When my family moved from Texas to Nevada, there were a few precious belongings I refused to pack in the container that would be shipped to our destination. Among these special items was a porcelain necklace shaped like a raincloud with tiny, gold-tipped raindrops. I’d purchased the necklace from the non-profit corporation Remnant Studios shortly after it was founded in 2014, and the treasured necklace was created by Remnant Studios’ founder Quinn Smith, an activist, educator, and designer with a doctorate in polymer chemistry. Although Smith may not be using her PhD for its original intent, she is generating a different type of alchemy through her work manipulating and decorating porcelain, wood, and leather.
The name “remnant” comes from Smith’s pursuit of her own creative projects as hobbies while being a wife and mother, and balancing her work and volunteer responsibilities at her church. “It was kind of what I did with what was leftover with my life,” Smith said. These “leftovers” are the foundation of Remnant Studios, but the business’ primary objective has always been to raise awareness about the cruelty of human trafficking and to advocate for its victims.
In 2012, while volunteering with a friend at a fundraising walk for Stop Child Trafficking Now (currently defunct), Smith learned about and was moved by the statistics for human trafficking. Thinking about her daughter, who was five at the time, this infuriated her. “I was just thinking that there’s a market for her,” Smith said. “It was so maddening.”
Smith has since channeled that rage into gorgeous designs and handmade pieces that she creates from her home kiln in Austin, Texas. Remnant Studios’ tagline is Beauty That Sets People Free. She donates all profits — after subtracting costs for materials and compensation for labor — to organizations that combat human trafficking and its effects. This includes: The A21 Campaign, The Refuge Ranch, and Global Child Advocates and its affiliate Sojourn Studio.
After first catching up with my friend, Smith and I then discussed running a small business in a pandemic, how Remnant Studios impacts global human trafficking, and creativity in motherhood.
Before, you were called Remnant Ceramics, and were just making ceramic pieces. Now you’re Remnant Studios and you’re making granite-like jewelry, incorporating wood pieces and leather, and doing photography. Can you talk a little bit about your expansion?
When I started it, I was intending to do porcelain jewelry and functional ware like mugs and bowls and stuff. And because I have a wheel and I had been [making ceramics], I was getting to where I thought I could sell pieces. They weren’t just, you know, really janky. So that was my intention when I started, but I’ve always had my hands on a bunch of different creative endeavors. I’ve done photography since I was a kid. My dad had a dark room in our house. And so I’ve done photography forever. I really wanted to incorporate photography into Remnant because when I travel, I take a lot of pictures. I have a drone that has a camera on it. So the switch to [Remnant] Studios felt like it was just going to open a world of any creative endeavor that I ever wanted to do. So with just calling it [Remnant] Ceramics, I felt like it was kind of limiting the concept. And I mean, so far, adding other materials has been cool.
Are you still doing everything on your own?
Yeah, I hired a little bit of help in December/January 2019. Perfect timing to hire help. And they were actually doing really well. I cranked out a bunch of products, which was my goal to have a lot for this holiday season. I really didn’t want to be the kind of an employer that bagged all my people just because of Covid. But eventually, I had to bag all my people, which, oh, it was horrible. Sales are like 40% of what they were last year. And so my impact is really low. Last year, I donated $26,000. And this year, it’s like $3,000. It feels terrible.
Have you gotten any flak from people who were like, ‘Why are you focusing on jewelry in the middle of a pandemic?’
I talked with [Remnant’s social media manager] earlier on [in the pandemic] and I was like, “Listen, I don’t want to do a sales push.” I want to be very conscious of what people are dealing with. I want to address stuff as it’s coming up and talk about what’s hard in the world. I think I did have a sale, I want to say in May, to try and get rid of some of the wood stuff. But we’ve definitely tried to not be full sales pitchy this year, and just be like, “Hey, here’s a new product. We hope you like it, and it brings you joy.” I mean, that’s one thing I’m grateful for is that I’m not in a position where I have to put food on our table. And not to say that raising money isn’t important, but I’m in a privileged spot.
When your sales were good, and you were donating to human trafficking organizations, were you able to see any tangible change in the organizations that you donated to?
For Global Child Advocates, yes. That’s the group in Thailand and I get it. I’m friends with the U.S. Director. So she’ll text me and tell me stories about what’s happening with the girls. I think one girl is now in college in the Philippines. Other girls are graduating from school. Now, graduating means they finish eighth grade; it’s a very low education bar. But the impact is at my fingertips. I can see that very well. Sojourn Studio built a new studio, and it’s beautiful and was really needed. Before it was like a corrugated metal roof over some plastic tables, and you had to cover your body in mosquito spray because malaria is everywhere. It was all outdoors and hot and gross. It was just an absolute developing country art studio. Now they have an actual building. So that was really great to see.
You went to Sojourn Studio in 2017 to teach jewelry making, right?
Yes, in 2017 and then the following year, I took my niece and my daughter.
Do the skills you teach translate to work? What is the program’s ultimate goal?
The way the program works is [to teach] jewelry making so that [the girls in the program] can earn money. There’s some discipline that they have to use around being where they say they’re going to be because everyone has to get a ride. So part of volunteering for that organization is picking up people in the community that you’re serving. So the girls have to be where they say they’re going to be. They also need to be taking care of their bodies. There’s hygiene education and safety education [in the program]. They also take self-defense courses. There’s a spiritual aspect. It is a Christian organization. A lot of the girls are Buddhists. I think they’ve had a couple of Muslims, but most people are either Buddhists or kind of nothing. So there’s spiritual stuff around [the program]. It’s a very holistic approach.
When you say there’s a spiritual aspect, do they have to be Christian to be part of that program?
No, no, definitely not.
There’s an appreciation of the different spiritual beliefs then?
I think their biggest messages are: “You’re creative. You’re loved. You’re valuable. Look what Jesus did for you.” There’s a lot that they do. They have a lot of trauma counseling. Global Child Advocates is the parent organization, and a lot of what they handle is trauma-related. I know their staff gets a lot of trauma training. And a lot of them are refugees that have sort of beat the odds and now want to help their own people in the community. So a lot of them have had a lot of trauma.
I know there was one girl, I think she was Muslim, and she was like, “I’m not down with this Christian stuff.” And they were like, “That’s okay. As long as you’re willing to listen to us talk to the group that you’re in.” They’re not going to exclude anybody because of that, but they also don’t say, “Okay, we’re not going to talk about it.” They definitely talk about it.
Earlier you mentioned being a mother in the context of creating Remnant Studios. Do you feel like you are a mother who is a creative or a creative who is a mother?
I actually drew this Venn diagram of, like scientist, artist, wife, mom, you know, with like a Q in the middle. And I don’t think I ever did anything with it. I was trying to do something cool, design-wise, and I couldn’t make it happen. But I see them all very separately. Actually, when you said, “Are you a mom, that’s a creative or a creative that’s a mom,” the “mom that’s a creative” actually bristles me a little bit.
Same. I understand.
I loved art way before I could even ovulate. I loved science. I wanted to be an astronaut way before I wanted to be a mom. I didn’t want to be a mom until I was married. And then I thought, “Well, maybe we should do this.” I didn’t really want to be a mom. I wanted to be a career scientist. I feel like being a mom almost just kind of happened, in a way. Now I love it. And I’m obsessed with my children, but that’s definitely not my first identity [marker] when I think about it. So definitely a creative that’s a mom.