Growing together through social change

Local Artisan Finds Success in GR Community

Part One: Passions Age Well

Written by Candice Littleton

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 Brianna O’Neal doesn’t always know where a piece will take her. As she molds polymer clay, using her hands, fingers, and tools, there’s no blueprint to follow. More importantly, there’s no boss to tell her how or what or when. This creative freedom often dictates the difference between an initial design idea and the final product, something that O’Neal enjoys exploring.

“My pieces have a life of their own,” O’Neal said. “They tell me what they want to be.”

The journeys the accessories take are part of what gives the artist the forgiveness to make mistakes, readjust and even help to find new designs or concepts that may have been unconsidered.

O’Neal’s favorite reaction to receive from customers is one of kismet. She believes every individual piece she creates has a specific person waiting for it. Which for the sole owner and operator of Wild Yam Co., Brianna O’Neal, is the most rewarding part of her job.

“Every piece has personality and when people come to my booth at local markets or shows, they are drawn to a certain one,” O’Neal said. “They tell me a specific one ‘speaks’ to them and that always makes me happy to hear.”

Within the past six years of O’Neal pursuing the creation of her business, Wild Yam Co., an item that many of her clients have come to feel connected to are mushroom pendants. These statement pieces showcase what Wild Yam Co. does best: Handcrafted odes to the beauty of nature. The quality polymer clay their sculpted from makes the mushrooms, whether they’re earrings or a necklace, comfortable and lightweight to wear, something her customers and Instagram followers love. 

O’Neal, an avid gardener and hiker, uses photographs and sketches she’s done while exploring or tending to the earth as references for her jewelry. With warm-toned caps which sit charmingly on top of long, delicate ivory stems, her inspiration for her mushrooms could be closely related to the Yellow Honey Mushrooms that grow wild in Michigan. She describes the process of creating the mushroom pendants as “tedious” but “fun and rewarding”. 

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The local jewelry designer’s clients hail from all over the United States, something that’s largely made possible by her Instagram following and Etsy buyers. Social media platforms have become a key virtual space for business-owners, a space where they’re expected to not only promote their products and services but to cultivate an image or experience. This “experience” can feel creepily inhuman. “Buy this shampoo and you’ll be happy!” the posts might as well read, while paid models pose on pristine beaches. The continued success - if we, as a generation, are deciding to measure success by the number of followers we have (many of us are) - of social media accounts that are so meticulously cultivated that you wonder if there even is a human being on the other side of the screen can turn off many young entrepreneurs who aren’t interested in the phoniness of “influencing” a reality.  O’Neal is unabashed by all of this.

“I see it [social media] as a tool that I can take advantage of,” O’Neal said. “Taking photos and writing posts is part of the job and I enjoy doing that.” 

However, while social media platforms have helped Wild Yam Co. reach many customers, it’s still quaint Grand Rapids, MI and its surrounding Western Michigan community that’s given Wild Yam Co. the environment it, and so many other locally grown businesses, need to thrive.

 “There’s a huge art community here,” O’Neal said. “I’m busy doing what I love and it’s because of this community.”
The community is so “huge” that O’Neal equates 85% of her sales to vending at markets, events and festivals around the West Michigan region. 

“For me, I definitely am way better in person,” O’Neal said. “I think once people meet me and see how passionate I am it’s when I really make an impression.” 

Over the past three years, O’Neal’s business, Wild Yam Co., has become a regular figure in our local markets. Present, smiling, and ready to engage with local shoppers, O’Neal stands proudly beside her handcrafted creations at the Made in MI Pop-Up Marketplace at Grand Rapids Downtown Market, health and wellness expos across western Michigan, and at GR’s own Faire Flea (formerly Indie Flea) as well as many others. This summer, she’s added music festivals to her list. An addition, funnily enough, that brings her journey to this career full circle.

At 18 years old, O’Neal was making and marketing her own jewelry at the Rothbury Festival (now known as Electric Forest Festival). Her efforts and talents proved valuable to festival-goers and O’Neal recalls she would make “a couple of hundred bucks” during the weekend. And while this started as just a way to make money back from the cost of a festival ticket, O’Neal’s love and craft for jewelry-making  These clay pendants molded into flowers or painted with colorful designs and then strung on hemp necklaces were simple to make and even more simple to walk around and sell to festival attendees. 

“It was always fun and a great way to meet people too,” O’Neal said. “You could walk around and explore different campsites; meet all kinds of people and show them your art.”

And while selling the jewelry was an enjoyable way to meet others and make a little money, O’Neal found herself longing for more. She was in awe of the artists vending at the festival, with their booths and signs displaying their names and brands, they looked so official, so independent, so mature. Under the canvas of their tent, she could explore delicate items on display and for sale, meet and converse with the artists who created them, marvel at their talents, and wonder if her life would ever be so kind as to give her the chance to create for a living. At the time, she didn’t know her teenage longing would curate itself into an adulthood reality.

“I’m the person I wanted to be as an 18-year-old and that’s really awesome for me,” O’Neal said. “Sometimes I think about my life right now and I get giddy and think, ‘Wow I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to.’”