You’ll forgive Jessica “Lulu” Smith (’96) if she’s a little tired. The acclaimed artist from Seattle, Wash., sat down (or maybe “collapsed” is a better word) for an interview in Lucas Hall’s metalsmithing studio immediately after wrapping up her third full day of demonstrations, gallery talks, individual critiques and studio workshops for NWU art students.
“It’s a good tired,” she said, smiling.
Smith returned to Nebraska Wesleyan from the West Coast in April 2012 to share both her work and her work ethic with NWU students.
First, her work.
Smith focused on ceramics and painting at NWU, and figured her work after graduation would center on one of those media. “I assumed I’d be a potter,” she said. But she also took a metalsmithing course, which led to an apprenticeship with Sydney Lynch, a contemporary jeweler working primarily with gold. The would-be potter said she found a pleasurable overlap between building structures in ceramics and in metal.
“That experience also showed me what’s possible in metalsmithing as a business,” she said. “It showed me how you can set up a successful operation pursuing an aesthetic.”
Smith’s aesthetic, however, differed from Lynch’s. “I’m interested in alternative materials.” And, like every painter, Smith is also interested in color.
A 1997 resin workshop at the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina opened the door to a new metalsmithing approach particularly suited to Smith’s colorful aesthetic.
|Yes, when I’m at home with a sick kid for a couple days, that flexibility’s nice. But when you get back to the studio—you slam.
As a metalsmith, Smith had been limited to the colors of the metals and stones available to her. As a potter, glazes broadened her color palette at the expense of control. (Putting pieces in kilns is inherently an act of faith, Smith said. Will the glaze behave like the artist hoped? Only time and temperature will tell.) But through her metalsmithing work with two-part epoxy resins, Smith increased both her color palette and her control. Today, she is an unrestrained colorist working quite successfully in three dimensions.
In exercising that colorful control, Smith regularly adds more than just pigment to the resins she pours. “You can add anything,” she said. To play with texture and color, Smith adds mica, spices, thread, even grass to her epoxy mixtures. The results are beautiful, colorful pieces of jewelry that are as warm as the personality that makes them.
But beautiful work is only one element of Smith’s success in art. Others, she said, are plain old hard work and a simple willingness to adapt to changing markets.
Smith made her start in the late ’90s, when a craft artist’s profitability hinged largely on her presence on councils, in galleries and at conferences and fairs. “In 1998, I applied to the American Craft Council—sort of the crème de la crème of American craft shows,” Smith said. She didn’t necessarily expect to get into the competitive show in Chicago on her first try, but she did. “And I took enough orders there for a year. It was a really good first experience,” she said. And it’s one she worked very hard to replicate at other major fairs, shows and galleries across the country.
In 2000, Smith made the decision to move to Seattle, the city she called “one of two hotspots for American metalsmithing.” There, she honed her craft as both an artist and a businessperson. Where she once hit the pavement traveling to shows across the country several times per year, Smith now relies on an e-commerce model that expands her reach while enabling her to stay closer to home with her two daughters. “I used to travel to six or eight shows in a year,” she said. “Now, it’s more like one or two. It makes it easier to be a parent.” So does having a studio close to home.
While Smith appreciates the flexibility she has now as an artist and a parent, she scoffs at the notion that what she’s doing constitutes a mother’s casual hobby. “Yes, when I’m at home with a sick kid for a couple days, that flexibility’s nice,” she said. “But when you get back to the studio—you slam.”
Smith’s work ethic crosses the grain against many Americans’ ideas about what art and artists are. Smith is not a hobbyist. She doesn’t make art because it’s “relaxing.” And, while her work may be playful, she is not playing. She is, in every sense of the word, a professional. “I’ll never understand why newspapers have ‘Arts and Leisure’ sections,” she said. “Everyone I know who does this for a living works incredibly hard.”
Helping Smith in that work is her husband and business manager, Matthew Landkamer (’94). She told the story of how Landkamer came to work for her fulltime. He’d called in to his boss quickly after the attacks on September 11, 2001, to say he wouldn’t be coming in that day. When his boss refused to grant him leave, Landkamer rephrased and said he wouldn’t be coming in—permanently.
“Since then, he’s helped me fulltime with web work, shipping and marketing—things that can take a big portion of your time. He does pretty much anything to keep me pouring and soldering.”
Together, they’ve evolved their business into an effective online operation. “People are comfortable buying online,” Smith said. And her reach has grown from regional to national to global. “I sell lots to customers in Canada and Australia,” she said. “Women send me their photos and ask me to suggest pieces to suit them. I’m really comfortable doing that.”
Another important element to Smith’s e-commerce success is a generous return policy. “What you see on the screen can be different from what you see in the box.
|Schools often spend so much time teaching students to make artwork that they can fail to teach them how to make art work.
And I want my customers to be confident when they buy something that they’re not taking a huge risk. They can send it back.” She said, “It’s very important to me that they’re happy. Even if they don’t buy something from me again right away, if they’re happy, they’re my bridge to my next customers.”
While she sees that return policy as a key to maintaining customer confidence, in her experience, actual returns are virtually nonexistent.
When Nebraska Wesleyan’s Mixed Media art club invited her to come back to campus and share her experience, she leapt at the opportunity to discuss both the craft and the business of an artist’s life. “It’s been cool to talk to them about the marketing and business side of art because it’s so important and so few schools really emphasize it,” she said.
Schools often spend so much time teaching students to make artwork that they can fail to teach them how to make art work. “Art students don’t necessarily know how to fit their potential with what’s out there,” Smith said. “And it’s great to see Nebraska Wesleyan taking steps like this to prepare and motivate them.”
Professor of Art Lisa Lockman said those steps will continue at Nebraska Wesleyan. “Lulu’s was the first in a series of artist invitations that Mixed Media intends to make,” Lockman said. The lessons professional artists share will help graduates make the leap from art students to working artists.
After three days of student critiques and workshops, Smith was both thoroughly exhausted and thoroughly impressed. “I talked to some motivated juniors who were already doing work for their senior shows. They’re thinking ahead and getting to work,” she said.
“I was a total slacker by comparison.”
Knowing Smith’s work ethic, that’s saying something.