Bent Into Shape

Bent Into Shape

Erin Smith neon lamp

Erin Smith, neon lamp

Erin Smith

Mixed-media artist Erin Smith’s studio is in a former bakery in south Minneapolis. She uses every square inch of the room, filling assorted molds with clay. Her gold earrings dangle as she moves quickly from table to table, slip-casting mugs. “This is how I get good biceps,” she laughs, shaking the clay from a mold. A few mugs and ceramic lamp bases, ghostly white, sit on a dust-coated shelf, but Smith’s favorite pieces reside elsewhere.

“I wish you could see my neon work,” she says.

Distinctive lamps are the 37-year-old artist’s latest project, and they’ve been a hit, taking center stage in a recent solo show at Minneapolis gallery Hair + Nails and snapped up by buyers enchanted by the interplay of material and color. For Smith, they represent long-awaited success, the merging of her creative and career ambitions.

But getting to this point wasn’t easy, or fast.

Growing up in St. Paul, Smith developed an interest in art by observing her mother, a graphic designer. Her father’s problem-solving skills – he worked as a scientist for 3M – also fascinated her. Ultimately, Smith’s love of art won out; she earned a BFA in product design at Parsons School of Design, followed by a yearlong fellowship in Berlin.

After she finished school, Smith spent about five years as a product designer at Target, working on home décor, handbags, and pet toys. It paid the bills, but, she says, the repetitive nature of the work wore on her soul. “I [was] designing things that are just being mass-produced and pumped out into the world,” she recalls. “It just wasn’t fulfilling, and it didn’t feel good.”

The frustration, and a need for something different, inspired Smith to turn toward craft. “People cherish a handmade item more than something you can buy at a big-box retailer,” she says. She produced a variety of work – functional ceramics and necklaces strung with handmade beads – and in 2011 joined forces with two friends to create the online shop Ship & Shape. After four profitable years, the shop closed so that the three artists could focus on their own work, and Smith rode the momentum, making a living from popular items such as mugs and distinctive lamps.

But something was still missing. Seeking to broaden her horizons, Smith took a neon class and found that the combination of science and art enthralled her. She started adding neon to her ceramic lamps, making them as sculptural as they are functional. “During the day, you could see the colors of the ceramic bases,” she says, “and then, at night, the neon would take over and light up the room in all different colors.”

The complicated nature of working with neon is a challenge Smith loves. “You have to plan out your bends so that pieces don’t run into each other,” she says. With a ribbon torch on a sliding arm, she controls the width of the flame that helps her twist the glass tubes. She doesn’t mind that the process can be time-consuming. (The sign she made for her recent show took five weeks.)

This is a rewarding phase of Smith’s career, though she knows there are still materials left to try, techniques still to learn, challenges to accept. For now, she’s making ends meet in a way that fulfills both her creative and technical ambitions. She advises anyone seeking to do the same to be patient. “It does take time to get to a point where you’re able to do your own work and have fun with it,” Smith says. But as her imaginative and successful recent output can attest, the wait is worth it.