got to give yourself permission to just screw it up.
[ Jewelry photos from Ace McCasland via @studiolunaverde ]
I think so much of it is just figuring out what I wanted to say with my work. I feel like what I want to say with my work is more just don’t be afraid of adventure and of opening yourself up.
Traveling alone for years on end, there were times I loved it and there were times I was curled up by the campfire rocking back and forth, crying. I just felt so alone in the world and I was tired of being a stranger, because I was always new in town.
For a year and a half I don’t think I was anywhere for more than 10 days. It wears on you. You want to have a community, but you also want to go and curl up in a cave at the same time.
Finding that balance is hard. Finding that voice is even harder. Giving yourself permission to just let it happen.
Humanitou: Authenticity is a word you have used to describe what you and your work are about.
Ace: I feel like that’s a word that gets batted around quite a bit these days. When it truly is authentic, I just feel like authenticity does mean the glamour isn’t always there. It’s raw. There’s painful things that get involved.
It’s raw and gritty. I think too often we try to cover that up sometimes. A lot of people, in general, they cover that up. I try to expose the nitty gritty. Some people are going to look at my work and say, “That’s sloppy.”
I’ve had somebody walk into one of my festival booths and look at my work, and, because it’s very organic, it’s very earthy, she said, “Your work looks evil.”
Evil? What was her life experience to think that things that look natural look evil, you know? That really threw me for a loop, and you can’t let just one person affect what you do. I can’t control how people view my work.
I can only be true to what I want to express. I just want things to look freshly unearthed and like they’ve been on the road for months on end, hadn’t washed their hair for three weeks, or whatever. Things don’t have to be perfect and clean.
Humanitou: Travel is a great learning experience. What is a nugget you have taken from all this experience that you’d share with your younger self as advice?
Ace: The thing that always kept me going was going with the flow and not restricting myself.
Another reason I enjoyed traveling alone was, when I hit crossroads, I didn’t have to negotiate or compromise which way I was going to go. I just went, “Oh, that looks interesting. We’ll take a left here.”
One time, I took a right and I drove too far, and I got stuck in a swamp in Louisiana. Sometimes you don’t always choose the right road and you have to figure out how to get yourself out of there. But always be open.
Even if it ends up being a bad experience, it’s an experience, and you’re going to learn from it. You’re going to survive it and you’re going to keep going.
I honestly wouldn’t change a thing. There are times I wish I had started my artistic path sooner but, in the long run, I did. I was observing and experiencing, and all this was being filed away in some way, shape or form, to be expressed now, either in metal or in a poem I write, or anything.
All those experiences, good and bad, they make us who we are, and it’s necessary.
Humanitou: What is your biggest struggle?
Ace: The biggest struggle is giving myself permission to just be myself. In all my awkwardness and all my flaws, especially expressing yourself as an artist. It’s not all about making pretty things.
Sometimes, when I’m in a bad mood, I’ll go down there and just bang the hell out of some metal, and fold it, smash it, throw it, and heat it and melt it. “OK. That felt good.”
I’ll toss it aside, and a few weeks later or a few months later, or a few years later, I’ll see that piece of metal and integrate it into a piece of artwork.
Just allowing yourself to just be who you are and give yourself permission. It can be a struggle, because there are so many expectations of what people think an artist should be and how they should live. There’s that glamour side, and it’s not so glamorous.
You’re constantly holding a mirror up to yourself every single day and trying to express something. This is why I couldn’t do production work. I have something new to say every day. If I have to keep saying the same thing over and over and over, that’s just not how I flow, that’s not how I work.
Humanitou: Do you feel like you’ve reached your dreams or wherever you’d hoped to go with your artwork?
Ace: I had no idea where I was going. It was through no amount of planning. I didn’t plan any of it. That’s how this happened. I just let it happen. I guided it. I went with the flow. I didn’t know where I could go with it. I just knew I had to go with it.
And I’m in a good spot right now. I think I’m still emerging as an artist. I didn’t know where it was going to go, but I’m happy with where it is.