10 Questions for our alumni

Jen Surine, BFA, Jewelry and Metals, 2010

Jen Surine, BFA, Jewelry and Metals, 2010

1. Why did you choose to attend Grand Valley?

I grew up in then Kalamazoo area, and though I wanted to "go away" to college, I didn't want to go too far. I wanted the option of visiting home for the weekend or my family driving up and taking me out to dinner. I wanted to be around for family events and holidays but I still wanted to create independence and take a big step out on my own. So choosing a school that was about an hour and a half away was perfect.

There were a lot of reasons Grand Valley was the perfect choice for me. I fell in love with the campus when I visited as a senior in high school. It is the perfect size. I could walk to all of my classes, and depending on the time of the year and temperature, I would either take the scenic route over the bridge in the ravine through the woods or when I was carrying my giant art portfolio to class and the wind and snow were about to carry me away, I'd take a shortcut through couple warm buildings to let my fingers thaw out.

Grand Valley's Art Department was the biggest reason I choose GVSU. The facilities were incredible. On an unofficial campus tour, which was more like my mom and I exploring GVSU, we found the metalsmithing studio. It was the evening and there were a couple of students at benches working on projects. The kindest student came up to me and took it upon herself to give me a tour of the entire metals room. I was in awe of all the tools, supplies, and equipment available to the students. Annealing room. Raising room. Polishing room. A jewelers bench for every student. Personal studio space for upperclassman that are majors. I wanted to be in that space and I wanted to create in that space. It was love at first sight.


2. How or why did you choose your major or main emphasis area?

Most Metals majors seem to stumble upon Metalsmithing. They sign up and take it as an elective studio class to round out their transcript requirements, but after one or two classes they are hooked and make it their emphasis area. I was different. I started making jewelry when I was in elementary school and I would sell rings to my friends during recess. My neighbor was a jeweler and he inspired me with his gorgeous creations and would sometimes give me little treasures like faceted stones. I took up jewelry making classes in high school and couldn't get enough. I signed up for every jewelry class they offered and then an independent study every semester after that. I knew I wanted to keep pursuing it. There was nothing I wanted to do more.


3. What advice do you have for future students thinking about colleges?

To be honest, I didn't look at a lot of different colleges. I knew what I didn't want. I didn't want to stay at home or go to a college very close by. I knew a lot of my friends were going to Western Michigan but it never appealed to me. I had a scholarship or two that were for schools in Michigan, so I didn't really have a desire to leave the state. My high school boyfriend tried to convince me to follow him to his small college but I wasn't remotely interested in that school (or him for much longer) so thankfully I did not do that.

All the pieces seemed to align for me, revealing Grand Valley was where I should be.

Talk to college students, get their take. Walk around campuses, explore the grounds and wander into buildings. Take official tours. Take unofficial tours, too. Eat in the cafeteria. Introduce yourself to professors you may have if you know your area of interest. Sit on a bench and watch people walk by. Take it all in. Not only is this were you will receive an education, but this is where you will build community with others and it will be your home for a handful of years.

4. What advice do you have for current students thinking about careers?

There are careers in the Arts! Not everyone becomes a teacher, studio artist or starving artist. The skillset an art degree provides encompasses so many areas and makes you a valuable resource. Think of it all as "transferable skills". You learn a lot about yourself and your work during critiques. You learn how to express yourself through your artwork and your ability to speak about your work. Critiques are not an easy thing for the average person, but with an art background you become a pro! There are so many skills like this you discover with an education in the arts.

There are two specific things I did that really helped me hit the ground running with my career after graduating. This is my best advice for a seamless transition from college to "the real world".

1. I worked retail while I was attending GVSU, like many students do. I worked at two different independently owned fine jewelry stores and at a Thomas Kinkade Gallery. While the Thomas Kinkade Gallery was a little corny at times, I learned a lot about framing paintings, working with customers, hanging artwork, hosting events, promotional materials and just overall running a business open to close by myself.

My experience at the jewelry stores was invaluable. I learned about setting gemstones, grading diamonds, sizing rings, and other repair work. I'm familiar with jewelry suppliers and pricing fine jewelry. I am able to identify necessary repairs in damaged items and work with customers to create a custom piece of jewelry. I sat next to goldsmiths with 30+ years of experience on the bench, asking them questions and hoarding their advice. I built relationships with people in the jewelry field that are still an email away when I have questions about a metals refiner or gemstone quality. This background has given me a leg up in my knowledge of making, marketing and selling my own jewelry, plus the ins and outs of running a jewelry business. I cannot recommend enough that every student finds a part time job while they are in school, ESPECIALLY one that is related to your field of interest in some way. I am so thankful for that experience.

2. Grand Valley's Department of Visual & Media Arts has incredible facilities that every student should take full advantage of while attending, but, don't let these incredible facilities, filled to the brim with every tool and high end piece of equipment become a detriment to you after graduation. The day you graduate you won't have full access to a studio like that and you should spend your time at GVSU preparing for that. With metalsmithing in particular, there are so many different kinds of tools and the supplies are very expensive at times. A couple times a semester, metalsmithing students have the opportunity to purchase supplies directly from a visiting jewelry supply store. They set up in the back of the room and students are able to buy stones, metals, tools and more. Most students only purchase the raw materials they will need for a specific project, like a sheet of copper and some solder. I made it my goal to purchase the tools I would need, too. Hammers, anvils, dapping blocks, pliers, soldering equipment... all kinds of tools that are available to students in the metals department free of cost but I would slowly purchase the same tools here and there throughout the semester. It wasn't cheap, but, it would have been impossible to try to build a studio of tools and equipment the day after I graduated. I slowly accumulated everything I would need to continue with metalsmithing after I graduated. After graduation I had a bench in my apartment with the basics, but it was everything I needed to begin my business.

5. What did you do after graduating?

After graduating, my husband and I lived outside of Grand Rapids in a small apartment. I was working at the fine jewelry store part time and my husband was finishing up getting his Masters while working, too. We were making just enough money to get by, but with me only working retail part time, I had the freedom to work at my jewelry bench in our apartment as much as I could. I began selling my work online, specifically on Etsy. Etsy was still pretty small and unknown by the average person at that time, but it was really growing. I dove into the online community there and it was such a great resource. I left school thinking I wouldn't have much of a community of fellow artists anymore but I found support, encouragement and community on Etsy. Sales really began picking up for me online and I was learning all about running my own business. I was trying to balance a lot of new things: Designing, fabricating, photographing, editing photos, online customer support, packaging, shipping, timelines, custom orders, promotional materials, search engine optimization, taxes... the list goes on. I made mistakes, but I was determined to learn from them and keep going. Honestly, my biggest mistake at the time was not quitting my part time job sooner. I was afraid to lose the stable income, even though it wasn't a lot, because we depended on it. Refusing to take the plunge into full self-employment began hurting my business. Orders were rolling in and I was having a hard time keeping up. I was starting to miss shipping deadlines here and there. I was stressed and I felt sick to my stomach I wasn't keeping up with my orders. It was about a year after graduating that my husband found a job in Kalamazoo and we moved an hour south. I quit my part time job and gave myself permission to pursue my work full time. I should have done that sooner. I had the time I needed to grow my business- and keep up with it!


6. What are you doing now?

About four years ago my son, Jack, was born. I ended up taking a pretty big break from metalsmithing to avoid harmful chemicals while I was pregnant. After having my son I didn't have the same kind of quality time to devote to my work. I made things here and there and kept up with a couple galleries that carried my jewelry but I quit selling online. I would still do custom work either by word of mouth or repeat customers that would contact me, but for the most part things slowed way down. I loved the time I could spend with my son but I did miss the time in my studio all alone being creative.

This past year I've been working to get the ball rolling with my jewelry business again. I have work in three galleries, I've been applying to and have had work recently in juried art shows, I'm building my social media platforms, designing a new line of jewelry, and doing art sales & trunk shows. I've been working on building momentum to launch my online shop again, which is very close. Custom orders have been picking up already with social media's help.

I also have a side business buying jewelry lots from auctions, sorting through and reselling designer items on eBay and the statement/fad jewelry to local consignment shops. It's fun, like digging for treasure. I never know what I will find. Once I found someone's glass eye and I can't even tell you how many human teeth I've found. Ew! Sometimes I find incredible vintage and antique pieces, too. My husband describes it as my "side hustle in the import/export business". It was something I found I could do while I was with my son when I couldn't slip into my studio to work as often. That's one thing about artists, we can always find creative ways to apply our knowledge on a topic and turn it into a business!


7. How have you used the skills you developed in your field of study in your life and/or career after GVSU?

During my time at GVSU I took a wide range of classes and each of those classes taught me a wide range of techniques. I have a background now that includes learning printmaking, sculpture, ceramics and painting, plus all of the design basics from the foundations courses like color, 2D & 3D design, drawing, and creative problem solving (I believe it is called something different now). On top of that, all of my metalsmithing classes where I learned countless techniques on all types of equipment. All of this is valuable and useful to me today in my metalsmithing. I have all of these experiences I can use like tools in a tool box. I also have the confidence to switch gears when I know something isn't working and go in an entirely different direction with my work.


8. What is the best advice you got from an instructor at Grand Valley?

What's terrible is that I can't remember specifically which professor told me this because I know a couple different professors said something similar: Take advantage of your professors' availability. Take advantage of their office hours if you have questions. Take advantage of their input and critiques. Take advantage of their friendship and their knowledge in the field. Ask to see their work. Build relationships with your professors because they can be a resource far beyond your years in college. I love staying connected to my former professors and GVSU's Department of Visual & Media Arts. Staying connected gives me the ability to help future or current students by sharing my experiences in college. I've been honored to come back to GVSU throughout the years to speak as part of a panel to senior seminar classes, or incoming students quite a few times. I love staying involved and so much of that is because I enjoy keeping up with some of my professors that have had the biggest impact on me and my work.


9. What is your favorite memory of being a student at Grand Valley?

Favorite memory? As in pick one? That is tough. I have to at least mention a couple. I'm a rule breaker, what can I say?
1. There was a semester where one of my large self-portrait paintings was hanging in Kirkhof. I would go grab lunch and sit across from it now and then while I was eating. It was odd and fun all at the same time.
2. My younger sister, still in high school came and stayed with me for a day or two. All of my professors were amazing and gave her permission to attend classes with me. She went to my classes like Art History, she made a ring in my Metals class and stayed with me in the dorm. It was really neat to share what I loved so much with her.
3. I had my very own studio space next to the metals department. I could sit in there and work. Kill time between classes. Eat lunch. Stash all of my projects there. And best of all, just hang out with other students that had studio space there, too. It was such an incredible resource!
4. I took a BioMedical Ethics class for a gen. ed. I loved the debating and critical thinking the class required but mostly I enjoyed answering medical questions and surprising the professor. I still remember he would say, "The art student! The art student is answering all of these questions that medical students can't!" I like to think I made his day a little more interesting. And never underestimate an art student's skills at thinking about ANY problem creatively!
5. Ok, here's the real favorite memory: My senior BFA show. I spent so much time along with 3 other women pulling together every aspect of our show. It was stressful, exciting and such a rewarding experience. I was proud of the work we all accomplished and the cohesiveness of the show. It was unforgettable for each of us.


10. Anything else you would like to share with our Visual and Media Arts Community?

I had a very profound moment my freshman year in my Drawing 1 class. It was a critique day and everyone was arriving early to unroll their projects and pin them to the wall. I was excited as I pinned up my drawing and stepped back to give it one last overall look, but something else caught my eye. I noticed a couple of my friends in the class were kind of huddled up whispering about something. I was curious so I walked over, smiled hello, and listened in. One student mentioned she was crying before class. The other student agreed with her said she had been crying too. I was having trouble understanding what they were referring to, so I asked, "Wait, you were upset before coming to THIS class?" They nodded. I was completely baffled. It was my favorite class that semester and our professor was fantastic. I was learning so much and I could see drastic improvements week to week in my work. I loved engaging in critiques and seeing the growth in my peers, too. I assumed everyone felt the same as I did. Eager to learn, grow and create artwork. One of the girls said to me kindly, "We can tell you really love this class.".

I share this story because it was an eye opening experience for me. While those two friends were doing well in the class, getting fine grades and completing the work, they were quickly realizing it was not what they wanted for a career. It didn't fill them with joy. I remember how affirming that moment was to me. I was doing what I was meant to do and it was so fulfilling for me, I didn't even realize a few others were having a much different experience.

I know there are many students in college trying to figure out what they should study or wonder if they are in the right place. I was lucky to have a moment early on, making it clear to me I was right where I should be and doing something I loved. This made all of the hard work worth it. I hope everyone is fortunate enough to have a similar profound experience affirming they are doing what they are meant to do.


Image credit by Jen Surine. You can see more of Jen's work online at https://www.facebook.com/BendTheFish/


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Page last modified November 18, 2018