When it comes to thinking locally, Kansas City area artist Tammy Smith does it for about 30 different cities in the world — the number of cities this home-based creator has corralled into her line of city-themed home wares that are now being marketed nationally.
Smith has enlisted her talents as an illustrator to emblazon items such as tea towels, tote bags, wall hangings, plates — virtually anything that can hold an image — with representations of landmarks that describe a certain locality distinctively, such as Kansas City with the “Sky Stations” and Plaza towers or Barcelona, with its amazing cathedral.
The idea of highlighting different cities didn’t just spring into her head one day. She was already working as an independent artist after devoting the earlier portion of her career working for Hallmark Cards, Inc., leaving as an art director in 2009.
“After a career at Hallmark Cards where I designed party ware, giftwrap and social expression product, I began a freelance career working from my home studio. I’ve created products for several companies including Graphique de France, Studio M-Magnetworks, Midwest CBK, Design Design, Unique Industries, Red Dirt and Hallmark Cards before deciding to launch my own line of products,” she said.
“I started out on my own doing wire and clay sculptures sold under my business name of Handmade Circus,” Smith said. She marketed the whimsical creations by participating in many open-air art fairs around the country including St. Louis and New Orleans. “I was eventually able to sell them wholesale to fine art and gift galleries. They are actually small sculptures.”
However, while the public reaction was excellent, Smith found it a tough way to make a living, especially with a young son at home. “It was hard. I was traveling all the time. I found myself wanting to get back to what I was trained for, which is commercial art development and production.”
But traveling around to city to city made her aware of a major trend that was developing in the years after the turn of the century; the Local Movement, which certainly affected culinary tastes, but also peoples taste in art. “That trend to focus on things local was just beginning and people became more aware and appreciative of local artists and wanted to buy their stuff.”
So she started by making flat wire sculptures of Kansas City landmarks such as the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the Plaza, Union Station and sold the items through local stores. “I was at as many ‘First Friday’ shows (in the Crossroads Art District) as I could,” she said.
She employed a photographic process to reproduce them and added color. Her next-door neighbor, journalist Steve Kraske, shared some images on his Facebook page, which created some public interest.
“Someone told me that if the image was on a tea towel that she would buy it,” said Smith. “So I figured out how to do that,” and the rest, as we say, is history. Smith took examples of her Kansas City products to craft shows and people started requesting items that featured their own town.
She created a line of city-themed home wares and “it just took off,” she said. “Today I have 30 cities in the line including European cities: Rome, Barcelona, Paris, London, Dublin and Amsterdam. “A lot of people buy my products and send them to their friends living in Europe,” she said.
“Now when I do shows I get a lot of requests. The towns with the most requests get done next.” She hasn’t forgotten her Midwestern roots and has developed products for the area university towns of Columbia, Lawrence and Manhattan.
Products include pillow covers, mugs, prints, melamine items (plastic platters and trays) and the ubiquitous tote bags. Most are city related, although Smith has come out with a new line featuring dogs, a line she calls “Shelter Dogs.” Smith donates a portion of all her proceeds to local animal shelters.
Most of her marketing efforts have been through word of mouth exposure at art shows, but she sells most everything though her website, www.tammysmithdesign.com under the banner, ‘Tammy Smith, Unique Home Goods.’ About 35 shops around the country also carry her items. Smith also maintains a Facebook page. Recently one of her Paris platters was included in a photo spread of gift items featured in HGTV Magazine.
Expanding beyond the city-related products Smith has started collaborating with other artists on wall hangings. She included photo images by Katrina Revenaugh in mixed media images of Nell Donnelly, the woman who built an apparel empire from Kansas City, as well as Tom Pendergast, the “boss” of Kansas City during the Depression.
Words and Photos: Leigh Elmore