Arts | Oregon

Life Is 'Salty And Sweet' For Artist Who Battled Cancer

OPB | Dec. 27, 2013 9 a.m. | Updated: Dec. 27, 2013 4:29 p.m.

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Andrea Leggitt’s laser-cut designs draw on familiar memes like Grumpy Cat and cult favorites like Twin Peaks. She laughs easily, often at herself. And if you met her at a craft fair or a gallery, you might not guess the depth of her creative inspiration.

I met Leggitt at ADX. It’s a good place to meet interesting, creative people in Portland. It’s a maker space where members have access to all kinds of tools for woodworking, welding, even 3D printing. Leggitt and her laser cutter, Rosebud, have become permanent fixtures at ADX since she moved to Portland a few months ago.

Kris Regentin

“It all started off with laser-cut mobiles and now I try to basically laser-etch anything I can get my hands on, like earrings, flasks, coasters, dog collars, anything,” she says.

Leggitt started Salty & Sweet Design in 2008. That was not too long after she graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in industrial design. She began by making mobiles. Some of them were, as the name might suggest, quite sweet. Like cats and kittens, birds, horses, things like that. But the ones that really sold well were the salty ones.

“I had four mobiles all depicting riot scenes — rioters throwing Molotov cocktails and throwing chairs and police with their riot shields and whatnot and then I had a lot of designs that were, like, zombies chasing humans, things like that,” she says.

Leggitt says she didn’t initially intend to start her own business. When she graduated, she hoped to find a job as an in-house designer somewhere.

“I was planning on moving to New York,” she says. “I had actually gotten rid of two thirds of all of my stuff in anticipation of moving into a tiny, tiny, little apartment. But I remember, my friends were in the graphic design program and we were at their senior show. We went out for drinks afterwards and I remember being at the bar and feeling my neck and going, ‘Oh, weird, my neck is lumpy.’ And then I ignored it for a while. Only until I lost a lot of weight did, you know, the alarms kind of go off because I’m an Irish meat-and-potatoes kind of girl and I was starting to look like Uma Thurman.”

So she went to the doctor and he ordered a bunch of tests.

“The next morning, by 11 a.m., I had had three voicemails from him.”

She went back for some more tests.

“I was unfortunately diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which is a blood cancer. So, you know, for the next year, I had to go through treatment and that wasn’t fun,” she explains.

Leggitt’s plan to move to New York got put on hold and she stayed with her parents while she was going through chemo.

“While I was a gray blob on my mother’s couch, she’s the one who urged me to start making things.”

She made a mobile, put it on Etsy and it sold within 24 hours.

“You know, it was such a rotten period of time and so to get that positive feedback, it was great. It was great financially, but it was also great emotionally. I started doing designs that referenced pop culture more and that’s when the blogs started picking up on the designs and that’s really when things took off,” she says.

That’s also when she tapped into a very particular audience.

“You know, the big joke is that my audience are people like me, but it’s really the truth. So, my audience are people who probably spend too much time on the Internet. They probably read Reddit and spend too much time on there. The people who really like the tongue-in-cheek mobiles, or the ones that really reference pop culture, are total Internet nerds. And they’re the ones who when they buy my mobile, they send me an exclamation-point-riddled message that’s like, ‘Oh my God! I can’t believe you made this! I can’t believe I found this! This is amazing!’ And I get that a lot with the Ministry of Silly Walks mobile.

“They’re total Internet nerds and that’s why I love them,” she says.

Leggitt never moved to New York. Instead, she started her own company. A couple of years ago, she raised money on Kickstarter to buy herself a laser cutter. In addition to her Etsy store, she sells her stuff to about a dozen wholesalers in the U.S. and Canada.

“It’s a great feeling to make something that people love and, with the timing, I think it was right when the recession hit,” she says. “So, you know, people didn’t have a lot of money to spend. So if somebody’s spending their hard-earned money on something that you made, it’s the ultimate compliment.”

She’s fully recovered now.

“I had my five-year, cancer-free anniversary in January of this year,” she says.

And, of course, she found a creative way to celebrate.

‘So, I have ‘no mas’ tattooed on my head. I got ‘no mas’ tattooed on my head while I was bald and then in January I shaved a spot off and added five little tick marks on there. And every time I get my hair cut by a new person, they start laughing. Otherwise, nobody ever sees it,” she explains.

So looking back, does Leggitt feel the horrible process of having Hodgkin’s lymphoma led her to where she is today?

“Ideally, I could have gotten there a different way,” she says, “but I think having Hodgkin’s lymphoma made me a lot more ambitious in getting what I want and it made me more fearless now. I think it’s easy to put yourself out there when you’ve been through a traumatic experience because it’s like, ‘Well, shoot, my body tried to kill itself, like, what’s the worst that can happen?’ So I go to a gallery and they think my stuff is crap. Who cares?”

And just so you know, her stuff is not crap. It’s playful and mischievous and, like Leggitt herself, it doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously.

This piece first aired on Destination DIY. You can listen to an extended version here.

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