MEETING RUSSELLVILLE artist Amber Lea Smith is like seeing her hand-painted, hand-carved ceramic jewelry come to life: In life, as in her work, she’s effortlessly cool, completely accessible, maybe even a little bit quirky. She’s the kind of person you meet and think, Let’s be friends! Her jewelry’s the kind that you see and say, I’d wear this every day!
She greets us at the door of her home studio clad in a knee-grazing maroon velvet skirt and simple black tee, her long, loose waves still damp. She’s barefoot and her living room smells of cinnamon rolls. Warm ones. Coffee, too. She can’t wait to show us around, but first, breakfast.
Standing around her kitchen island, she tells us, between mouthfuls and would-you-like-some-more-fruit? how she came to be in the space where we’re currently breakfasting. She’s from Russellville, she says, born and raised, though until recently she’d been down in Baton Rouge, where she’d moved after wrapping up her art degree at UCA. Growing up in Russellville, she’d taken lessons from clay potter Winston Taylor, an Arkansas Living Treasure. It struck a chord with her. She never really stopped.
Art school introduced her to installation art, but her first job out of school with a jewelry designer in Louisiana taught her a new craft. A more marketable craft, one that might be able to sustain her installation work. While working for the jewelry company, she started toying around with her own designs, making pieces for her sister and for herself—minimalist, “kind of organic” pieces. Before long, she’d amassed quite the inventory.
“I had all of these pieces, and I thought, well, I’ll just go to one of these markets, these fairs, and try to sell it. And I did. And it was fun,” she says, guiding us into her light-filled studio, ceramic mugs of coffee in our hands. “I really liked interacting with the people and hearing their responses. That’s actually how I do my design, based on what’s popular,” she says, motioning to a long leather-and-ceramic-bead necklace pinned to a canvas across the room. “See that piece over there? That’s a custom order for a store in Oakland. I took a couple to Chicago and I sold them, so I knew that it would do well. I guess it’s my market research,” she says laughing at the pun.
Pieces that have passed market-research muster are on display throughout Amber’s studio, a small, impeccably organized room off her home’s main hallway. (In the works: a new studio in her soon-to-be-renovated garage, which is where her kilns currently do their thing.) On the work table in the middle of the room, a few dozen freshly fired earrings lay in wait, a big order for a wholesale client. Large canvas bulletin boards display works in progress, examples from her new collection and orders ready to be shipped out to places like San Francisco, New York City, even Tokyo. (“Japan!” she laughs. “I’m really big in Japan!”) Nearby, a honey-colored wooden bookcase is lined with black-and-white-striped vases, minimalist platters and small sculptures, and on a stand-up desk, a sketchbook lies open, its pages doodled over with Amber’s daydreaming. She’s working on her line for 2018, she says, trying some new things out. She’s been wearing a few of the pieces over the summer, just to see what sticks, what people notice. And she’s been experimenting with a few new colorants for her porcelain pieces.
“I tried to do magenta and this is what happened: NOT MAGENTA,” she says, holding up a glazed, lavender-hued porcelain rectangle.
“Oooh, I like that color,” I say.
“Oh, wait, you do?!” she exclaims. “See, market research! We’ll keep that one out!”
Thing is, it’s impossible not to like everything you see in Amber’s studio. Her pieces’ clean lines and modern aesthetic—inspired by architecture and midcentury furniture, she says—are unique but unfussy. They attract attention but don’t demand it. And they’ve attracted attention from all over the country. “Step into my ‘shipping department,’” she says, stepping 4 feet to the right of where she’s standing. Pinned up on copper wire are orders going to Ontario, Wyoming, New York. “And I just got an order from somewhere I’ve never heard of … something Heights?” she says. “It’s cool. Sometimes I step back and think, Wow, somebody’s wearing this necklace all the time and someone’s drinking coffee out of that mug. It’s part of someone’s life. It’s like a body installation—it sticks with you. They’re little sculptures, I like to think.”
As she says this, something catches her eye. “What do y’all think of this?” she says, pointing to a lariat-esque gold necklace. “Kinda funky right? This is the first time I’ve done this.”
We nod our approval, silently imagining it around our own necks.
“Good,” she says, her eyes twinkling. “Very good.”
“It’s tedious, my work!” Amber says with a laugh. And she’s not joking. Here’s how her pieces go from clay to customer
STEP 1: DESIGN.
Amber finds inspiration in architecture and midcentury furniture, but mainly, she says, she just designs things she feels like wearing. When coming up with a new collection, she also tweaks past designs—playing with scale, or with color—and responds to feedback from customers at fairs and shows.
STEP 2: COLOR.
Amber mixes pigment directly into the porcelain clay body itself, instead of relying purely on glazes. The result is a deep, vibrant color that she can leave matte or glaze to create something shiny.
STEP 3: SCULPT.
Each piece is essentially a tiny sculpture—Amber hand-carves every element, even the tiniest ones. “The Xacto knife is my friend,” she says. So is her hair dryer—the clay has to be at just the right consistency in order to sculpt it. Not too dry, not too wet.
STEP 4: BISQUE FIRE.
This first firing sucks out the moisture in the clay, resulting in a porous surface. “It will fire for 8 hours and cool for 12, so it’s like a 24-hour process before I can open it,” Amber says.
STEP 5: SAND.
Using ultra-fine sandpaper, Amber sands the parts she wants matte to get them super smooth. “See how this is shiny, and this is matte?” she says. “Everywhere that’s shiny I glaze with a brush, because I like the juxtaposition.”
STEP 6: GLAZE AND LUSTER.
Amber hand-paints the glaze, and then the pieces go through a glaze fire, which is the hottest: 2300 degrees. After they’re cooled from the kiln, she hand-paints the fine metals: silver, copper or 22k gold. “It’s very potent—you’ve got to do it outside in the air,” she says. “It goes on red and becomes bright gold when it reaches that certain temperature during the last firing: the luster fire.”
STEP 7: ASSEMBLY.
Amber adds the wires, chains and posts that turn her sculptures into jewelry. She puts her glasses on for this part—it’s pretty detailed work.
STEP 8: WEAR & SHARE.
Amber’s wares are carded, boxed and brought to her “shipping department” to go out into the big, wide world. Maybe she’ll stick a finished ring on her own finger. You know, for market research.