The more time I spend in the Maker community, the more convinced I become that making things does great things for people. While at Maker Faire Bay Area 2016 I met Amy Davis Roth, also known as Surly Amy, in the Craft pavillion. Her business, called SurlyRamics, is devoted to the sale of handmade science-themed ceramic jewelry. Roth’s story left me more convinced than ever that making was both a viable career and a necessary psychological outlet for the creative impulse.
“I started making jewelry in sort of a strange way,” said Roth. “Originally I was a painter. I opened a gallery in my late twenties in North Hollywood. It was called the Art Coalition. I thought I knew everything about the world and life and everything. It lasted two years, which in retrospect isn’t that bad; but it was a complete failure.” Roth had invested everything into her gallery, so its failure left her in a tough spot. “I ended up bankrupt. I was living in my car — until they repossessed it. That’s how bad it was. I lost everything.”
Pushed into survival mode, Roth did what she could to make ends meet. “I couldn’t paint any more; I had no space. I got super depressed. I literally didn’t have anywhere to live at the time. So I got a job as a cocktail waitress. I ended up meeting my future husband at this time, who let me live with him in this tiny one-room studio apartment. My mother was a ceramic artist. She would let me come over to her studio and borrow scraps of what she wasn’t using. So since I couldn’t paint, I ended up making these tiny necklaces to ease myself back into making. I wore them to work to remind myself that I was still an artist — that I wasn’t a cocktail waitress; this was just a phase.” Already, the psychological benefits of making were having an impact.
Roth continued to wear her handmade necklaces to her shifts at the bar. “Then something fantastic happened — people started buying them off my neck at work.” Business picked up. “I literally started making more money selling necklaces to customers at night than I made in tips. This was right around the time Etsy launched, so I think I got really lucky; when you used to post something it would show up on their front page. It emerged at a perfect time in my life. I was able to quit my job and start this small business and I made enough money to survive.” There was still plenty of room to grow — Roth and her future husband were still sharing a one-room apartment — but it was a good start. “It’s now ten years later and I’m still making jewelry.”
After a short time, Roth was able to stop waitressing and focus on her art. “This is what I do full time. I also have a Patreon. It’s kind of gone full circle. I started as a painter and an illustrator and doing graphic design, started a business, lost everything, started making the jewelry, that started paying the bills, and now I’ve found myself in a position where I have an actual art studio again, and I can do fine art. So I’ve started a Patreon and each week I do a different science-based illustration. I have actual scientists peer review my work. So I’ll bring in a neuroscientist or a physicist or an astronomer to fact-check the work I’m doing. I do a lot of sci-fi stuff, but I make sure to include some science, and then I have a scientist give me a quote or direct me to some credible links so I can teach the audience where my ideas are coming from.” Her current series is about robots living on Enceladus, the sixth-largest moon of Saturn. In her artwork, the moon acts as a stopover for humans who are on their way out of the solar system. Much of the work involves concepts from chemistry and physics.
Roth is especially well known in the atheist, critical thinking, and science communities. Much of her jewelry is designed on themes from those groups. “During the time I was a waitress, I decided I was going to make art about physics. I remember announcing this to some of the customers on the back patio. They were like ‘oh, what kind of physics?’ I literally didn’t even know there was more than one kind. It was really funny. But that was sort of my entry into science; I decided I wanted to learn about something that I didn’t know. I started talking to a lot of scientists, getting involved with the skeptic community, and here I am now doing primarily work that is science-based.”
The drive to learn new things and remain curious is a noticeable trait in a lot of Makers, and Roth is no exception. Even while running her own business, she still manages to find time to learn new things. “Art is a full-time job. I really don’t think there’s enough hours in the day to be an artist. For fun I’m really into gardening, but because I’m kind of a nerd I’m doing stuff like grafting a fruit salad tree that grows five different types of citrus.”
As neither of us is native to the Bay Area, we talk briefly about other Maker Faires. Roth has been to the Bay Area and New York events, while I had previously attended the Las Vegas Mini Maker Faire.
“I want there to be a Maker Faire in Los Angeles!” said Roth. At the idea of organizing it herself, Roth laughs. “That’s like Meta-Making. If you’re making a Maker Faire, that’s… you should get an award for that. Like a 3D printer, or something.”