By Hayden Gambee/Arizona Sonora News
Lauren Valenzuela sits on a lime green velvet couch, in front of a forest green wall that makes a nice backdrop for her bright blonde hair and blue eyes. “Right now, I’m really into orange,”Valenzuela mentions, smiling. This comes as a surprise due to the color scheme in her studio, but after, I immediately notice the orange shirt that she has paired with her ‘70s-inspired flare jeans.
The first thing people notice about Valenzuela could be her appearance: She’s a blonde with a lot of tattoos (her husband is a tattoo artist). But many people will spot the white geometric earrings that are dangling from her ears. These are a part of her everyday wear, easy to understand, considering she makes them herself. They are definitely a statement piece that scream “look at me” in a fun way.
Sigfús Designs, Valenzuela’s company inspired by her Icelandic heritage, specializes in these abstract-looking, bold earrings that look as if they could be straight from a high-fashion magazine. They’re made from polymer clay and molded by Valenzuela by hand in her eclectic studio.
Based in Tucson, Valenzuela’s hometown, Sigfús is growing daily. Going from small orders of one to two pairs of earrings, she now meets orders of hundreds of pairs. She is basically “living her dream,” creating products she loves, making enough money to travel around the world with her husband and her friends in her time off, and being her own boss of a successful company.
Today, Tucson feels like the ideal home base for an artist like her, who enjoys the art scene and the culture. But back when she started out, she wanted to be away from it all.
“I think I went through the whole ‘not liking Tucson’ thing when I was younger, and I moved to Phoenix, which is not super far,” says Valenzuela. “But I think moving kind of brought me back to understanding why I like it so much, and gave me a different appreciation. Now I love Tucson.”
Part of the reason she appreciates Tucson so much now is because of the community and culture that the city has to offer.
As we sit across from each other in her studio, Valenzuela reflects on what influenced her as an artist. Both of her parents were artists: Her father was a musician, and she describes her mother, on her Etsywebsite, as a “hippy that I grew up always going to art shows and Indian pow-wows with.”
“So basically, my whole life I’ve been exposed to art and painted and drawn and done those little cross-stitch like collages,” says Valenzuela. A cross- stitch collage is basically a collage of images made from thread. “I always have done a ton of different things and I knew that one day when I found something that I really was passionate about, I could make it into a business. I think I’ve said that for years.”
Valenzuela has always been artistic, growing up with creative parents and even doing marketing for a restaurant corporation for a few years that allowed her to express her own ideas. She eventually realized this was not her dream, though.
When she was younger, it was difficult for Valenzuela to identify the things that she was interested in and passionate about. She always got bored. This was obvious to her when she was in school. She did not feel passionate about learning and therefore jumped from high school to high school, was home-schooled, and then eventually decided to get her GED at an alternative school.
“I ended up graduating, but I did drop out for a few years, and the only class that I was going to while I was in school was my art class,” says Valenzuela. “It was just a joke though, because I was definitely a troubled teen. I don’t know how else to put it without sounding cliché. I definitely had a lot of stuff going on in my family.”
Valenzuela’s parents had gone through a divorce when she was younger, and her mom passed away in 2010. “So that’s when I started getting into drugs and partying and all of that,” she explains.
She ended up going to a rehab center when she was 23, and up until that point, her life was, as she describes it, “kind of a mess.”
“I was always creative, but I wasn’t living very well. And so, you know, when people say things like, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ back then I didn’t really have a lot of hope for life, as dreary as that sounds,” she says. “So I never thought of my future. That’s kind of where I was at.”
When Valenzuela got fired from one of her jobs, she decided that she wanted to turn her life around because she felt as if she had hit rock bottom. “I would say I was like a functioning drug addict where I could, I was like a drug addict and alcoholic,” she says. “I could still keep a job, but I would just party and just go hard. (I was) like, ‘OK, I’m coming to the end.’”
Both of Valenzuela’s parents struggled with addiction. Valenzuela mentions that some of her other family members also struggled with addiction. “But even though they had that, they were both very supportive,” she says.
During rehab, Valenzuela realized just how helpful art can be for someone who is fighting internal battles. “I did a 6-month program, and then I did this transitional program. I even played with clay there and beads and making jewelry and making dream catchers because they just give you little projects,” she says. This was one of the first moments she realized art is therapy.
Valenzuela still uses art as therapy in her life today. “Sometimes I’m just doing production and I’m doing my job,” she explains. “But there’s a lot of time to just play with clay and process what you’re feeling and just kind of zone out in a good way. So I realized art is therapy too.”
Valenzuela’s best friend, Breanna Flanagan, is in awe of Valenzuela and what she has accomplished. Flanagan sits across from me in a brightly colored sundress and, of course, a pair of Sigfús earrings. As Flanagan tells me about how she and Valenzuela met, her personality reflects her bold outfit choice for just another Wednesday, albeit a rainy Wednesday.
She and Valenzuela met about 14 years ago in a church group that Flanagan was attending to get to know people, since she was new to Tucson. This church group turned out to be a part of Valenzuela’s 12-step recovery program after rehab. “We just have been friends ever since, so we’ve just gone through life together,” says Flanagan.
The two friends have a trip planned to go to Spain this winter. “We all go on trips together. We’ve done lots of fun things like that and have been friends through all of the ups and downs,” Flanagan says.
The two friends and occasional co-workers have been through everything together, which include living together, Valenzuela getting married, and Sigfús’ evolution. Even though they’ve done all this, they are always changing, both inside and out. “I’m trying to think, because I don’t even remember her original hair color, because I’ve known her through so many different colors,” says Flanagan, laughing. “She’s had every color hair I can even think of.”
Flanagan was friends with Valenzuela when she first started Sigfús, which has also changed drastically. Sigfús started as a fun idea for gifts to friends that then evolved into an Etsy website—and now, a retail and wholesale company. Valenzuela has just filled an order for hundreds of pairs of earrings to a clothing store in Utah.
Talking about the earrings Sigfús specializes in now, Flanagan mentions that out of all Valenzuela’s creative endeavors—the collages, the drawings—this is the one that’s really stuck.
“It’s really been amazing because it just keeps blowing up. It’s growing and the designs keep changing and getting better,” Flanagan says. “If you look at the earrings from the very beginning until all the way till where it is now. It’s continuing to evolve and evolve.”
Right now, Valenzuela is trying to genuinely enjoy what she has made out of her life thus far. “Now all my money just goes to travel. That’s like the only thing that I really spend money on. I asked myself ‘what do you want to do with your life?’ I want to make cool sh**. I want to do art, and I want to travel. Done,” she says. “I have to remember daily, I’m living my dream. That’s beautiful. And to walk in life with gratitude and humility and gratefulness because it could change tomorrow.”
Hayden Gambee is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact the reporter at email@example.com.