The art of science and the science of art.

Surly Amy and the Charms of Reason


Scientific Method Surly © Surly Amy

Artwork can amaze and disturb. It's often the small everyday objects that form the background of our lives that have the most potential power to shock, to jar us away from comfort, and to enable us to see part of the world with new eyes. Magritte's Empire of Light, with the dwelling in night under a daytime sky. Duchamps' The Fountain, a urinal on a gallery pedestal.

Amy Davis Roth, a.k.a. Surly Amy takes the small, familiar, comforting pendants around people's necks and instead of religious icons or small beads, uses them to declare skepticism, scientific enlightenment and messages of empowerment. As well as grade-A class geekery.

As a member of the popular Skepchick blog, she and others have also created a science-art blog called Mad Art Lab. I caught up with her recently for an interview.

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Hi Amy! Tell us about yourself!

Amy Davis Roth, a.k.a. Surly Amy

My mother is the princess Cinderella. You might know her from such films as, Cinderella. My father is Hulk Hogan... Ok sorry, that was an extremely obscure shout out to the cartoon, Home Movies. I loved that show. As for my art education, I am mostly self-taught. I started off as a painter but had very limited space and an even more limited budget and so I turned to ceramics as an outlet for my creativity. It was a craft my mother mastered so I could sneak in her studio and use her extra supplies when I couldn't afford paint and canvas. I ended up absolutely falling in love with ceramic as a medium and have continued to work with it, going on about 10 years now. I still appreciate traditional painting and I try to incorporate some of the painterly effects into my ceramic work which is why I use a lot of under-glazing techniques to create my images on the Surly-Ramics jewelry.

Where did the "Surly" name come from?

During the time when I couldn't even afford to buy art supplies, I had gotten a job as a waitress. A job which I was not very fond of to say the least. The result of that unhappiness, was that I became a very surly little person. The good news was I had started making the jewelry at that time and wearing it into work which, surprising to me, got a really great response. People literally started buying them right off my neck while I was waiting tables. My boyfriend (now husband) and I thought we would give an online art business a try, as it was the early days of the website, Etsy We wanted to come up with a fun name. We just took my personality and combined it with the word ceramics. Surly-Ramics was born. It was one of those hahaha moments that actually stuck. Now people often say, you aren't so surly! And I agree. I'm not anymore, but I was. I was an artist who didn't have space or the money to create and I was very unhappy, but now that I can make art full-time, I am grateful, happy, motivated and at least 50% less surly. It's ok to make up random statistics on a science site, right?

Hey, it's okay by me! I have a fine arts background after all.

Neuroscience, physics, paleontology: wearable science communication.

An artist acquaintance of mine once extolled the value of ceramic as a medium: that even after a nuclear war, lots of it would still survive for thousands of years. What do you enjoy while working with ceramic? Does it have any vexing challenges?

A customer recently sent me a photo of his house that had burned down. One of the very few things that survived the blaze was one of my necklaces. (See photo, below.) I have to say that the durability that ceramics show when faced with extreme heat (ceramics are often used on spacecraft surfaces for this reason) combined with the fact that the pieces can shatter if dropped on a hard surface gives the medium an almost poetic quality in my mind. Much like humanity, ceramics are strong and fragile at the same time.

One of Roth's creations that survived a fire.

Are there other art mediums you enjoy?

I do love painting in acrylic on canvas and I absolutely adore photography. I plan on making more time for those mediums in the future, but first back to the ceramic studio!

How did the Surlies, the ceramic pendants with science and skeptic symbols and messages first come about?

I was making the jewelry before I learned about the science communities online. I went through what now seems like a whirlwind educational experience where I realized just how much I didn't know about the world and the cosmos. I met some wonderful social activists and scientists during this time who were an amazing source of inspiration to me. These people gave me something that my art was lacking up until that point, purpose and a message. I now use my art to encourage critical thinking, social justice, humanism and science. I also use my art to raise money to send women to science events and I donate artwork, and some of my proceeds to small secular charities to hopefully encourage more people to learn more about science in the same way I was encouraged.

The author received no kickbacks from this article which is a damn shame.

As part of the Skepchick network, over a year ago you led the launch of Mad Art Lab. What prompted you to tap into the wide world of science-art?

When I first got involved, I felt like there was an absence of creative people both online and at science and secular events. There was sort of a stigma floating around that rationality didn't have space for artists since artists often have the reputation of not being critical thinkers. Artists are thought of as 'hippies' or 'dreamers'. Scientists and academics are often stereotyped as uncreative or 'stiff' in mindset. I didn't think either of these were accurate representations. I wanted to simultaneously encourage artists to participate in, and understand science while dispelling these terrible stereotypes that serve to hold back both artists and scientists alike. I often talk about the scientific method when discussing this. (See photo at top.) Artists and scientists are very similar in their process when they are trying to come up with something new or make a new discovery. An artist comes up with a hypothesis as to what their next piece of art might be. They gather data or supplies from what is available to them. They experiment and make a detailed analysis of those supplies, combining them in new ways to produce more data and finally a piece of art. They then come to conclusions as to whether the art is acceptable or complete. Finally that art is released into the world to be peer reviewed by an audience of consumers or other artists. While not necessarily as strict of an interpretation as in the sciences, it still illustrates the similarities of the creative process that is used in both fields. I also think that science is an unending river of inspiration for artists in the same way that art can be inspiring to science. From the micro to the macro, any artist that has yet to tap into the wonder that is nature and knowledge is truly missing out. I hope the the website, can be a tiny portal into the wonders that abound in our forever building body of information in both the arts and sciences.

The ethereal Pale Blue Dot coasters.

What's next? Do you have a dream project?

I am definitely becoming more interested in social justice issues especially those that have a science attached to them. Things like protecting the teaching of evolution in classrooms, protecting the rights of women to get safe abortions and the right to trustworthy, science-based healthcare for everyone. In the future, along with expanding Surly-Ramics, I'd really like to get more involved in public art projects that will help to educate people on these types of topics while continuing to do my smaller charity work.

Finally, what's your favourite colour?

I really love all colors but right now my favorite glaze is Duncan clear crackle mixed with two shades of blue frit.


Thanks Amy!

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Surly-ramic Blog

Mad Art Lab



The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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