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January 2022: Gwynne Rukenbrod Smith '89

…Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference.
 
This Robert Frost poem graced the opening page of the 1989 Laurel Leaves yearbook and has carried Gwynne Rukenbrod Smith ’89 through her winding life path. Despite a need to create from a young age, Gwynne didn’t turn her passion into a career until a heartbreaking life event prompted her to travel to Thailand. There she learned how to blow glass and returned to the States determined to make a career in the arts. While working as a curator without a formal degree, Gwynne purposefully created exhibitions that were accessible to all, not just those with an art history degree. This quality of accessibility is a large reason she is drawn to the field of craft and handmade items, as opposed to contemporary art. Now a Program Director at Mountain BizWorks, a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), Gwynne helps the creative community of western North Carolina develop skills that enable their businesses to thrive. She also runs the Emerging Artists Cohort program for the American Craft Council, facilitating educational opportunities for artists to advance their professional paths. Read on to learn more about how Gwynne combines her business and creative strengths into developing successful craft artists!

Do you have a favorite story to share from your Laurel days?
There are so many great memories from my time at Laurel. It is hard to forget learning the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales in Middle English for Miss Hotchkiss, working in the art room with Mrs. Biehle or having a heated debate around Mrs. Boatright’s Controversial Topics table.
 
My absolute favorite memory is Last Chapel my Senior year when I was shocked to receive the Humanitas Award. I had no idea that my peers saw my dedication to helping people even back then.
 
What skills, if any, did you learn at Laurel that have helped you navigate your career?
Laurel taught me to feel comfortable speaking up and expressing my opinion even in a male dominated field like glass blowing. I learned how to create structure, plan and work hard for my goals.
 
And Laurel taught me, like the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken” that our class chose to open the yearbook, that taking the road less traveled could make all the difference.  
 
Who or what prompted your love of the arts as a student?
Before coming to Laurel my best friend’s parents worked in the art department at Oberlin College. Being exposed to that really tapped into my need to create. Then starting at Laurel in Ninth Grade, Mrs. Biehle continued to foster that in me. She would allow me to come to the studio outside of class to make art and she always had a wonderful supportive comment to challenge me in the way I saw my work.
 
You attended Gettysburg College before transferring and graduating from The Ohio State University with a bachelor’s in health education. What advice would you give to a young alumna who feels that her current college isn’t the best fit?
I loved Gettysburg College and really enjoyed my first two years of school there but realized that a small liberal arts school couldn’t offer me the degree I wanted, so I found a school that offered that. My time at both Gettysburg and Ohio State were special.
 
My advice to others is if it doesn't feel right, trust that and don’t be afraid to find a place that does. Take the road less taken.
 
Speaking of making changes—your first career was in the HIV/AIDS social services field before you transitioned to becoming an artist. What prompted that?
Working in the HIV/AIDS field with HIV+ heroin addicts was my first “real” job out of college. I loved the work I did helping people and supporting those who wanted to better their lives through change, but it was an emotionally and mentally stressful field to work in. Often to cope with those stresses, I would spend time making.
 
Then in 1996, while working and taking MBA classes, my world fell apart when my mother passed away unexpectedly. Being 25 and losing my mom caused me to falter on my path. As a result, I spent some time in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I learned to blow hot glass. When I returned to the States, I decided to change careers and try to make a living as a glass artist. I found a job that paid me to demonstrate glass blowing to the public and to curate exhibitions, and the rest of this winding path became my new “road less taken.
 
I discovered along the way that by using both my business mind and my creative mind, I could really help make an impact in the craft world by supporting artists' professional development through curating their work into exhibitions, teaching them professional development skills, and helping makers develop and embrace an entrepreneurial mindset.
 
What inspires your artwork? You’ve worked extensively in both glass and metal—do you find you can express things differently in one medium versus another? How do you feel when you’re creating?
Honestly, I don’t get to make like I used to. But when I did/do, my artwork is inspired by midcentury modern design. Designers like Eva Zeisel, Russell Wright, Alexander Calder and Betty Cooke have influenced my work. Painters like Basquiat, Hilma af Klimt and Andy Warhol also influence my color choices and patterns. And other craft artists like Wendall Castle, Katherine Gray, Ann Hamilton and Janet Echelman have made a difference in my work.
 
Glass and metal have a lot in common. When heated they become liquid and when cold they are solids. But they also have opposite properties like metal is cold to the touch and glass is warm.  While I am drawn to working in both, glass truly has my heart. The first time I gathered melted glass on a blowpipe, I was hooked.
 
Glass is also often a team sport, as you need support creating hot blown pieces, while working in metal jewelry is often solitary and myopic. I am an extrovert so working in glass feeds my need to connect with others and working in metal gives me the respite I need to recalibrate after being social.
 
I started making because it took me to a place where I found my “zen.” Making is my form of mediation.
 
Who is your favorite artist?
I don’t have just one, but I did meet Andy Warhol once when I was in Eighth Grade and was awed by his larger-than-life presence. I also drove to Chicago to meet Eva Zeisel which resulted in an invite to her apartment in New York City. The afternoon we spent on her living room floor going through her sketches was something I will always treasure.
 
In addition to making art, you’ve also curated many art exhibits for museums including the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft and traveling exhibitions such as Craft in America, in conjunction with a PBS series of the same name. What is your goal when creating an exhibit? What do you hope is the takeaway for attendees?
I was honored to be named the first Fine Craft Curator at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft in 2007. Being named a curator without having a formal master’s degree in art history was uncommon at the time. All the exhibitions I have curated and installed tell a story about the artists and their artwork. Each story may have a different focus, but there is always a story.
 
Because I don’t have formal curatorial training, I consider myself a curator for the masses, purposefully making all the stories of my exhibitions accessible to anyone, not just those educated in art and art theory. My curatorial statements are written at an 8th-grade reading level and the concepts I develop for each exhibition are simple and easy to understand. This is one of the many reasons I focus on the field of craft and not contemporary art.
 
Everyone understands functional craft. A cup is for drinking, a dish for eating, and a vase to hold things. It doesn't matter what your education is, anyone can understand craft. Add in the mastering of a material and process and that is what motivates my love for craft. Using craft to break down the barriers of accessibility, to be more inclusive and widen a perspective are all what I want when conceiving of an exhibition.
 
Now based in Asheville, tell us about your work with North Carolina craft artists to create a sustainable thriving business? 
After three years in Houston, my husband and I relocated to Asheville, NC, so I could become the Executive Director of HandMade in America, an economic development nonprofit that grows economies through craft in small towns of western North Carolina with populations of 2,000 or less. Working for HandMade made me aware of the creative economy and how powerful a sense of place defined through culture can be. It became my personal mission to help artists create sustainable and thriving livelihoods.
 
Fast forward 10 years and I now get to wear two hats. I work fulltime locally with Mountain BizWorks, a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), that offers both learning and lending opportunities to small business owners in western North Carolina (WNC). I am the Craft Your Commerce Program Director where I get to create workshops and cohort intensives that help the creative community of WNC develop skills so they can have thriving businesses. We also are launching some new economic development projects that will help grow the creative economy here as well.
 
My other hat is serving as the Director of Community and Creative Work at the American Craft Council, a national nonprofit that champions craft. I created, and now run, its Emerging Artists Cohort program. Each year 10 craft artists, new to their careers and who are expanding craft boundaries and challenging us to new perspectives, get a 12-week intensive program filled with facilitated conversations, workshops, and cohort calls. These artists then pick a project to implement and one that will propel their professional paths to the next level. At the end of the intensive, each artist receives a grant to support their project and continued monthly check in calls, workshops, and conversations with professionals in the field.
 
Both positions allow me to meet my mission of supporting makers’ success. I get to use the strengths of my business brain and the strengths as a creative to help craft artists be successful and able to make a living with their craft practice. It doesn't get much better than that!
 
Can you share a bit about the power of community and the importance of professional networks in supporting individual businesses?
I teach a workshop called “How to Get Your Work Seen” and in this class I have a list of “Dos and Don’ts.” On the list is “Do Network.” Being a part of communities and professional associations, I learned that it isn’t only about making compelling work, or knowing how to market that work, but also who you form a relationship with.
 
Getting out there to meet people, finding communities that support you, and being seen by those “decision makers” in your field can open many doors and lead to opportunities that otherwise would not have landed at your door.  I have seen this happen again and again in my field, and I know from others this is true in other fields as well.
 
I always tell my class that if you are an introvert and don’t feel comfortable getting out to network, volunteer instead. It gives you something to do while still being out in the community and you may meet someone who will someday give you an opportunity to have your work seen.
 
You’ve served on several boards including the North Carolina Glass Center, Asheville’s Public Art and Cultural Commission, the Arts Business Institute and the World Craft Council of North America. What drives you to serve and give back to the arts community in this way? What are other ways alums can support local artists?
As an Executive Director of a variety of nonprofits, I have had to work with boards. This gave me an appreciation of how necessary and important it is to have board members who understand how to be effective and what it means to serve on a nonprofit board.  The healthier and more functional a nonprofit board is, the healthier and more functional a nonprofit can be.
 
I decided that if I could serve nonprofits by being one of those board members who “got it,” I could help other nonprofits thrive. And yes, it is important to me to give back to the communities who have given me amazing opportunities, and this is one way I feel I can do that.
 
Serving on boards also is a great networking tool and has given me opportunities I would have never been given if I didn't form the relationships I did serving on those boards. 
 
What would you tell a fellow alumna considering a career in the arts?
Working in the arts has been unbelievably rewarding. I have met so many talented and dedicated people who are creative innovators and problem solvers. Being involved in the arts has given me the ability to do the same. Making a living as an artist isn’t easy but being a creative entrepreneur can lead to a wonderful fulfilling life of beautiful gifts.
 
Besides art, what else are you passionate about?
Leading a handmade life is my main passion. We support local small businesses when we can, and we buy handmade items as much as possible. Our home is full of wonderful pieces of art from both friends and artists we like.
 
We have three dogs, all rescues, and that is another area I am passionate about—helping abandoned animals find good homes.
 
Lastly, diversity, equity and inclusion are at the forefront of all the work I do—creating equitable opportunities, being inclusive in who I chose to work with and creating accessibility for all.
 
What makes you proud to be a Laurel alum?
There is so much I received from attending Laurel. I am grateful for the privileges I was given having gone to school with wonderful women who went on to do amazing things. Laurel fosters special, driven and smart women to go on and make the world a better place. To be a part of that legacy is what makes me most proud to be a Laurel alum.
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