Craftsperson finds fulfillment in art after leaving job

By Sarah Gray Barr

Butterfly bush, summer lilac and orange eye. All names for the same plant which graces the silver pot on Charlotte Smith’s porch. Smith knows it best as butterfly bush, and the purple and red blossoms dye cut up strips of The New Yorker the palest shade of yellow.

Being a Helping Hand

Smith has not always had time to dedicate to her craft. In 2016, she left her job of nearly three decades. Smith found herself in the same position that people who left or lost their jobs in the pandemic face now: trying to find fulfillment when the previous way of life is gone.

Smith worked at Ipas, a nonprofit headquartered in Chapel Hill, which aims to protect women’s reproductive rights globally. Smith served as a program officer and traveled to more than 60 countries. During her travels, she developed a career-long habit of purchasing materials native to the country in which she was advocating. In Ghana and Nigeria, Smith picked up wax prints and batiks–textiles unique to the region. Materials such as these now find their way into her art.

The work at Ipas was not dull by any means. Smith has hiked through Northern Ethiopia and attended conferences in Kenya. She also recalled being one of the first Americans in Romania after the overthrow of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989. Behind the former Iron Curtain, women’s rights were restricted. During her stay, Smith witnessed the new legalization of abortion.

Smith is a firecracker. At least, that’s how her friends describe her.

Katie Early met Smith in 1987. Early served as the executive director at Ipas and hired new administrators. She remembers first meeting Smith at that hiring interview. There were two candidates: Smith, and someone better qualified on paper for the job. Smith impressed Early with her dry humor and wit. Early recalled the interview fondly.

“We have a joke talent show at our staff retreat every year, do you have any good jokes?” Early asked.

“Oh, I have a joke, but if you want to hear it, you’ll need to hire me first,” Smith said.

Merrill Wolf, a colleague of Smith’s, agrees. Smith brought a spirit of fun to the Carrboro office. Wolf remembers creating the Ipas board game. Wolf and Smith used papier-mâché to build the board and the playable pieces. The game mixed Monopoly and Candyland together and contained a deck of memorable Ipas-related cards.

“‘The project organizer in a country steals three thousand dollars to build a pool, go back two spaces,’ is one card that I can recall,” said Wolf.

The Ipas office is now located in Southern Village, and the previous building became Gourmet Kingdom, a Chinese restaurant serving Szechuan specialties. But when Smith, Wolf  and Early worked there, art from their travels covered the walls to the point where nobody remembers the paint color underneath.

Moving On

When Smith left Ipas in December of 2016, she needed to find something to do with her time. She began crafting. For the next two years, she experimented. She stayed curious. She found a mould and deckle in her house, purchased from her college days, and tried her hand at making paper. She tested concoction after concoction, added flowers and seeds to paper slurries and searched for the perfect water-to-The New Yorker ratio.

Smith tried to find what sparked her interest.

She joined The 100 Day Project, a worldwide art project that builds creative confidence. She tried making something for 100 days in a row in 2018. She fashioned handmade envelopes, tree hangers, cloth bags and fabric puzzles. The next time Smith participated in 2020, she practiced photography, taking snapshots of nature’s insects and flowers. Smith began her most ambitious attempt at the project in 2021–she created 100 replicas of art by women or art depicting women. Smith stitched fabric onto old postcards and backed the pieces with upholstery samples. The collection includes fabric recreations from Billie Zangewa, Elizabeth Catlett and Roz Chast.

During this period, Smith developed a penchant for handmade paper adorned with sewn fabric designs. Art she could create in a day.

The table she presses her paper on is wrought iron, weathered by the sun and stained with the pulp of past projects. Her yard is something out of “The Secret Garden,” with flowers and vines covering as far as the eye can see. It is here that Smith begins the artistic process.

She experiments with different flora and vegetation to create natural dyes for her work. Today, that pot on her porch holds butterfly bush. Weeks ago, the pot held onion skins, creating a dark yellow dye. Before that, red cabbage dyed newspaper strips a deep purple, a mix between periwinkle and plum.

Smith blends the dyed paper shreds, pours the mixture onto a mould and deckle, and adheres the pressed liquid to large cotton squares. The handmade paper dries under Carolina skies before Smith peels it off to use in her next project.

The stacks of fabrics in Smith’s sewing room stretch to the ceiling. Bins sit next to her Viking sewing machine that boast polka dots, pinstripes, and paisleys. Boxes hold herringbones, harlequins, and houndsteeth. The sewing room is her oyster, and the dozens upon dozens of fabrics are her pearls.

Making the Meaning

Smith is quick and decisive. She knows what she wants to make. It may be a trial-and-error process, and it may take a few tries, but she envisions what the design should be and creates it.

She considers herself more of a craftsperson than an artist, affectionately dubbed a “gluepotter” by her older sister for her projects and creations decades in the making. Growing up and continuing into adulthood, Smith would choose to stay home and “gluepot” rather than go out. Smith battled boredom by crafting day and night with nothing but a trusty pot of glue by her side.

“It’s a family joke now, that we’re glued to our chair. We made it into a verb. What are you going to gluepot this time, you know?” Smith said.

“Gluepotting” aside, Smith is a jack of all trades, skilled in design, photography and fabric. An artist in every sense of the word. But what makes her work unique is its components: recycled papers and fabrics scraps. Smith breathes new life into them, bringing purpose and meaning to materials that others might throw away.

“I don’t envision myself becoming a famous artist, nor do I particularly want to,” said Smith. “I don’t need to accomplish anything. I feel like I’ve done enough interesting things in my life that I will keep exploring and having fun and try new things.”

To Smith, opportunity is everywhere and fulfillment is at her fingertips. Meaning can be found in things often overlooked.

Edited by Em Welsh