Emily is one of our artisans who carefully helps us bring our bags to life and send them out the door. Liz interviews her here on her lifelong interest in art and her favorite things about working in the studio.
You moved to Rhode Island from New Jersey after getting a degree in photography from Stockton University. What drew you further north, and how did you come to work at Lotuff?
I got married right as I was graduating from college, and my husband and I knew we wanted to move to a small city afterwards. Our plan was originally to move to Portland, Oregon, but then we realized it was really far away (laughs). In the end, we decided to stay somewhere closer. We were both looking at RISD as a grad school possibility and so we came up to visit the school and ended up liking Providence a lot. We’d driven through Rhode Island on the way to Maine or New Hampshire before but had never stopped until then. That was in 2013, and we’ve been here for four years now.
Compared to South Jersey, there’s a lot more going on here. Back home there’s really not much in terms of restaurants and the arts. Jersey is a really great place, but I can say that now that I’ve moved away and realized there are things that I miss about it. What I like about Providence is that it’s small but there’s always a lot to do. The vibes you get from RISD and all the other schools here are also pretty cool. And if you happen to live on the East Side, you can walk everywhere. I also like that there’s a lot of other places you can easily go for a day trip! There have been a few times I’ve driven through four different states in one day.
In high school I thought I wanted to be a photographer, and I was a photographer’s assistant throughout high school and college. When I started formally studying it in school, it was mostly learning to think critically and conceptually about photography without as many hands-on courses as I’d expected. There was a lot of critiquing and asking questions like “Why did you take that photo?” Through working as the assistant at events and doing some newspaper photography, I realized I didn’t want those kinds of jobs. Photography, for me, is more personal than commercial.
I don’t regret [studying photography], but by the time I came to Rhode Island I had become more interested in clothing design. I taught myself to sew, and I took a pattern making class at RISD, which is where I met Anna and how I found out about Lotuff. I had been hoping to find something like this [job] in Providence, and I’m really happy I did. It feeds my interest in learning how things are made.
When not working, you do everything from collaborating with your husband on his gallery shows to taking sewing classes. How did art become such an important part of your life?
As a child, I had a friend who wanted to be an artist. I think that sparked my interest—it’s something I remember wanting to be from a young age. My grandmother is artistic too. She had a small business with my grandfather making wooden yard signs, and I used to help her. I remember sitting in her basement painting little wooden flags. It reminds me a lot of what I do now, which is nice because whenever I talk to her, she’s always interested and wants to know what I’m working on.
I’ve just always been interested in being able to make something from scratch, and that’s even played into my interest in food. I like learning how different foods are made and trying to make some of them myself, even if it’s something I never thought about trying before. I made my own mustard recently!
As it relates to Zach, my husband, art has always been our “thing.” I met him when I was in college; he had just graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design but had moved back up to New Jersey and was interning at the same local folk art museum as me. Not long after we got together, we started making backpacks and selling them on Etsy. We did that until right after we were married. From there, he developed his own art practice doing sculpture and furniture while I became even more interested in making clothing and bags. I signed up for that pattern making class, which was really interesting and helpful. It set me on the trajectory of thinking about how things are put together and how they look before they’re completed.
My husband and I collaborated on a show in Bushwick about a year and a half ago. We’re really interested in using unusual materials. Zach made sculptures, and I made bags out of this mesh fabric. He’s an assistant preschool teacher, and he came back from school one day and told me one of his three-year-old students saw some of his pieces at the gallery over the weekend while on a trip with his parents—he even drew a picture (laughs). The show took place at Handjob Gallery Store, which is no longer—the space is now called Fisher Parrish. Zach is going to have another show there in September with sculpture pieces and furniture.
You’ve had some interesting travel opportunities in the past few years. Can you tell me more about those? Do you have any other trips planned for the future?
In January, I went on my first mission trip. I serve on the mission committee at First Baptist Church in Providence, and we went as a group to La Romana in the Dominican Republic. My church goes on this trip every two years because we’re building a hospital there. La Romana previously didn’t have much in the way of medical care. It was an interesting experience, and I’d never done anything like it before. We went to the hospital site every day and did tasks like painting rooms or moving gravel around. I noticed the way they do things there is a lot different and a lot slower-paced. The thing I liked the most about seeing La Romana was all the different colors. The hospital was this minty green, and there were a lot of bright pastels all around. The textures on the buildings there are more defined and plastery, and almost every business has a hand-painted sign. It’s pretty awesome.
I really like doing work-share type programs as a way of traveling,… When I was in college, I found out about WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) through looking around on the Internet. During my sophomore year, I went to work on a farm in Oregon for two weeks. It was like my alternative to study abroad. My husband and I later did the same thing in Wales.
I was thinking about going on a trip this fall, too. Locally, I’d like to visit Los Angeles. I’ve never been, and I have some friends who moved there recently. I was also thinking about WWOOFing again in Norway, and I’ve been secretly planning a trip to France. I recently got into doing a little bit of genealogy and finding out more about my ancestors. It turns out my great-grandmother was from France. I was able to find the town she lived in, so I’d really love to go there. It’s a little village in the south—the closest major city is Lyon. I’ve already scoped out a farm that’s close by (laughs).
You started out doing packaging in the studio, but have since added turning and burning and painting to your list of skills. What’s been the best thing about advancing along the artisan track?
I like being able to do a little bit of everything, which kind of goes along with my life—I have a lot of interests. I like learning new things and watching each piece go through the different stages while trying to figure out how it all goes together. I often think about that while I’m working.
Packaging is definitely a more organization-driven section, and the other two stations I’ve been working at are more meditative, which creates a nice balance. I was originally interested in stitching, but turning and burning turned out to be a great starting point on the production side. I was a little nervous at first, but Anna taught me a lot about how to handle things. I felt like I didn’t know what amount of force to use with the hammer, for example. But, as with all things, you get used to it and you find the right touch over time. I’ve been doing painting for a little over a month, and I’ve started learning buffing recently, too, which is helpful because it makes the painting process go faster.
Down the line, I might like to learn assembly. It seems interesting to actually put all the pieces together, and I feel like it would be satisfying because it visibly connects everything and brings it all to the next step.
Prior to Lotuff, you handled two jobs working on a farm and at Whole Foods. Now that you’ve been here for a while, are there any surprising similarities or differences you’ve noticed between the three?
Oh, there are definitely skills that have carried through all three jobs. At the farm, I worked in egg washing. Someone would wash the eggs and send them through a machine to spray them down, and then I would dry them off and put them in their containers. You’d have to inspect them and pay attention to all the little details; even a very small crack would mean it couldn’t be used. That’s basically what I do with bags. As I package, I look them over to make sure there are no small errors before they get sent off to their new owners.
This might be a weird phrase to use, but I can’t think of another way to say it: this place [Lotuff] has the whole package! It’s a good group of people to work with and I like that the team is growing but still staying small. It’s a nice atmosphere to be in, and I love the fact that we’re all making something from beginning to end and that we can see it happen every step of the way. Then there’s just all the little added perks that Ellen and Lindy set up, like celebrating birthdays. And the donuts! That’s gonna kill me (laughs).