We Create Birmingham: Aaliyah Taylor and Gelenda Norman

"Whenever I feel like I need to refine myself to be like others, I have to remember that I have purpose in who I am. I am unique, and it’s important to remain true to you. And by doing that, you remind others to stay bold and authentic." Aaliyah Taylor, Exalting in Beauty
Photos by: Ambre Amari
Interview by: Meghann Bridgeman

Aaliyah Taylor, founder, and CEO of Exalting Beauty, and Gelenda Norman, founder of Geez Dezignz, are two stand-out Birmingham artists, makers, and jewelry designers. They’re also an absolutely incredible mother-daughter pair bursting with creative talent. It was such a delight to sit down with them and learn more about their journeys, brands, and family dynamic.

Before we get into the businesses you own today, I’d love to hear more about your time together when Aaliyah was growing up. You’ve been through a lot together and have an observably special mother-daughter relationship. 

Gelenda: You know, it’s funny, I was not mother material. Honestly. My family didn’t let me even babysit their kids. I just didn’t have the mindset. 

But when I was pregnant, the nurses in the maternity clinic used to tell me to talk to the baby and stay in a joyful state. So I just started talking to her (a lot). I said, look, I have no clue what I’m doing, so we’re going to have to work together. She must have heard me because that’s the kind of relationship we have always had. It’s like a ying yang thing. We balance each other out. 

Aaliyah: It’s always just been her and me. We had other support systems, but day by day it’s just been us. I have an old soul because I had to grow up quickly. I was still a daughter, but I knew I had to be a partner with my mom. She always did what she could for me to pursue my dreams. When I listen to other friends who grew up with more traditional support, I’ve realized they didn’t have someone in their lives where they could fully be themselves. Whatever the goal was, she’d pull me back and help me focus on what I wanted to do and who I was, so I could make the right steps. She gave me freedom and showed me what it looked like… even while she was trying to figure out what freedom looked like for her. So I can give back now and show her what freedom means in this chapter.

Do you think your creative talents grew out of your relationship or do you think it was your innate (and similar) creative talents that drew your relationship closer together? 

Aaliyah: From my viewpoint, it wasn’t the relationship. I didn’t know my mom was artistic until, down the line, when I stumbled upon sketches in a notebook. It was dope because there were all these amazing graphic t-shirt sketches. When I discovered her notebook, I was already making art, not to be an artist, just to create. I also found oil pastels in my grandma’s room. I now know that I come from a line of amazing artists, poets, fashion designers, painters etc. To realize I have artists in my bloodline is so freaking crazy.

I had no idea the women in my life and family were artists. So, for me, it wasn’t our relationship that prompted our creativity. I already had it, but I was shocked to realize that we had a common interest and origin point. I want to be sure the creative cycle continues and that my artwork won’t ever be hidden or something left to be discovered. 

Gelenda: Listening to you, it really reminds me that this is a part of who we are because my grandmother had this creative thing too. My dad’s mom made quilts and embroidered pillowcases. My mom was gifted in macrame, and I begged her to teach me, but she couldn’t.  Her technique wasn’t learned or repeatable; it came from her heart. And my mom’s mom had an eye for fashion. She could pull together an outfit and wasn’t afraid of the colors and patterns.

You have very different aesthetics but a strong common theme, which is that both your creations were born out of resourcefulness. That is a really powerful creative catalyst. Can you guys talk about that?

Aaliyah: For me, with the perler beads, I was a broke college student. I wasn’t qualified for work-study, but I knew how to hustle. I knew I could sell something that I created. I’d been doing that since high school, where I used to sell portraits that I created. I knew I could take something like a kid’s toy and find ways to fit it into my style. I knew there was a lane for me even though the jewelry market is really saturated. I could make my own space with a cheap material and make it into another art form that people can wear and enjoy. 

That continues to be a catalyst for me, and I know it’s something that people haven’t seen before. That resourcefulness has made me a  trailblazer, and the perler beads keep me standing alone. I’ll always be resourceful, but as long as I remain true to who I am and create new things, I know I can be successful.

Gelenda: For me, though, I didn’t like to be seen without jewelry on, but I always want my jewelry to be unique… without paying the unique price. In the 90s, I bought what I thought was a unique piece, and then I saw it in a music video. It made me realize how much was actually being mass-produced. That pushed me to purchase from makers and eventually to create pieces myself. Not only could I create, but I could recycle materials to make something truly original without relying on expensive materials. 

Aaliyah, when did you launch Exalting in Beauty? Your brand is so colorful and playful. Did your first design capture that same spirit? Or has it evolved to what we see today?

Aaliyah: I started as a fashion blogger. It was called Exalted Beauty, and I journaled different fashions I was wearing. My perler beads work was originally called Jewelry Love Child Designs, and it was pretty bohemian style. I went natural and had a fro. A lot of things I wore were very fluid. I wasn’t dressed colorfully! 

So I was making all of this jewelry, and it wasn’t selling. I had a lot of dark and neutral tones. One day I pulled the perler beads out and started embracing colors. I dyed my hair platinum blonde. I went off to school again in 2016, and that’s when I figured out who I was. The next time I pulled the perler beads, I was focused on color foundation tools and launched Exalting in Beauty. My jewelry was speaking so much louder than I was, and I decided it was time to reflect and embrace who I was. That’s where I am today. That’s how the design evolved as I evolved. In fact, the jewelry captured it first and until I was finally able to reflect my brand through my personal style and wardrobe.

Do you intend on continuing with perler beads? 

Aaliyah: Yes. The goal is to keep up my perler beadwork, so I have passive income and time to focus on my passion. So, I’m still happily attached to perler beads. 

What design is your favorite, and what do customers love most? 

Aaliyah: My favorites are In Living Color (art shape with cool bold primary colors). Customers love the fruits, especially avocado, and watermelon. That is always sold out on Etsy! 

Gelenda – when did you launch Geez Dezignz? Have you always been someone who gives discarded objects a second life? 

Gelenda: Yes, yes, and yes! I’ve always collected things and reused them. I check every garbage load, looking after every scrap of paper. I always say, wait a minute, let me look at it and see what works. We can do something with something. Modge podge or wire, we’re going to make it work. One of my favorite rings was a piece of copper we found in a  parking lot. I knew there was life in that beat-up piece of copper and turned it into a ring. Anything and everything. Scraps can become something beautiful.

I launched Geez Dezignz in 2015 when I did my first Woodlawn St. Market. I used to just give my jewelry away.  When a person would compliment me, I’d just take the jewelry off my body and hand it over. To this day, there is one pair of earrings I gave away that I have major regret over. I think twice now and am glad to have established a business to sell my one-of-a-kind designs. 

Where do you source your leather and other materials?

Gelenda: I rarely purchase any material. I think I’ve only purchased leather twice. My leather is typically donated from other makers or from samples and upholsters. I’ve had some wonderful donations from amazing makers in Birmingham. Some folks even give me things they just can’t use.

Being a creator is a big venture. It’s common to doubt your creation or be tempted to alter them, so they’re more mainstream, but the real success usually comes from creators who remain authentically and uniquely themselves. You’ve both achieved that. How did you hold onto that vision and courage? 

Gelenda: I’ve hit rough spots before. I got to that crossroads because I was beginning to try to create pieces to accommodate others, and the outcome wasn’t as strong. I had to stop and stand up for my work. I’m most relaxed when I get to do what’s in my heart and do what I see. I can’t afford to get caught up in what’s trending. It’s my art and my love that I get to share. You can like it or dislike it.

Aaliyah:  In order to maintain my vision, I have to withdraw myself. I’m the type of person that can be overwhelmed and anxious. It can totally paralyze me. I’ve had moments where I just need to shut down, sit back, and sink into who I am. That time helps me stay grounded. My tattoo is a reminder. It says, “You are fearfully and wonderfully made” from Psalm 139:14.

Whenever I feel like I need to refine myself to be like others, I have to remember that I have purpose in who I am. I am unique, and it’s important to remain true to you. And by doing that, you remind others to stay bold and authentic. I have to get off social media and Pinterest. Instead, I’ll read a book or watch an old show that makes me calm so I can stay focused on the right thing. I need peace to be able to create. I can’t not be who I am because my artwork is a part of me. I can’t compromise. 

Gelenda: Everybody has a pattern. Just observe people closely enough, and you’ll know everything you need to know. When you really look at people on social media, you can see folks who are being disingenuous. That’s when I can see what they’re showing is not real. We’re all struggling, but some people present it differently on Instagram. We’re seeing such an extremely high number of suicide rates because people are caught in the flood of these false personas. 

What’s on the horizon for each of your businesses? 

Gelenda: I am working on a new logo that’s me. With the jewelry going into another level, I really want to emphasize wearable art. I’m starting to think of my jewelry as sculpted leather to be displayed or worn. Maybe I’ll even move into large-scale work. 

Aaliyah: I’m focused on my Shopify website. It’s beautiful! That will kickstart my business again. It’ll launch in February at Exaltingbeauty.com. After winning Magic City Fashion Week, I can really incorporate fashion design into my work. The goal is to make it more than just a jewelry brand by incorporating ’60s mod editorial style pieces. There isn’t really a market for plus-size high fashion, even though there are a lot of size-inclusive businesses. But there is a demographic of plus-size women who want bold and vibrant high-end pieces, who appreciate art and want to wear it. 

These pieces are gorgeous. Where can we shop?

Gelenda: My Etsy shop.
Aaliyah: My Etsy shop for now… and exaltingbeauty.com soon!