3. ERIN SOORENKO - September 17, 2017
Erin opens the door to her building and greets me, immediately pulling me into a hug. It is a bright and balmy Sunday morning and she leads me inside, up warm wooden stairs to her apartment on the second floor, sunlight filtering into the halls and onto the dark paneled hardwood floor. When she lets herself into her apartment, two chestnut brown eyes peer up at us above a mouth wide open in greeting. “This is Darla Jean!” Erin says, closing the door behind us. She explains how she got Darla from an animal shelter in her hometown of Rockville almost 3 years ago after graduating from college. Darla is sweet, excited to meet me, but quickly calms down, almost immediately leaving me to sprawl out on the floor, taking up a large space where she lounges for the duration of my time there.
Erin’s name preceded her - I’ve been a fan of her jewelry work for some time, and have corresponded with her previously to share photos and promote one other’s work on Instagram - only now are we finally meeting in person. She makes the hand earrings that seem to have proliferated Richmond’s jewelry-wearing population, under the name Lemon Tree Handmade. They are simple and elegant - a single thin gold wire bent into the shape of a five-finger hand. She excitedly shows me her workspace - a large wooden table repurposed from her parents’ dining room, pushed up against two large windows draped in white linen. She has surrounded herself with leafy greenery and old photographs, screen prints, bouquets of dried flowers, and numerous small beautiful artifacts that she seems to have a knack for pilfering and pulling from obscurity. She tells me that her parents are the ones who taught her how to decorate and fill her space, her mother’s advice to her being to “put something you love in every corner,” which is something Erin seems to have executed brilliantly.
Erin sits down at a small stool tucked into the corner between the two windows and pulls two wooden boxes from beside her. She is brimming over with joy as she explains how all of her jewelry-making materials are essentially portable, and she can fit everything she needs to produce her work into a single cigar box that she totes around with her, bending wire while getting a drink at Saison or sitting on the lawn at the VMFA.
Most of her materials were gifted to her a while ago by a friend who graduated out of the crafts program at VCU and no longer needed them, which was entirely serendipitous and extremely valuable for the trajectory of her work. She shows me her small portable anvil, which she can attach to any tabletop surface, her collection of wire cutters, pliers, and a hole-punching device that she has just purchased, which will save her a lot of time and energy, she says.
She begins to work a bit while we chat, stopping what she’s doing every once in a while to gesture with her hands or get up to point something out to me that she’s hung on the wall or set aside on the table. She explains how she’s originally from the D.C. area, growing up in the suburbs on the Maryland side of the district. She grew up in a large Jewish family, her parents’ large house constantly filled with people, overflowing with friends and family.
Her parents are both photographers, and she was raised in close proximity to the commercial art world, with a darkroom in her basement and the stern warning not to go to school for art. She points out a screen print she’s made of her father’s first self portrait, a black and white image rendered in Ben-Day dots, hung a bit above her worktable, slightly obscured by a cork board pinned with polaroid photos and a book of Annie Leibovitz’s photography work from the early 80’s.
She ended up going to VCU for advertising, although she did initially want to pursue photography. She explains that she’s glad, however, that she took the path she did, and recognizes all the skills and expertise she gained from her education. Right after graduating, she began her hunt for a job at an advertising agency. She describes this process as hectic and harried, as she was traveling up to New York almost every week for interviews.
She was in the city one day in late December, shuttling between interviews in the pouring rain, when she received an email from a company that she never expected to hear back from, as they were one of the larger and more established agencies she applied to. They asked if she could do a phone interview, and right then she ducked out of the downpour and into a department store, plugging her ears to block out the incessant Christmas music. When she retuned home from New York, she Skyped with the company for four hours, and they eventually offered her a job as an art director in Boston, which she quickly accepted.
She describes Boston as being “one of the prettiest places” she’s ever been (and she’s traveled quite a bit, she adds), although it was extremely expensive and far from everyone she was close with. After a year there, she decided to leave the company in search of something better suited to her interests. She tells me how she still sees herself going back to the corporate world, but pictures working for a smaller, boutique agency, shifting her focus toward branding and more experimental marketing, with the ultimate goal being to help companies build their identities.
After leaving Boston last summer, her and her partner Robbie spent two months driving around the country, both of them doing freelance work while they traveled. Since then, she’s been based in Richmond, where Erin says she is really able to thrive, where “the sense of community is inspiring.” Unfortunately, Robbie has just accepted a job offer at an advertising agency in southern California with a company that he’s been freelancing intensely with for a while now. When I ask her if she’d consider moving out there with him, she responds emphatically: “No, no, no. I’m not moving anywhere for anyone.” Richmond is her home for the time being, although she has been researching job opportunities in the Bay Area, and has long-held dreams of moving north to live in New York.
She’s bounced around in Richmond for a little, working for some time at Studio Two Three, and then at the Visual Arts Center, doing graphic design and branding work for them. While she isn’t currently employed at either, she still has access to both studio spaces, which she says is an invaluable resource to her and her work. She sometimes still pops over to the metalworking studio at VisArts if she needs to hammer out some metal, which is possible to do with her portable materials, she explains, although extremely loud in her small apartment.
She’s recently transitioned to doing freelance graphic design work full-time and loves the freedom it affords her to live the kind of life she wants, and have the sort of flexibility she so much enjoys. She lives what she describes as “a very slow lifestyle,” while still being intensely busy. She values shopping locally, and strives to produce zero waste, buying in bulk and bringing totes and containers with her wherever she goes. She tells me that she needs to have me over again, so she can make bread for us.
Erin stops working for a little bit and folds herself up on her gold loveseat, draped with various blankets and throw pillows. Darla immediately hops up off the ground and cuddles next to her on the couch. She pushes her nose onto Erin’s lap and looks directly at me, perfectly posed. We laugh as Darla continues to nudge her face into the view of my camera while I shoot, staring at me or looking up at Erin for approval.
I compliment the little yellow sofa, and she immediately launches in on its origin story. “It was free!” she exclaims, explaining how she caught sight of it in the back of a stranger’s pickup truck. She almost walked past it, but turned back because she knew she would’ve always regretted not asking. She asked the man if he was getting rid of the sofa, and he told her that he was on his way to the thrift store that very minute to donate it. When she expressed interest in it and told him that she lived down the block, he happily drove it to her apartment and helped her move it in.
I ask her how she got into making jewelry and she explains how her mother bought her and her younger sister a small jewelry-making kit from Michael’s or A.C. Moore one summer to keep them occupied and working creatively. They both took to it immediately, and Erin was particularly obsessed, being as she had just gotten her ears pierced. Erin and her sister would retreat up to their semi-finished attic to work, surrounded by kid-sized tools and pill boxes full of beads. They would bring their wares to the end of the street corner and set up a little table to sell their earrings, “like a lemonade stand,” she explains.
She did this for years growing up, always giving her earrings to friends and teachers as gifts. She hops up and digs out a pair that she still has from that period of time to show me - a few multi-colored stones dangle from a silver earring hook. “They were simple, but fun to make,” she says, as she turns to store them away again. Since then, she’s always made her own jewelry or worn her mom’s vintage stuff. She describes herself as having “a very particular taste in jewelry” and really enjoys being able to envision and create it herself. She’s intensely interested in the idea of slow fashion, of crafting well-made, responsibly sourced goods and materials.
Erin hops up from the couch excitedly to show me her latest design for Lemon Tree. Since its inception, she’s only ever sold the wire hands, but now has created a version made from hammered, lightweight brass. The design is elegant and modern, and she puts them on to show me. The hands look strong, powerful but still delicate, as they frame her face. She sits in a chair in the center of her apartment so I can snap a few shots of her wearing them. I ask her why she chose hands as the basis for her designs, and she laughs a bit as she explains how on a literal sense, they are hand made. She also explains how she’s been for some time obsessed with and inspired by hands; she loves to photograph them, to draw them, document them. There’s a lot to someone’s hands, she says, the power they hold, the stories they tell. “This is my passion right now,” she explains. She’s excited, gesturing as she talks, she can’t wait to get this new design out. She’s hammering out the last few details, pricing, availability, etc. and is getting closer and closer to releasing them.
She gets up from her chair and shows me the process, how meticulously she cuts the shapes from sheets of brass, how no scrap goes unused or wasted, which is an emphasis she puts on a lot of her work. She’s diligent about repurposing every bit of her materials, as well as sourcing them responsibly and sustainably. She shows me a few of her other designs in the works, which deviate from her original, tried and true hand design. She’s working on a few new various designs, combining leftover scraps from previous projects to cobble together new ideas.
She tells me about a paid apprenticeship she read about online recently with a handmade clog company that’s based out of San Francisco. She laughs to herself, ruminating on her dreams of moving out there, of taking up internships and apprenticeships like that, learning various crafts and trades all over the world. She talks about opening a boutique someday, filling it with her own handmade, sustainable goods - jewelry, clothes, shoes. It’s a far-off dream, she says, and she knows that it’s years in the making, but she can’t help but start dreaming it up now. She wants Lemon Tree Handmade to be “a real thing,” get an LLC, ramp up her marketing and social media presence, the whole nine yards.
For now, she’s content to keep building on her areas of expertise and to continue cultivating her steady, purposeful style of living. She tells me about the small garden that a few of her neighbors have started up in the alley between their apartment buildings. She provides compost scraps in exchange for access to their fresh herbs and vegetables. Erin grabs a small cardboard carton from her little light-filled kitchen. Vases with various species of green, vine-like plants and flowers line the windowsill. A vintage mirror etched with delicate white flowers hangs above the stove beside a collection of bight red measuring cups and spoons. We walk out of her building together, down her back steps, and out into the blinding warmth until we reach the shared community garden. Her warm, capable hands weave throughout the planters, pick a few tomatoes off the vine and handful of basil for me. She places them in the carton she’s brought, and hugs me goodbye, promising freshly baked bread and another afternoon.
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