Christmas is Coming…

… and that means it’s prime gift-buying time. Christmas is not my favorite holiday, but I do enjoy selecting gifts for the important people in my life. However, I don’t like all the commercialization that seems to have been added into the holiday itself; I think people can have absolutely wonderful Christmases without buying a bunch of imported plastic crap that keeps CEOs rich and poor people poor. To that end, I have pledged to buy all of my gifts from small businesses and independent merchants. I know it’s a little late in the game, but I’d like to challenge all of you to buy at least one gift from a small business or independent merchant. To that end, I’d like to introduce you to an awesome person who is a hero of mine, and invite you to browse her website for any last-minute gifts that you might need. She is “Surly” Amy Davis Roth, and she makes ceramic jewelry that is available at http://www.etsy.com/shop/surly.

I first became aware of Surly Amy when she started blogging at Skepchick.org (http://skepchick.org/) right after one of The Amaz!ng Meetings, which is a big gathering of skeptics in Las Vegas that takes place every summer. I almost immediately placed an order for one of her beautiful necklaces, and I was so impressed with how awesome and nice she was. Then, once the necklace came, I was even more impressed with how cool that was. The necklace was exactly as it had been pictured and described, and it looks and feels to be very well-made and sturdy. Since then, I have purchased several more, and I continue to be just as impressed as I was the first time I ordered. I’ve even had some custom necklaces created, and in that, I have been even more impressed, because even though I am not the best at giving descriptions, she somehow seems to be able to reach into my brainpan and give me just exactly what I imagined. Not only that, but the necklaces or earrings always come in a fun shiny gift box with that cool stretchy decorative cord, and she always adds fun extras to the packaging like stickers, business cards, and an awesome quote from someone cool (the last necklace I got came with an awesome quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson, and how awesome is that?). Because I’m nothing if not inquisitive, there are a number of things that I’ve always wondered about Surly Amy: How did she get started making the jewelry? What is the process for making each piece? How did she get involved with the Skepchicks? How can I be more involved with the skeptical community? I always try so hard not to be an obnoxious fangirl, but this time, I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut. To my pleasure (but not much surprise, since I’ve already mentioned how cool and nice she is), she generously agreed to answer my questions, and she also said it was okay for me to share what I learned here.

The “back story” of how Surlyramics began is actually available online at http://surlyramics.com/aboutus/, so I won’t go back over any of that information, but I will say that I think it’s a really neat story of how art sustains life and life sustains art in a whole “circle of life” kind of way. I don’t consider myself much of an artist, but I have similar feelings about my writing that she describes for her art, and I can definitely relate to the challenge of finding ways to feed your passion while not neglecting feeding yourself. Her story also reminds me that no matter how big a setback may seem, there is always a silver lining if you just look hard enough, and that never fails to inspire me to “just keep swimming,” to borrow a phrase. The process to make the jewelry itself is fairly involved. Amy says she first starts with a design or a drawing that she would like to use in clay. Then, she either creates a mold of this image to stamp into the clay, or she decides to use a rubber-tipped pencil to draw on the clay. Either way, once she’s decided, she then rolls out sheets of wet clay and inscribes them with the chosen design. The next step is allowing the clay to dry out, which takes about a day for smaller pieces, but can take longer for larger pieces (I suspect that the amount of humidity in the air makes a difference too). The dry pieces are then fired in her kiln; this initial firing is called the bisque firing. Once the pieces cool, she hand-paints them and glazes them and fires them again; this second firing is called the glaze firing. If everything goes well, the pieces are ready to be set into the jewelry hardware (for things like earrings and cufflinks) or strung onto cords as pendants. As you might imagine, with all of the changes in temperature, there are many things that could cause problems, but although I have witnessed a setback or two over social media, Amy seems to always be able to treat problems as challenges rather than setbacks, and that is definitely inspiring too.

One of the many things I love about Surlies (that’s the collective term for Surlyramics jewelry) is the fun science- and skepticism-related jewelry. I myself have a piece that says, “Start every day with a moment of science,” and another that reads, “Proud Skeptic.” There are many others that I hope to add to my collection someday, such as, “Believe in Yourself,” “Learn Something New Every Day,” “You are entitled to your own opinions not your own Facts,” and many others. I am not very “girly,” but I absolutely love being able to find jewelry that fits with my tastes and beliefs, especially when it also helps support someone who is a big part of the skeptical movement. Because I’d like to be more involved myself, I asked Amy how she got involved with the Skepchicks and the movement at large: “I got involved by simply reaching out via the internet. I emailed Rebecca [Watson, the founder of the Skepchicks] years ago after hearing her on The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe and she was very kind to me. We talked a bit about Scientology, because they are everywhere in Hollywood and then she asked me if I would make her a custom necklace. I was so thrilled that she wanted a necklace that I made her what she requested AND I sent her a huge box of free necklaces and asked her to hand them out to the other Skepchicks. She did and then I noticed photos of the girls wearing them popping up online. I was thrilled. After that I saved money so I could attend The Amaz!ng Meeting. I went and helped the Skepchicks run their table. We all hit it off fabulously and instantly became friends. She asked me to join the website before the weekend was over and the rest is history.” I love that although some things that happened were the result of being in the right place at the right time, so much more of what happened was because Amy took the initiative at so many points – it reminds me that it’s far better to take initiative and try to make things happen than it is to sit around and wait for things to happen, and I admire that a lot.

As a woman, sometimes it’s hard to get involved in groups without being marginalized for your gender. I like to bake and enjoy making treats for bake sales, but I have so many talents that would be so much more useful to a group than just baking. Because Amy is well-known in skeptical circles, and because she is known for things that break that gender gap, I asked her if there was any advice she could give me as to how to be more involved in spreading science and skepticism and critical thinking without being marginalized. I was floored when she told me not to discount the power of baking or dismiss it because it’s too “feminine.” I know that food can help people feel less awkward when they are new to a group, and that eating gives people things to do with their hands and mouths that aren’t fidgeting or babbling, so once I thought about it, her advice made a lot of sense. She said the main thing was finding a group that is worthy of your time, talents, and energies, because so many organizations that claim to be working to increase understanding are really as divisive as the dominant groups within which they are trying to create awareness and understanding. I also want to offer a special caution to my female friends.

Ladies, no matter how we may try to hide it, and no matter how much we might not like it, there are groups and organizations around, even big-name national organizations, that seem to believe that it is fun and acceptable to be disrespectful, rude, mean, and hurtful to women. Even among groups that would never accept this kind of blatant sexism, there are other groups that seem to believe that because you agree with them on one issue, you should agree with them on every issue, and if you do not, they will go so far as to verbally attack and belittle you (this has not happened to me personally yet, but I have seen it happen to people I care about). It’s far too easy to get caught up in the drama and the verbal jousting, but this is not productive or safe. The best thing to do in both cases is to carefully and quietly extricate yourself from the group once you’ve seen that the organizers will not take steps to curb this kind of behavior. The toughest part is that even groups with an official “no-harassment” policy or a “no-trolling” policy may fall into these sorts of behaviors, and although I definitely advocate telling your story and advocating for change if the group is receptive, if it is not, it is far better to create or join an organization that really does practice what it preaches. Policies are awesome, but only if they are enforced. It’s sad to realize that a group you are involved in doesn’t really have your best interests at heart, but it’s also better to direct your time, talents, skills, and funds to places where they will be valued and appreciated.

Since I’ve been a fan of Surlies, there have been two new lines of jewelry added to the offerings. The first is Surly Scents, which is another of my favorites. These pieces have unglazed spaces that allow the wearer to add essential oils or perfumes. Amy says she got the idea because “I realized the ceramic material was able to absorb oil on the unglazed spots. I noticed it was absorbing body oil and perfumes just from normal use. I love essential oils, so I just started experimenting with them.” She says she even sent the necklaces to a chemistry lab to determine how long the scent and the oil lasted on the ceramic and how much oil the ceramic could hold, all of which varies depending on which oil is being used. Eventually, she decided to keep a part of the front of the piece unglazed, so that people who are not able to use perfume or scented oils due to skin allergies or sensitivities can still use them since the oils never come into contact with the person’s skin. My husband and brother-in-law even have Surly Scents pendants on the rearview mirrors of their cars, and in my husband’s case, it definitely helps to improve the smell of his car (which often smells of the commercial kitchen he works in otherwise). Amy says another benefit is that “it gives those of us who do not believe in the healing properties of aromatherapy a chance to enjoy all the really great smells that come along with it.” I love the freedom that this gives me to choose my own scents, rather than choosing things I don’t necessarily like because of the “effects” I wish they would have.

The other new line is the Sparkle Surlies. Although I have many Surly Scents necklaces and earrings, I haven’t taken the plunge into Sparkle Surlies yet. These pieces feature Swarovski Crystals in their designs, and the space-themed designs are just beautiful, and if you are the type that likes jewelry that sparkles, these are the Surlies for you!

I know that most artists and creators don’t like to be asked where they get their ideas, but even in this, Surly Amy was gracious and helpful. She says that many of her ideas come from science and nature. “The universe is an extremely inspiring place. I will run out of days before I run out of ideas. Such is the life of an artist!”

One thing I can say for sure is that Surly Amy has inspired me to become more involved, but also to carefully evaluate whether an organization or group is worth my time, talents, and energies. I’m proud to say that I know her, and I hope all of you reading this will visit her shop and pick up something for yourself or for someone you care about, either now or in the future. There’s also a coupon code on the right-hand side of the page, and I hope you will make use of it really soon.

I owe the most enormous apologies to Surly Amy. She very happily answered my questions several weeks ago, and I’ve dropped the ball on putting everything together due to a variety of factors. I appreciate her time and effort in speaking with me so much more than I can say.

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