Random Asides

Ask Surly Amy: Why Not So Surly?

I met you at TAM and as far as I can tell you aren’t surly. You don’t fit any of these definitions.

So why do you call yourself Surly Amy?

-Laika

I get asked this a lot so here is the history on how I got that nickname. Not much science or skepticism involved in this tale, just some good-old fashioned artistic determination. If you are curious about my backstory you might enjoy this post. If not, catch you next time!

For those who do not know, I am an artist who paints and makes things. I make art you can wear out of ceramics called Surly-Ramics. I am a huge advocate and fan of science and skepticism. I am constantly seeking new information to incorporate into my work. I try to find ways to share what I learn, spread information, encourage education and share beauty and my experience as an artist through my various art projects. I also donate to a lot of charities and use my art to help raise money for various humanist type organizations. My hope is that I can inspire people to learn and to improve their own lives through art and science.

Semi-Brief History:

My grandmother painted amazing landscapes of upstate New York and my aunt paints beautiful life-like fairy paintings. (I thought fairies were members of the family until I got older!) All of my cousins that I know, are artists and even my great grandfather is legendary in my family for his painting ability. My mother has published books on paper making, the art of making puppets and marionettes and how-to books on stuffed animals. Those books were published in the 70’s when I was just a itty-bitty little squirt and you can see photos of me clutching the toys to my chest. I’m pretty sure the stuffed toys my mother made were my best friends growing up. One of my earliest memories is playing under the table at a craft fair. (We hope to get some of those books republished online but sadly, as of now I have no links.)

I was raised to make art. Whenever I said I was bored my mother or grandmother would tell me to go make something. I made all of my own clothes in high school and I painted prolifically with acrylic paint on canvas, wood, paper, used furniture, walls, and anything else I could get my hands on. One time I even painted all the phones in the house in floral designs. Not sure if everyone else in the house appreciated it, but it sure was fun! I was taught that artists are special and to be creative is the best thing you can be. Artistic expression was a way of life. It was my way of life. I went to school for graphic design and worked in the field for about 8 years and I also worked for a few years as a professional photographer.

I first began working in clay by helping my mother (Charlene Roth) when I was just a kid after school. At the time my mother had a small home-business that made porcelain awards for horse shows and about that same time my mother began seriously sculpting in clay. So while I would be painting the designs on the plates or applying decals to the porcelain mugs in her studio after school, I would also be watching her form her creations. She made huge earthenware construct pieces that would totally blow your mind. Like a smurf with a skull face with the skyline of Los Angeles growing out of its head attached to hundreds of little creatures with de-constructed arms and legs and the whole thing would end up being a completely functional cookie jar. She makes salt and pepper sets that can completely change the way you look at dinner time.


This was my mother and I was really, very influenced by her work even though I probably didn’t know it early on. I had always painted. I had never formed anything or sculpted anything myself but I had been raised with such extreme creativity. Her highly detailed ceramic work and use of color has without a doubt influenced my work.

A few years after I worked for my mothers porcelain business and after a few years working as a graphic designer, I opened an art gallery in North Hollywood. It was called The Art Coalition. I was so darn proud of myself. If you have ever seen the the AC tattoo on my arm that looks like an anarchy sign, that was our logo. I really thought I was making a difference in the art community. I displayed the work of up and coming outsider and lowbrow artists in Los Angeles and provided wall space for unknown artists. I sold some of my mother’s ceramics pieces and then together we started making jewelry. We were trying to come up with things we could sell to keep the struggling gallery afloat. I had a little too much idealism and not quite enough foot traffic. Looking back, the jewelry was the best idea we ever had! If I would have focused on the jewelry then like I do now, it may have saved the gallery! Unfortunately, after a two year run, a bad location combined with my naïveté and lack of business sense at the time, the gallery went belly up.

I ended up literally bankrupt, without a car or a place to live. I was a failure. Of course my mother let me come home for a spell but I had stopped making art. I was heartbroken and flat broke. Art was my life and that gallery meant everything to me.

I got really, really depressed.

No, like seriously depressed.

A year or so went by. I got a job as a waitress to try to start saving money to start my life over. Anyone who has ever worked in the service industry knows it is a much harder job than it seems. There are people who go into a restaurant not because they are hungry or thirsty but just because they want to boss someone around. They want someone to complain to or be mean to. Now, don’t get me wrong I know that there are plenty of wonderful people in the world who just want a veggie-burger and they understand being polite and proper tipping procedures but there is a big handful of people feel the need to push around a waitress or two and not tip. And for those who do not know, servers in the United States live off their tips. The average pay is minimum wage and then taxes are taken out of that. Without tips you go broke fast. At any rate, I had been waiting on tables in a Hollywood diner for about a year and a half and I started to get more and more pissed off at people and I had really become SURLY! Working in the service industry can really suck the life out of you especially if you really want to be doing something else. It starts to show in your attitude. I think it has a lot to do with the mindless repetition and the fact that people in general pretty much suck.

It was somewhere during time that I started creating again. I began painting again. I think at one point during that time I painted 8 paintings in 3 weeks while still waiting tables at night. You hold in the creative energy for too long and it can just explode out of you! I remembered how much I enjoyed making the ceramic jewelry in my mother’s studio. So I started making necklaces again and wearing them into work. I had moved into a tiny one room apartment that I shared with my (now) husband Johnny and so I didn’t have much space to make art so the fact that the necklaces were small and I could work in my mother’s backyard ceramic studio was perfect. I loved making the necklaces and when I wore them it reminded me that I was still an artist despite my job title and that the creative energy was still in me. It was also during that same time period that I started learning about science and a few months later I found out about the skeptical community.

Then a funny thing started happening.

People fell in love with the jewelry. All the girls at work wanted to wear them and the guys too! Then suddenly people wanted to buy them. I had people buy them right off my neck! I literally couldn’t make them fast enough!

It was amazing. Surly-Ramics was born! Within a few months I had started a new business, one where the location didn’t even matter and I no longer needed to wait tables.

The name of the business was just a play on words. We were looking for something that sounded like ceramics. That idea combined with my personality at the time, along with a minor obsession with the Simpsons (Surly Duff Beer guy anyone? No one messes with Surly.) and BAM! Surly-Ramics was born!

I make art and jewelry full time now. In fact, I spend on average 12 hours a day creating or doing some type of work for Surly-Ramics and I love every second of it! I’m happy again. I’m making art that people enjoy, that I enjoy. I like to think my art is helping to make the world a tiny bit better and a little bit smarter. I have a business I love and experience to carry me through. I feel very lucky. I got another chance. So I’m not quite as surly anymore. I think the name stuck mostly because it helps people differentiate me from all the other Amys. Oh you mean SURLY Amy…the one who makes the Surly jewelry.

The designs are more refined now than in the early days. I have a much stronger attention to detail and the glazing techniques and color combinations and messages are integral to my design work. I find inspiration everywhere I look and I am constantly coming up with new designs. I have taught my husband, Johnny Skaare the techniques my mother taught to me and he works with me in the studio now. Together we hope to expand our line and the business in the years to come.

And remember, next time you are waited on by a surly waiter do me a favor and tip extra big!

Of course a lot of the Skepchicks will tell you that I am often rather Surly if you mess with me or any of the other Skepchicks, or if I haven’t had my morning coffee.

TL;DR?

1. I’m not as surly as I used to be.
2. Life is hard and it often sucks but sometimes, if you keep trying things will get better.

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Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics. She is the fearless leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Follow her on twitter: @SurlyAmy or on Google+. Tip Jar is here.

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17 Comments

  1. I like the idea of your ceramics, but I’ve personally never bought any because I’m particular about my jewelry. (I always wish people would do more blue and teal. There’s never enough of those colors.) Why are the designs mostly in black? Can those be in different colors, too? Have you ever thought of using hanzi (chinese characters), or is that too cliche? (I could actually help with the meanings of those.)

    I’m not trying to tell you what to do or cramp your style, it’s just that I so rarely have a chance to talk to the artist, I’m taking advantage of it. :)

    1. I can paint them in almost any color. The main image is normally in black because that is what shows up the best. I also do custom orders for people all the time so if you wanted chinese characters it could be done. If you have any questions about custom orders or the process feel free to email me through any of the contact links on my website.

      http://surlyramics.com/contact/

      Thanks!

      1. Dude can you make cool plates and cups? I’d love some mugs and plates with various equations from general relaitivity on them (seriously). That way when they break, I can say “I just broke yet another law of general relativity”.

        Perhaps a whole line of scientific plates can be made and sold to religious folk that they can get the satisfaction of literally throwing the laws of science out the window.

          1. So how much more work actually goes into making kitchen ware?
            I suppose they do take up a lot more space (and materials/resources) compared to the jewelry, but it would be cool to have surly-mugs and surly-saucers …

  2. I read the whole article, but was especially in love with the art style in the illustrations.

    They remind me of how I’ve always longed for a bad-ass punk rock or gothic girl who programs computers or does particle physics for a living. Yes, I would LOVE a punk rock particle physicist for a wife who could take me to bad religion and talk nerdy to me. I’m going to go hang around the punk bars near MIT more methinks.

    And in terms of surly-ramics, I also one day long to punk out my whole house with totally punk/metal/hardcore art, dishes, and furniture. So when I has more monies, I’ll browse your wares online.

  3. I worked for a very short time (about a month) at a restaurant (OK, it was a Pizza Hut so restaurant is barely correct) and as a result I ALWAYS tip at least 20% (usually 20% rounded up). My wife tends to jump quickly to blaming the wait staff whenever anything is wrong and they are rarely at fault. I won’t even hold a bad attitude against a server, we all have bad days sometimes and if the experience is bad enough I’ll let the manager know rather than punish the server. They can deal with it more fairly than I can.
    .
    I’m glad to know that perserverance works, I’m at the low point right now and don’t know where the bottom is so hearing a comeback story that doesn’t end with “God will provide” is refreshing.

  4. Thank you, Amy, for that wonderfully inspiring story!

    I often wish that I had that kind of creativity to help dig myself out of the hole that I’m in, but, sadly, I don’t.

    My older daughter would love your work, I can see her dorm room adorned with ‘Ramics of all kinds. I’m also going to point her to this article, because I have always tried to nurture her creativity, and this, as I said is very inspiring!

    Speaking of inspired, I think I’m gonna go write a ‘Droid app…

  5. What a sweet, heartwarming story! Best of luck with your life and career. I’ll definitely remember this next time I’m in a restaurant. I’m always polite by default anyway, now I’ll be extra polite if I run into a surly waitperson. :)

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