Creative Careers in the Arts

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Spirited Woman Q & A

Interview with Jewelry Designer, Artist, & Writer Katy Leakey

By Nancy Mills | Posted June 1, 2006 | Updated May 9, 2019

I think Katy Leakey was put on this earth to empower women (and men), bridge different cultures, and tip the scales of balance. The woman has star power. An artist, sculptor, adventurer, writer, speaker, entrepreneur, and jewelry designer, Katy lives in the bush, a long dirt road away from Nairobi, with her famous husband Philip Leakey, a former member of Parliament and cabinet minister in Kenya, and the youngestson of the Leakey clan. Their neighbors are the nomadic Maasai tribe.

What a life style change. Katy had been a very successful mural artist living in Newport Beach, CA (which is where I met her on her occasional trip to the states) when she re-connected with Philip. They'd known each other for a long time — since her parents co-founded the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation to help support the Leakey's anthropology fieldwork — but they'd lost touch. Due to fate, timing, one divorce each, and a nine-month global courtship — at the age of 47 — she packed her bags and moved halfway across the world for love.

That was in 2001, when Kenya faced one of its most severe droughts ever. The Maasai were starving — quite literally and simultaneously the tourism industry, which Philip had been heavily involved in was put on hold due to 9/11. The Leakey's, who had been supporting as many as 100 Maasai families, felt compelled to take more action.

They did that by starting a line of "Zulugrass" jewelry — long strands made of actual grass, dyed bright colors, and mixed with hand-blown Czech glass — all hand-made by the 1,000 Maasai women they now gainfully employ. The business has grown from the bush to Fifth Avenue — and women internationally are wearing the colorful long strands of beads as necklaces, anklets, bracelets, chokers, and other creative fashion statements.

This though is not a business story about jewelry. It's a story of one woman's willingness to make a difference and to help the Maasai women survive. It's a story of a woman journeyer constantly fascinated by the needs of others, and who deep within believes one should never quit — in anything. Katy Leakey is a risk taker. Grab a cup of coffee — and read about her. Truly fascinating.

Q. Katy, for years, you were a California-based artist — would you tell us a little bit about your career and your passion for it?

A. The passion for my art is something that I've had since I was three years old. I had no choice about what I was going to do in life. I was born an artist and that was it — it was the way I looked at the world, the way I thought about things from the time I was so small. I have pictures when I was four years old standing in front of an easel with a paintbrush in my hand. I never, ever had any thought of doing anything else. I use to write my own stories just so I could illustrate them. I would literally make sculptures at the beach out of sand, or I would take a stick and draw in the dirt, or I would paint with acrylics or watercolors, anything that I had. The best thing that my father did for us — there was a wall in my bedroom — and he bought blackboard paint and painted it — so that it was a giant blackboard. And then he would give us what he called "chalk talks" at night — telling us about the universe or space or politics or whatever. So I had this large board in my room that I could just draw on. So I would draw pictures and do all sorts of things. My family was very supportive. My grandmother was an artist and a writer, and the other grandmother was a painter.

Q. You trained at the Otis Art Institute and got yourself involved with a business having to do with art?

A. Yes. When I came out of art school I tried the fine art world. I was represented by a couple of galleries, had openings, and at that point in my life was very involved with the figurative world — painting the human body, a lot of drawings. Figurative work was not in — in the fine art world then. They wanted contemporary painting and what they wanted seemed silly to me. I decided that what I needed to do to really fulfill myself as an artist was to find another way to support myself. So I tried commercial art. I had a cartoon strip that ran in a couple of papers. I learned right away that wasn't going to give me the kind of income that I needed. I painted album covers. Tried commercial art. Then I worked in an art gallery for a while and met interior designers who were bringing in their client's artwork to be framed. I enjoyed working with them, so I ended up starting a business in the interior design field of residential mural painting in high-end homes and it grew from there. I had quite a large company that took me around the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Q. You love to travel and you love different cultures, and you coined the phrase "anthropological travel." What exactly do you mean by that?

A. The easiest way for me to say it — if I had been born with a decent memory — I probably would have gone into cultural anthropology. It's a real love of mine because of the way I was raised. But, again, remember, I started out by saying, I had no choice, I was born an artist. For me it was natural to blend those two. My intellectual passion is understanding mankind and human nature — what made us who we are as a species, that's what I've been fascinated with all my life. I set about learning about that through art. So when I travel, I would go to various places and study other tribes — the reason why I wanted to go to tribes was to learn from people who were still heavily steeped in their traditional cultures that extend back hundreds of years. Then I would make art about what I learned and come back to the United States and speak at universities.

Q. You took 11 men into the canopy on an expedition, what was the expedition for and how did this happen?

A. I wanted to study the Mayoruna Indians, and to get to this particular tribe — it's in one of the last of the so-called unexplored parts of the Amazon jungle. There is one section that is still primary forest and still uncharted, roughly on the border of Peru and Brazil. To get there you either helicopter or walk-in. I walked in because I felt that I had to have the experiences along the way and the changes in my own nature along the way, so that when I got to these people, if I could locate them, I would have a little better understanding of what their life might be about. I hired these men to go in with me. Two were from the United States; one was a photographer/videographer and the other a professional still photographer. I brought them in with me to help document the expedition. The others we picked up there. I had a main guide that I worked with and he helped me select the first half of that group, and then the second half we picked up on our way into the interior. It was an extremely arduous trek to get in. Now's there much written about them — at the time there was only one book written about them and a few small articles. Mostly they had not been contacted since the 1950's my research had shown. I found them in the early 90's. My expedition lasted three months.

Q. In 2001, you married Philip Leakey of the famous anthropology family — and you moved from Newport Beach, CA to Kenya and you live in the bush. How has that changed your life?

A. What's funny about that is people who know me and have known me all my life have said — well, of course, what took so long. It seems unusual to people who don't know me. I suppose the reason that it seems so unusual is that it is extreme. Obviously Newport Beach is a bright, sunny palm-tree lined urban area with shopping malls. Yes there is a big difference in place. But, I love them both. I adapted immediately to the bush — without any problem whatsoever. Our house is 1½ hours outside of Nairobi and you have to go on a dirt road to get to it. The house is a thatched-covered roof. The walls are made of cement and rock, the floor is cement. It is open-air living so that the animals can come in and through and they do. We have 40 mongooses as pets. They come up on the veranda. We have a leopard that lives behind the house in the hills that comes down in the evening and a giraffe on the driveway. We even have wild dog that come up from Tanzania occasionally. We live alone in the house on 34 acres, but because our home is one of the work sites for our business, we have anywhere between 25 to 50 men who live on the property. The Masai are our neighbors, and it's quite a populated area. The nearest boma is just a ten-minute walk.

Q. It's a huge decision to move half-way across the world, isn't it?

A. I think the most difficult thing for me in all of it, in emigrating by this point near 50, is you give up your history and leave your family. I come from a very close family. My nieces and my nephews were like my children. One thing that caught be completely off-guard, that I had not thought about, which became the most difficult thing of all was losing my history. And what I mean by that — it's nothing to emigrate when you are 20 — you're just starting out. It's exciting. But to do it when you have established connections — a history of many things for 35 years — volunteering, the work you've done. You don't realize how deep your roots grow in an area until you rip them out and leave it. You have to start all over again from scratch, in a new place, a new area. And it's interesting — in going off to be with someone who comes from a family of such obviously well known background — you have to sort of fit into that history rather than take your own. And so with people that we would meet my history was something that was not part of it. That was a very interesting experience — it's almost like your whole past is forgotten or known only to you, not to anyone else. I was not prepared for the impact that it would have on me.

Q. Tell us the story of how Zulugrass came to be.

A. Back in 2001 we were supporting close to 100 Maasai families because of the drought. Paying their school fees, helping them with money so they could buy food, they didn't have anything left. Their men had moved the cattle out of the area and even out of the country in some cases — so they were destitute and we had to come up with a way for them to earn a living. Philip came up with the idea of making jewelry from grass and I re-designed it to something that is a more contemporary product. In the beginning we just started selling it — I call it trench coat sales — at the back of lecture halls — so that we could keep it going on a subsistence level. After 9/11 — it changed the world's economy — one of the ramifications in Kenya was the drop in the tourism market. And that devastated the Maasai culture because some of the ways they made their money was to sell their cattle for the meat industry and tourism. With that gone they were doubly hit. So we decided to take it to the next level and do it as a business, and do it on a larger scale.

Q. How did you create a business in a nomadic culture?

A. We designed what we call nomadic work sites systems. We knew the women had to come to work whenever they wanted. If it was an hour a week or an hour a month — we needed to have systems set up that are non-factory based, so that it could travel and go to which community needed it and when. We needed to train twice as many people as was necessary to keep product going in this country because they would have ceremonies they would attend for two or three months. To build a business that could get a supply of quality product to stores in Manhattan on Fifth Avenue and meet our deadline, yet produce it in the bush by women who have their own demands on them from their own culture — that was a challenge we had to solve. And the way we did it was with the nomadic worksites and working very closely with the women. We employ anywhere from 800-1300 women, usually around a 1,000.

Q. You state you designed your business not to make change, but to create opportunity?

A. It's up to the women to make the changes in their life, not us. We want to create the opportunity so that they can make whatever changes they want. Many people will ask us — well, what have you done with the money. It's not our money — it's their money. Once they earn it we're out of the picture. They either put it toward community resources if they wish to, or they use it for their homes, or they use it to further the education of a child. Pay for medical expenses. Start businesses. Whatever they might want to use it for. People are always saying, because they traditionally weren't allow to earn money for the work they did — how has this changed the community and aren't you worried about that. And I have to be honest yes in the beginning I was very worried. For the first year we monitored it very closely with the women. The men tried to stop us early on. I think the biggest change that has occurred is stability. They haven't changed their culture, they haven't changed the way they live — the only change that has taken root is the stability within the communities where we have work sites.

Q. Katy, why do you feel that you are a spirited woman?

A. My grandmother's my mother. My mother is my rock and there have been women in my life, and men, who have been cornerstones, key people in my life, so I think it comes back to the people in my life that keep me going, that inspire me, that have given me insight, strength, courage. Even people I don't know — I look at parents holding their child's hand in the hospital and I just think how courageous. That to me is real courage.

©2006 Nancy Mills. All rights reserved.

Next: Interview with Swirly Girl Creator Christine Mason Miller