In 2021, 47.4 million American workers quit their jobs. Sala Menaya-Merritt was one of them.
The Great Resignation wave followed the 2020 “Great Realization” awakening of renewed creativity amid deep isolation. Menaya-Merritt’s passion to create became her priority.
“It was the perfect timing,” she says. “It was my time … so I stepped out on faith.”
Last October, after decades in the public sector, Menaya-Merritt escaped the daily grind to stoke her creative flames. As the sole proprietor of It’s Amira M., she now makes handmade wearable art — everything from earrings to bowties. But she’s best known for her statement neckpieces.
Bold and wild, these one-of-a-kind neckpieces showcase unique objects. One series features intricately carved hair picks front and center. One piece dramatically boasts a small drum. Her more recent pieces even incorporate synthetic hair she purchased from a beauty shop.
“Things will just pop up out of nowhere,” Menaya-Merritt says. “I’ll see something in a thrift store and buy it. But it will sit for a year before I find it a home.”
Though she never makes the same piece twice, her necklaces do have a consistent look and feel. By blending Ankara fabric and beads from Ghana with leather, shells, and other natural materials, the artist pays homage to her roots — a twisting web of African and Native American ancestry.
“Right now, I’m discovering who I am on both sides of my family,” she says. “Both sides are in me and are dying to come out.”
This isn’t the first time Menaya-Merritt has explored her lineage. On Thanksgiving morning in 2010, something stirred in her. “I called my family and told them I was headed down South,” she remembers.
She was then living in Southern California, not far from where she was born. But her mother’s family hailed from nearly 2,000 miles away in Bogue Chitto, Mississippi.
At 19, Menaya-Merritt’s mother left the tiny town for California. She was pregnant and following her older sister, Catherine, who had pushed west “because the spirit told her to,” says Menaya-Merritt.
Fast forward a few decades, and Menaya-Merritt felt moved by that same spirit. So, she packed her bags and moved south. She made it as far as Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she was hired on the spot at the Jetson Center for Youth.
She later found her way to Savannah, Georgia, where she began making elaborate headpieces for the city’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, the second largest of its kind in the country. Then, five years ago, she moved to Asheville, where she took a month-long sewing class at A-B Technical Community College. She quickly decided she hated cutting patterns and began creating jewelry instead.
In 2018, Menaya-Merritt started making striking neckpieces in the basement of her Leicester home. “I would wake up at three in the morning, create for a few hours, and then go to my day job,” she says. “Then, I would come home and work until midnight.”
Needless to say, she didn’t get much sleep. But when she finally quit her 9-to-5 last fall, it wasn’t because she was tired.
“I decided to leave because I wanted to do what I love,” she says. “Art is the first thing I think about in the morning and the last thing I think about before I go to bed.”
Sala Menaya-Merritt, Leicester. Find the artist on Facebook (@itsamiram) and Instagram: @i.am.amiram. She will vend at the Big Crafty, happening at Pack Square Park (1 North Pack Square, Asheville) on Sunday, July 10, 12-7pm, thebigcrafty.com.