Gem of an Artist: Decatur jewelry-maker creates modern and contemporary pieces

By Catherine Godbey | Living 50 Plus

Leigh Ann Hurst never considered herself creative. That changed, though, when her mother, Glenda Sartain, dropped by with some gemstones.

“It was the summer of 2009. She had gotten the gemstones to entertain my niece with. They made necklaces and my mother asked me to do it with her. At first, I told her I didn’t have time, but then I agreed,” Hurst said.

While piecing together the jewelry, something clicked.

“I got interested and wanted to pursue it more, not as a business, but as a hobby. The more I learned about it, the more I fell in love with it,” Hurst said.

Now, 13 years later, the 58-year-old Decatur woman sells her handcrafted jewelry at retail stores in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee, and has attended art festivals from Wyoming to Florida.

Hurst’s calendar this year includes Decatur’s River Clay Fine Arts Festival on Oct. 22-23.

“I’m not just saying this because Decatur is my hometown, but River Clay is one of the nicest shows for both the artists and patrons. It is wonderful,” said Hurst, who has been participating at River Clay since the second annual festival in 2016.

Hurst represents one of 70 artists from 13 states selected for River Clay, said Mary Reed, the festival’s artist liaison. The art mediums range from jewelry, painting, sculpting, drawing and photography to wood carving, metal, fiber, glass, ceramics and mixed media.

The two-day festival will include the artists’ market, artist demonstrations, music, children’s activities, student art exhibits and chalk artists.

At Hurst’s booth, festivalgoers can expect to see her best-selling narrow mixed-metal bracelets and elongated cross necklaces as well as some new, experimental pieces.

“I hope I have designs no one has ever seen before. I will have interesting cuffs and earrings that incorporate anticlastic and synclastic techniques that I learned at a recent workshop,” Hurst said.

For Hurst, who graduated from Auburn University with a degree in interior furnishings and equipment, the art of jewelry making has been a learning process since she created her first piece.

“After I graduated, I worked at Glee Interiors for four years. When my first child was born, I stayed home and raised my children,” Hurst said. “I didn’t realize I had a desire to do anything else until my mother brought over the gemstones. But that desire to create was there. I have loved creating pieces and learning more and more about my craft.”

She attended workshops with Huntsville metal artist Connie Ulrich and North Carolina metalsmith James Carter. She took classes at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and, during the height of the pandemic, she participated in virtual classes offered by Metalwerx in Boston. She learned about cold connections, soldering and forging.

“The business actually took off before I was really ready,” Hurst said. “In 2010, I did a show in Nashville and had made these wonderful earrings with just a piece of wire. They were lightweight and really cute, but I didn’t realize you had to buff off the end of the wire. I only found out that I was missing that step when people tried on the earrings and mentioned how sharp the end was.”

Hurst continued to learn. She took classes, read books and watched YouTube videos on creating jewelry.

Her creations reflected the styles that appealed to her.

“I’ve always loved modern and contemporary styles, metals and straight lines. That is what appeals to me in the pieces of art work and furniture I am drawn to,” Hurst said. “I also like the organic nature of metal and how metals change over time.”

In 2012, Hurst realized how much the pieces she created appealed to customers.

“Before then, I had been going to festivals and saying, kind of dismissively, ‘Oh, I made this.’ But 2012 was the year I did a lot of big shows and realized that people really wanted to buy these pieces. I also started to see repeat customers,” Hurst said.

Popular creations

One of the first pieces patrons responded to was the mixed metal bracelet.

“Each piece of the bracelet is a little piece of art and I link all the pieces together. The narrow bracelet is probably one of my best sellers,” Hurst said. “One of my favorite things to do is make the bracelets personal for people. I’ve made them where each link represented a child or grandchild. Some have included a charm that had the thumbprint of a loved one that died. And some were medic alert bracelets.”

Another best-seller is the elongated cross necklace. Hurst credited her mother for inspiring the piece.

“I was making small hand-forged crosses when my mother asked if I could make one that was long. She went on to describe exactly what she wanted. That is a piece that I’ve made over and over again,” Hurst said. “Even though I repeat a design, each piece is a little different because everything is handmade. I don’t use molds and nothing is cast. Everything is one of a kind.”

Hurst, who spends every day forging, soldering, hammering, filing and assembling pieces, continues to experiment with her art.

“I love going to workshops and learning. The workshops are like a retreat to me. I want to try different mediums, like pottery, not to develop it into a business, but to be able to take techniques from it and incorporate it into what I’m creating,” Hurst said.

River Clay 

Along with Hurst, other local artists showing at the River Clay Fine Arts Festival are Bonnie Hurst, Bryan Johnson, DeAnn Meely, Johanna Littleton, Kristi Hyde, Rebecca Sower and Rickie Higgins, all of Decatur; and Emily Barkley of Tanner. Artists also will represent Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Indiana, Kentucky, Florida, North Carolina, Louisiana and Ohio.

River Clay will take place on the grounds of City Hall, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. on Oct. 22 and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. on Oct. 23. Weekend passes cost $5 for adults and are free for children 12 and younger accompanied by an adult. The festival will kick off with River Clay Rendezvous, an arts patron preview party Oct. 21, 5-9 p.m. Tickets cost $60.

For more information, visit