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Local Artist Highlight: Robyn Smith

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Avenue for the Arts visits the studio of local sculptor Robyn Smith. Interview by Pamela MacDougal.
Robyn Smith in the studio

Robyn Smith in the studio /Jessica Simons

Upcoming Events with Robyn Smith

Fulton Street Market, ART! at the Market, July 14, 11 am - 4 pm

Village Square Art Fair (Saugatuck), July 27, 10 am - 5 pm


Rebirth /Robyn Smith

Untitled; Custom Work

Untitled; Custom Work /Robyn Smith

Robyn Smith jumped off the corporate ladder and into the art world when she left a successful career in the corporate graphic design world to launch her own creative studio—where she produces handbuilt ceramics for local shops and fine art ceramic sculpture. Her sense of grace and resilience comes through both in her words and her work as we sit down for an interview. Though Robyn knows how to spin a potter’s wheel, she prefers the artistic irregularities and unique results inherent in handbuilt work. She compliments those variable qualities with delicate washes of glaze reminiscent of watercolor. Work from RobynLynn Studios can be found at Cocoon Art Space and Nestology in Grand Rapids, as well as at Earthly Delights in Kalamazoo. Robin also participates in outdoor markets during the summer months. She currently has an exhibition of five sculptures in the Avenue for the Arts Artposts this summer.

Are you new to Grand Rapids? Yes, fairly new! I moved a couple of years ago from the east side of Michigan (I lived there my whole life). I’m new to the west side of Michigan, new to Grand Rapids. I love it here, this Eastown, East Hills area, especially. The west side [of Michigan], the arts community—there is something about it here. People are so welcoming. There is a real community. People help each other.

How did you get into art? I’ve always done some form of art. Mom was an art teacher. Dad was a draftsman - a creative mind, but more analytical. My mother had more of a fine arts mind. Growing up, my mom taught art out of our home. So, I was always surrounded by that kind of instruction in art. 

But, I went a different direction—I went to school for a graphic design degree and spent 12 years in the field. I worked my way up. Then, in 2019, I decided that I was burning out in the corporate environment. It was very competitive. It was still artistic, but I was always chasing and climbing the ladder. I got into management, and eventually decided it wasn’t for me. Management is a different job, a different skill set. It takes you away from the creative side of the business. I couldn’t see my life going that way for the next 20 years. It wasn’t an easy decision to leave that job. It wasn’t easy to leave that career. I had invested all that time to do that. You put everything into it—all that money and time and effort. And you have other people looking at you and questioning your decision. But I pulled back into my love of fine arts. 

I also work at a super cute indie bookstore. I love going there and doing my job—and then I shut it off and come home and do my ceramics. It’s great not to have that pressure of climbing a ladder. Of course, as an independent artist, you are the entire operation. You are doing everything. It’s a small business. Eventually, I would love to have someone help me. That is management, but it’s different from being in a corporate structure.

How did you make the transition? I was working in a big manufacturing company as a graphic designer—secure job, all that jazz. I quit that to work with a startup, which was scary. At a certain point, maybe three years in, we went through a tough patch where we didn’t know what was going to happen. And we all got scared. I thought I would have to figure something out as a fallback. So, I started illustrating cards on the side, like every illustrator does—cards and prints.  I had in mind to “create a style, create a style…,” but the problem with that idea is that it was so hard to create a style on demand… to develop ‘a thing.’ I hadn’t had a lot of experience at that time. The graphic design field doesn’t train you in that way—it’s more structured. Eventually, I did develop a style that was a bit watercolor-ish and a bit line drawing-ish, but it still never felt fully right. It felt like I was trying to please the market. I needed to make some money and figure out how to support myself in case I lost my job. Turns out we were fine—the startup company pulled through, and I ended up being there another 6 or 7 years. 

I always loved illustration, but in the course of all of this, I found myself not wanting to do traditional illustration on paper. So, I found pottery classes at the Paint Creek Art Center in Rochester. Through the pandemic, I took pottery courses with great instructors and fell in love with it. I signed up for a 9-week independent wheel throwing course with instructor Bekah Sweda. We met every week and talked a lot about conceptual art—very cool discussions. After I moved, I found out she moved here too and owns Sweda Studios on Fulton. I couldn’t have done it without all of them and that helpful instruction. Even now, a couple of years in, I need it, so I am joining West Michigan Potters Guild to get me out of the house and into the community. I’m very excited to join them and learn a little bit more, learn new processes. There is such an importance to artists coming into contact with each other. There’s give and take, finding direction. It’s hard to be creative in isolation. 

Right after I moved over here, I took classes at Grand Rapids Pottery. I went over to Pottery Lane for a while and met some wonderful people—the Grand Rapids ceramics community is so amazing. People are so open to sharing techniques with you and encouraging you. It doesn't feel competitive or secretive—everyone is like ‘do it! do it!’  All of that, plus YouTube, of course. I am still learning and developing and learning what I like to do. Graphic design was just the journey. Those pieces in the Artposts are simple, for the reason of all of this being simple. I am a new ceramic artist. I am still starting. I know that my journey is only beginning, and I am moving forward.

When I switched over to what I am doing now, working at the bookstore and creating art at home—there’s something about this that works, having no pressure. Having sculpture being more of a side thing…and my passion, it felt better. And I just played, playing around with experimenting. I like hand building—it’s meditative and slow to me. And I like the slow process. You get cool irregular shapes. 

Can you tell me a little about your concept for the work you are exhibiting in the Artposts this month? I love to incorporate illustration in my sculpture. I’ve tried all the basic forms of ceramics—wheel-throwing and other things. I’ve found that hand-building and sculpture is something I love to do. So, for this particular project, I chose sculpture with a little bit of a painting or illustration element. I love to incorporate some part of fine art illustration into my work—that’s the nature of my art. 

I put together an Artpost tour concept with the five posts. I thought it would be neat to illustrate my journey going from a corporate graphics design career to studio artist—that was my path. I grew up like we all did, conditioned to learn a skill, go to college, do the skill, retire, do something as a hobby. I think that view is going away as a cultural assumption, and that as we age, we are starting over more often. I wanted to express the idea that it is okay to start over. I also find a lot of inspiration in nature and wildlife and how we, as humans…we analyze. We are the only animals that analyze, and think, and doubt ourselves, and question ourselves again. Animals don’t do that, they are instinctual. 

I thought of the phases of a moth as a metaphor, a luna moth, just because I think they are beautiful. I went through learning about their life span, their metamorphosis. I tied it to each stage of the build of a vase. It goes from building up the vase from a small bowl to a full vase. I was thinking of that as my ceramics journey and how it is developing through time. But I also tied it to the moth that starts as an egg and hatches, turns into the caterpillar and grows. It becomes a cocoon and rests. Then, the luna moth reaches its peak, its authentic fully developed form, gives birth and dies. And that’s the starting over phase. Maybe that means I am starting over in a new career, maybe that means I am starting over in a new project. I try to keep that in mind that in life, those things will happen. Eventually, I end up getting better and learning new skills. It’s okay, and it’s a beautiful process. In each piece, I incorporated some type of phrase that ties to a word that supported me in my journey: discovery (finding ceramics), growth (process), rest (sustainability), authenticity (true self), death (beginning again). Each Artpost piece can be appreciated individually and related to a particular time, or the Artposts can be seen in sequence like a tour. 

Would you be willing to show me some of your work? Robyn shows me a three-legged bowl with images of koy fish swimming in the bowl. She describes to me her process for achieving the subtle variations in the color of the water. She says, “I like to take my underglazes and use them like paint—mix them and create custom colors. When I get them from the store, they are thick like paint. I dry them out and rewet them like watercolor. I water them down and layer them on, much like you would a painting. The bisque clay soaks them up and they turn out like a watercolor painting. So, that is how I get that variation.” Robyn also brings out a fine art sculpture of an upturned hand with a daffodil and a caterpillar in the palm. The antennae of the caterpillar are so delicate, I am afraid I will break them. 

Where do you think you will go from here; what’s your dream? I am so happy now, and I love to do this. When I get up at 6:30 to do a market, I think ‘this is so awesome.’ I am so excited even the night before. It’s such a different feeling than the Sunday night ‘icks’ that I used to get. So, in the short term, I would like to keep doing several markets per year. It's nice because people return to me who have visited before, and we're learning each other’s names. They’ll comment—they are always so generous with their compliments on my stuff. I feel like they are recognizing my growth as an artist. Their support is encouraging me to go on, and it’s very nice. I love it. I like to hear people’s stories when they see a piece—of what it might mean to them to have it. And who they are thinking of giving it to.

I love the shops I am in: Cocoon Art Space, Nestology, Earthly Delights in Kalamazoo. I would like to transition even more into stores, but still be present at some markets. I am interested in working on more sculptural and larger pieces that I could show at galleries. Over time, I may focus less on pieces for sale in shops, and more on fine art sculptural pieces. 

As I am walking away, I can see why people revisit Robyn at markets and resonate with her work. Her thoughtful, positive energy comes through her work with authenticity. Everything that is subtle and delicate and beautiful in her work is in her too. That ability to inhabit her work is what allows a moment of true connection between the artist and the audience. Robyn has it, and I look forward to seeing what she is able to do.


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