Interview: Timber Heard Discusses Navigating Mental Health, Identity, And Sustainable Jewelry Business, Talitha Kumi Jewelry

Oxford, Mississippi beader-seamstress, Timber Heard took to creating as a way to escape from the harsh reality she was living. "Being creative is something that helps me as a person, function. That's who I am." Combatting bipolar disorder alongside trying to piece together the complexities of her biracial identity has been a lifelong struggle, but she is now speaking her truth and reclaiming her power.

Timber Heard is a beader-seamstress, writer, and mixed media artist originally from McComb, Mississippi. “I have been beading since I was fourteen and sewing since I was eight—I still don’t know how to sew on a sewing machine,” she laughs, “Everything I do is by hand.” For Timber, beading and creating with her hands was an escape, something that was necessary for her survival. Combatting bipolar disorder alongside trying to piece together the complexities of her biracial identity has been a lifelong struggle, but she is now speaking her truth and reclaiming her power.

“I am a biracial Black woman from Mississippi. I had a lot of hard times being biracial. It led to foster care because I was originally adopted by a white couple who did not know that I was biracial when I was born.” As Timber grew, her blackness came as a shock to her white adoptive parents. “They are older and they’re Southern, so they don’t know the Culture. We fell out so many times and it led to foster care because I was not that great of a kid. It led to feelings of abandonment. It led to feelings of hopelessness.”

As a young and confused child, Timber harbored those feelings of abandonment and hopelessness, which led to self-harm. “I had never done hardcore stuff, but I took to cutting when I was a kid. I had to have something to take my mind off things and that’s where creativity showed up. I’m bipolar and bipolar people are known for creativity. I think of it as because we are bipolar we have to figure out a way around our minds, so we become creative out of this world.”

Timber Heard

Do you feel that your creative gifts stemmed from your childhood specifically or would you say that’s always been a part of you?

Both. It stems from my childhood, but I found out who my family was when I was twenty-seven. I knew who my mom was when I was eleven—my mother is white, my father is Black—and my mother worked at Frederick’s of Hollywood as a seamstress. There’s creativity all on my father’s side as well. A bunch of educated creative people. I thought that was so cool that I could learn my history like that at twenty-seven. I used Ancestry.com and found out where my gifts come from and it’s not exclusive to me.

Actually, my adoptive sister on my mom’s side is a seamstress. I came into the family when she was twenty-five and I’ve always looked up to her because she has always had her own business. My mom taught me how to sew—when I say “mom” I’m usually talking about my adoptive mom, so keep that in mind. Sewing was just something that I picked up—how to thread a needle, how to go in and out of fabric, specific stitches. When I was fifteen in a foster home I was really going through hormonal changes, so I picked up beading and that’s where I picked it up at.

I can remember beading a dragon. I’ve always had this thing for dragons. I have no idea why. I have a tattoo of a dragon on my hip—I love Asian culture. Talking about Asian culture aesthetically, I’ve always thought it was so dope. I love the history. I love anime. Anime is cool, but I don’t watch it that much. Rather, I love the basis that it has and is rooted in Asian ancient culture. I took Japanese and Chinese in college. When I got older I was able to get more grounded in my heritage and pick up aesthetics with African culture. One thing I would love to do is go to South Africa and see the Ndebele tribe—they’re known for all of their colorful beadwork. I’m an Anthropology major and I’ve always been into archaeology growing up. I would go outside and pick up rocks like ‘ooh, this is a hematite fossil’—something nerdy. I have a broad collection! [laughing]

That’s so cool! I didn’t know that part. It seems like you have a really interesting mixture of influences. You’re drawn to the Asian aesthetic, which I think is really dope, too. Especially the ancient art. They have some really nice fine detailed work. So from that to your background in anthropology, it seems like you’ve been very inquisitive. You pick up on new skills, too if you can pick up sewing by hand and beadwork. It seems like you really pay attention to details. Beadwork takes time and patience and I can only imagine—especially with the work you’ve produced—how did you get to that point in terms of your craft with beadwork? You said you started when you were younger, but was there anything specific that inspired you to begin beading, or did you say ‘oh, let me give this a try just because’?

I think I saw something with a Japanese aesthetic because the first beadwork that I did was a dragon. So I said, I think I’m going to try and bead this, and I would go in between each bead. It became my signature skill—easy for me. Having a mental illness, which I’m so very vocal about, it’s very easy for me to sit there and be repetitive over something because I think I have some sort of OCD—I’m not going to claim that, but it’s so easy for me to sit there and do something repetitively. And yes, I’m a collage artist as well. My attention to detail in my collage work? You think my beadwork is crazy? You’ll have to see a collage!

Being creative is something that helps me as a person, function. That’s who I am.

And that’s cool though because I know that you are just an artist—a creative! From a writer to doing more traditional forms of art to beadwork—working with textiles. You’re doing it all, that’s amazing. Collage pieces. I’ve seen it all. I’ve witnessed your journey over the years and it’s been a really beautiful process of your evolution. Right now, people are starting to get to know you. Based off social media, right? This is what I’ve seen. [laughing] You’re really radiating. You’re shining. You’re stepping into your power. That’s what I’m seeing and it’s really inspiring and I’m super happy for you. I’m so glad that you found an art form—you’ve been doing it for some time, but you’re really putting the time into it and producing the work. It’s just really good to see you being creative. I just want to let you know that, personally. I’m proud of you.

Thank you, I appreciate it. With bipolar disorder, jealousy is a thing so it’s hard for me to focus, and having OCD tendencies it’s hard for me to concentrate on myself. I go to a big-scale political school and if it’s not about politics here—and I am not about politics, okay! I am completely right-brained—creative. They reward the people who are politically inclined, who have the best grades, and stuff like that. Me? I can study, but I won’t force myself to study. I don’t want to say as an excuse that that’s a part of bipolar disorder, but with bipolar disorder, you do have to work around your own brain. Being creative is something that helps me as a person, function. That’s who I am.

It’s you to the core and you’re navigating your mental health issue.

Yes, and it’s very hard to navigate unless you have a skill with it. It’s definitely a journey and it’s a creative process in itself.

Underneath all the racism that you see, all the hate, all the pain, and all the history, there’s the underground art scene, which fuels different movements.

How would you describe the city of Oxford and the art scene there?

The art scene here reminds me of what I see in underground spaces. I’ve never been to the United Kingdom, I’ve never left the USA, but it reminds me of a smaller scale United Kingdom art scene. It’s definitely hipster. Even the Black artists are hipster. It’s very cool, but there’s a big writer community here because William Faulkner was the Nobel Peace Prize writer here. Who else? We have Kiese Laymon who is a teacher here. He’s a dope-ass writer. I love Kiasai’s work. There’s a relaxed vibe, but there’s also a hidden—well it’s not hidden. Underneath all the racism that you see, all the hate, all the pain, and all the history, there’s the underground art scene, which fuels different movements. The community I want to work with is the mentally ill community, or the transient community, or the homeless community because I’ve been all three.

You have a specific group that you want to target with your work. That’s very empowering and you definitely have a testimony to share and I see you being a light—well, you already are a light to many people, even if they don’t stay it, so just know it. As I was saying earlier, I’m familiar with your work as a writer—your poetry, you’ve contributed to my platform for some time, so again I’m very familiar with your writing, but the beading was something new for me. I was just taken away. It’s really beautiful and I’m looking forward to seeing more from you. We’ve kind of been on this topic a little bit, but specifically, you’ve been very vocal and transparent about being biracial and battling with mental health. How has your identity as a biracial Black woman influenced your artistry?

It took I feel like even as a biracial Black woman without knowing my history, I reach into the culture. It took me a while to reach into African culture because I felt for a long time as a biracial woman—it’s not easy in the South. I felt like as a biracial woman it was hard for me to reach into African culture, but when I do, beadwork is a thing. That only encourages me to go a little bit harder. Other than Russian culture, there’s no comparison of the colors that you use, the fabrics that you use, the vibrancy that there is in African culture. It’s funny because my sister is half-Russian and I’m one-fourth Irish, so beadwork is a thing in their culture as well.

Most of my friends have been Nigerian, it’s so funny because when I was growing up, I would go to my best friend Amy’s house and I would have a dish night. That’s how much I stayed at their house and it’s a Nigerian household, so when I would get into arguments with my parents I would go to my friend’s house. Everyone is like how do you know what fufu is? How do you know to dip your hands in water before you eat it? How do you know to eat with your hands? I was like, it’s part of how I grew up.

I come to find out my heritage and my highest percentage of African is Cameroonian, which I don’t know the culture of Cameroon. I have a deeper voice and they do have singers there, there’s a tribe there that my dad kind of looks like, which is cool, but they’re known for their singing abilities. I’m not known for my singing abilities, but I’ve been told that my voice is unique because it’s deeper. I heard my mom talk, I never heard my dad talk because he died before I got the opportunity to meet him. My mom has a raspy deeper voice. It’s little things like that, that make me think, where am I really from? I’ve studied the history. I’ve studied cultures all over the globe when I was a little kid. Where am I from? What do I do? I think that influences my art and my writing—just a sense of wonder. I think as Christians as well, we have a wonder about God. About how things come to be and I think that just influences a lot of stuff that I do. I’m a very big proponent of Christianity and the reason why is because without Jesus I wouldn’t have made it.

Thank you for sharing that. Earlier you said that at one point you didn’t really feel too comfortable exploring the African art world/culture being biracial. Has that changed for you at all?

Absolutely because I’ve come into my own a little bit especially finding the Black side of my family because being a biracial adoptee, it’s not only part of your family that’s missing. It’s part of your culture that’s missing as well, so I’m a big proponent of—well I’m not going to say I’m a super big proponent of this, but I am a big proponent of same-race adoptees—I don’t have anything against people who adopt a baby of a different race, but you want your culture. You’re going to grow up and wonder who you are.

Timber Heard, Childhood Photo

I know how it feels to not be wanted repetitively because people would just give me away because I was just the weird, different, mouthy kid.

I feel it’s a natural instinct for a child, or really anyone to try and understand where they come from or have questions about their heritage.

My best friend is fully Black and she’s adopted by a fully Black family, but adoption is one of her triggers. She’s so happy for me, but I feel like such a jackass when I talk about finding my family in front of her. She found her mother and her mother didn’t want much to do with her and that hurt me as her best friend because I know what an awesome soul she is. I really want to say to her, it’s her loss it’s not yours, but I can’t. As an adoptee, that doesn’t mean much because we know how it feels to not be wanted and growing up in foster care and going to seven different high schools—I, me—I know how it feels to not be wanted repetitively because people would just give me away because I was just the weird, different, mouthy kid. I ended up in group homes because group homes were somewhat of the only place where I would just be cool at. Before I even came to college I knew how it felt to live with a bunch of girls. Growing up in juvenile and different things—and if you ever want to learn how to play spades, go to jail! That’s where I learned how to play spades. [laughing]

[laughing] I sure don’t know how to play! That’s one thing, look—ain’t nobody sitting down teaching you how to play around here, so I still don’t know. You were adopted as a baby, right? And then that situation, your adoptive parents didn’t feel like it was the right fit, so then you went into…

Actually, I did a lot of things. I would fight and I would hit my parents, which I’m so embarrassed to talk about. I was embarrassed that I did stuff like that and my mom still cared. My dad walked out of my life, but my mom still cared. And again, when I say mom and dad I mean adoptive parents.

You have the right to be embarrassed about that, but just as an outsider looking in, considering your journey it’s like everything happened in the way that it was supposed to happen, as odd as that may sound. You can forgive yourself for those moments. You had a very unique experience.

Very unique. I don’t know another soul on this earth that’s me.

I would love your perspective on this. What are some misconceptions within the Black community in regards to mental health?

Possession. Especially here in the south. I’m not going to say that as a Christian that it’s not some type of possession, but Jesus is not physically walking the earth. You know, going around touching people saying be healed. It’s okay if you need medicine. You’re not a complete waste of a human being because you need medicine. The brain is an organ, it can malfunction. I hear about way too many people because they’re schizophrenic or bipolar and they’re not just depressed and I feel like—don’t get me wrong when I say this—depression is not a pretty disease, but it’s not one of the ones that have the biggest taboo against it anymore. You know what I’m saying? Bipolar and schizophrenia on the other hand? Those are the diseases that need to be talked about a little bit more because, in Mississippi, people with these diseases are the ones you throw into a mental hospital and lock away the key. It’s not like cancer where people get balloons and hugs and kisses and all of that. We get thrown in hospitals and a lot of people there don’t have family. The family that they have don’t want them because they’ve been through the wringer so many times and then they throw away the key. So, that person’s quality of life is wasted and that’s a horrible way to live—already hurt in your mind, losing sanity, and then having to have all the physical stuff going around? That’s not cool.

What advice do you have for creatives who are battling with their identity and or with their mental health?

If you’re religious in any type of way, reach out to God. But as an artist, for every artist that ever was, that ever will be, express yourself in your work because there are some things that I think I don’t want to write about, but I know if I do write about these things so many people could relate. I’m embarrassed to write about them, but I’m trying to figure out what to let go of. But definitely in my artistry—I don’t mean my writing—I express myself. I don’t really express my mental illness in my artistry other than the fact of me doing the artistry. Express yourself in any way that you know how because somebody’s going to see it and relate.

It’s the weirdest thing. There are feelings in our brain that we can’t express to a normal person because there’s no verbal word for it. You can put that in art and somebody apart from you completely get what you’re talking about because they have the same sensibility or the same mindset or the same thing going on in their lives and you don’t have to say a word, you can just paint it. It doesn’t have to be a picture, it can be abstract and that could be how you feel and that could be exactly how that other person feels. Art is important. A lot of people think that art is not important. Art is essential, especially to the human brain. Especially to people trying to relate. Art is a way to relate.

I like how you broke that down! You’re also a business owner. Tell us about your brand, Talitha Kumi Jewelry.

At first, it was just jewelry, but now it includes handbags and I do custom orders. Beadwork is part of my handbags. I do custom orders with jewelry. I make sustainable jewelry. I’ll go and find broken jewelry or stuff that people don’t want and I’ll turn it into something they do. Or, I’ll keep it until they make a custom order and I’ll use it to create it. I’m definitely sustainable. I’m small scale. I’ll never be scaleable and I don’t want to be scalable. It would be really dope if say, Nicki Minaj or someone fell in my inbox and was like ‘Hey Tim, I need a handbag by so and so date’—I could definitely do that. My prices aren’t expensive… yet. I haven’t made a name for myself. But, it takes a while to do a purse. I don’t know if you saw the pink one I did, but it sold for $140.

Elaborate on the name of your brand.

It comes from verse Mark 5:41. Jesus was talking to Jairus’ daughter. Jairus was just a person in the Bible, a man with a daughter and she was sick. She was supposedly dead because nobody could wake her up. Two words from Jesus and the little girl gets up. He says, no she’s only sleeping and everybody laughed at Jesus when he said that. Jesus cleared the room out and was like “daughter get up” and she got up and that is what Talitha Kumi is about. It is about getting up because I’ve fell down so many times, but this is a chance to get up.

I won a business grant with the Mississippi Arts Council and I’m actually in the building that I’m able to use right now because of the grant. So, that’s what I’m doing and it’s about getting up. I just thought about something today and I’ve already had this idea, I’m going to use the words ‘equity through design one stitch at a time’ because that’s what it is. I would like to donate maybe up to half—I don’t know the percentage yet—to a non-profit that would be under my name through Create.

And also, when a person goes into a state hospital—I don’t know if this is nationwide, but definitely, in Mississippi—they lose their disability. When they get out it goes back on, but that doesn’t help because it takes time to amass that amount again and they can lose their place to stay, especially if they don’t have family. That’s why there are a lot of people who have schizophrenia or bipolar disorder as transients just walking on the street homeless. They’ve lost, they’re living from hotel to hotel that a church will pay for. I work at a hotel. I see that. I’m blessed to work at a hotel and see that, but it’s funny and at the same time such a good thing because I work at the hotel that I used to stay at when I was homeless. It really has been a blessing. And if you believe in God, I feel like you have to believe in the enemy, too, so I wake up and I laugh in Satan’s face every day.

That is like—you’re elevating. You’ve elevated!

Vibrate higher! Vibrate higher!

Higher. No exceptions! I’m loving the energy that you’re exuding. Like I said, your growth has just been inspiring. Are there any other areas that you wish to explore with your artistry?

I would like to travel and learn new techniques for my artistry. I would love to go to Bhutan, which is in the Himalayas, and learn Thangka painting. You know, the Buddhist murals you see in temples and stuff like that take time. Painting the Gods and all of that. I would love to learn how to do that and I would love to learn how to weave with beads and just weave my own fabric in general—save money.

Surely there are some programs or just events that individuals put on to learn from other skilled artists—their craft and techniques. I could see you taking part in something like that. But, it’s really cool to know that you want to learn. What does it mean to be Black and Gifted?

Whew! What does it mean to be doubly blessed? The Culture! It’s all about the Culture and our roots, and I even discovered living in Black foster homes the family setup is different. There’s me being biracial and living in both homes, you compare the two, but there’s definitely roots in the Black community. The white community—and I hate to say that—that’s not there. It comes from the tribe because of the familial set up in the Black family, we have cousins we ain’t even related to. You’re not really going to find that in a white family, you know? It comes from the tribe because auntie this and auntie that to people we’re not related to because it’s respect. But, it comes back from the tribe’s familial unit in Africa.

It seems like, with me, my family on the white side has more drug addicts. My grandmother killed herself. She drunk herself to death—alcohol poisoning. I don’t touch alcohol, not even socially and that’s a generational curse that I want to break and it’s so funny because I found out that my real mom went through group homes and her family went through group homes—masonic group homes, which are weird to me. It’s like a generational curse that Satan keeps trying to perpetuate in my life. If I’m blessed with a child, by the grace of God, he’s not going to go through that or she’s not going to go through that because I am the curse breaker.

And that’s a lot. Breaking any generational curse, be it addictions, health, financial, whatever you name it, it’s not easy to be that one. Even me personally, I’m breaking generational curses myself. You bringing that up kind of sparked something in me to say this, but you go through so many things, and like you said, you feel like your generational curses were trying to rear their head at you in some way, at some point in your life and you’re like no, it stops at me.

It stops at me because going through so many foster homes, I know exactly how I want to parent now because I’ve seen so many parenting styles. What Satan had set up for me to fail, I am going to use it to my advantage and not my disadvantage because that’s how God set that up. He’s a really good God.

Stay connected with Timber Heard via their website and Instagram.

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