Behind the Scenes with Textile Artist Prophet Gypsy Robot
A couple months ago, Jamie Tubbs – owner of sustainable textile artwork biz Prophet Gypsy Robot – invited me to capture some branding photos for her. I was thrilled because I've been a fan of her work since I first encountered it about a year ago.
Previous to meeting Jamie, I'd suspected her mission and values aligned with what I love to share on this blog. And when we met and began talking about her experiences in entrepreneurship, motherhood, faith, and living in Chicago, I was quickly affirmed in that. Jamie's journey, perspective, and wisdom are the very things I aim to feature and dialogue about with you here.
To me, her fiber artwork is one-of-a-kind. And I think each piece she spends herself on serves as a wonderful representation of God's workmanship in each of us.
I pray her responses would encourage you, inspire you, and cause you to acknowledge the whispers and dreams in your own heart.
How long you've been running your fiber artwork business?
I made my first sales in December of 2014 at the Randolph Street Market. I've had seasons since then of less and more time devoted to working on it. My daughter's birth in August 2016 came with a job change for my husband that allowed us to create a shared work/parenting schedule, and I've been treating it like a full time job since then.
How was your business born, and what has the journey entailed as you've stepped into this calling?
I've always been a maker, and always intuitively knew I'd make and sell something. I used to go to Renegade craft fair and just cry with longing. It wasn't sad, it was just this strong desire and energy. I felt so alive around makers and artists and designers and the things they created. The journey has entailed lots of effort and belief. Lots of small and big hurdles. Lots of keeping going through discomfort and moving past disappointments quickly, as well as lots of celebrating successes and enjoying that I get to do this at all.
Similarly, would you share that story about discovering weaving by wanting to make a rug? :)
I often made all sorts of small apparel gifts for people, but I felt the most energy when making things for my home. I was obsessed with Design Sponge. Around 2011, the church we were part of rented an industrial loft space and I asked if I could help furnish it. It had huge walls and needed some art and texture without a lot of expense. At the same time I was working on my own apartment and couldn't afford a rug that I liked, so I started scheming how I could make one myself. I pictured building a frame loom and just cutting off finished sections of rug and sewing them together into a big one. But that image of a highly textural woven piece on a frame suddenly seemed like the perfect large scale textural art piece for a big empty wall. Off I went to the thrift store and bought a bunch of jersey bedsheets. I dyed them and tore them up with a friend, and built a frame mimicking a picture of an old school loom I found online. I used hand tools because I didn't have or know how to use power tools at the time. It took forever.
What's the story behind your business name Prophet Gypsy Robot?
I really labored trying to think of a name. In hindsight it might have been better to just use my own name, but I really wanted to call my work something besides my own name. I love naming stuff. I decided to give myself a timeline- one week to decide and that's it. I had nothing at the end of that week and as I was falling asleep that night, I was thinking about my design aesthetics at the time. Sorta gypsy, colorful and eclectic. Sorta robot, minimal and clean lines. I thought dang, that's a neat little character. Gypsy Robot. The prophet part is because I thought the robot would be pretty cool as a prophet and the image would kind of encompass my love for words and belief in their power. Also, I didn't want to be too hipster and have a two-word combo. Three words felt a little less cliche.
What do you love most about working with fabric and making the textural artwork you do?
This question makes me so happy because struggling over what to say first out of the many reasons I love working with textiles gives me confirmation that it is indeed my favorite medium. I don't know how to express just loving fabric. I like the weights and textures and folds and fibers, the irregularities and how it takes dye. I love the way it wears out and holds up. I could write a love song to fabric. It is just limitless in the ways you can manipulate it and use it. I love its history - global, ancient, modern. I love its ties to feminism. I love its functionality.
As far as my favorite part about making my own work - I love experimenting and trying to do things I haven't seen.
I'm learning a lot of skills, but I like to do things the "wrong" way and see what happens. It's why I know I could do this forever and not get bored.
What are the fibers you've been using lately?
Lately, the Textile Discount Outlet had a huge lot of muslin "seconds" - like hundreds of bolts. I'm not sure how they got in the manufacturers reject pile – some of them had lots of breaks in the middle, some had handwriting on them which was kind of cool. But a lot of my work for the past six months has been from bolts of muslin. I also used it to start experimenting with natural dyes which has been such an enjoyable discovery for me.
What is one of your favorite projects from the past year and why?
Working with District in Ravenswood. I made more work for them than I knew I was capable of, and sold close to everything I took to the store. It makes me just want to squeeze all those people who bought those pieces! Though I'm pretty good at keeping my head up and encouraging myself, I really wanted affirmation right at that moment that people want what I'm making and that it's more than just a time consuming hobby. District sales really boosted me and gave me some elbow room to develop and still write myself a paycheck. Every now and then along the journey a boost of obvious external affirmation really helps.
You mentioned some installations and projects you hope to explore like honoring your dad and brother by using fabric from their work uniforms - people who've served our country. Would you speak into perhaps the privilege and honor you experience in doing the work you do.
So, some future work I have planned (for like a year now so I'm scared to actually talk about it) involves using work uniforms of family and neighbors. It's not so much about honoring our country (although my younger brother is in the military) as it is about class privilege and thinking about work and the meaning of work. It's coming from the collision of a lot of things happening in my life.
My dad recently retired from the post office after 35 years. The health insurance he acquired when he got the job at 22 is why I am here, according to my mom. My Dad is also an incredibly talented singer and discovered he runs a 3:10 marathon after starting to run at almost 50. So
I am stunned by his longevity in a boring job that gave me life and fed me, all while being this super-talented, multifaceted person. and I think that story encompasses so much about all humanity.
You and your husband recently updated your basement to function as your studio and workspace. Would you share a bit about that experience, and how it came to be?
Yes, actually, it was just me! Nate is super awesome and capable but it wasn't a project he had time to work on and I really needed to do it, for me. I point that out not because I want credit but because I think it's really important for women to know they can get stuff done in their space and I want to represent that reality for other women. "Honey-do lists" can come from self-limiting beliefs we've absorbed from the low expectations our culture has for us, and I have found myself buying into those beliefs in the past. That said, I have no shame in asking him for help, which I most definitely did after trying to remove the upper cabinets from the wall by myself to no avail. He also screwed the plywood tops I got onto the cabinet islands I repurposed from the old cabinets. Thanks, Nate.
So, I had lots of vision for our basement but was just spending an hour on it here and there until I read You Are A Badass by Jen Sincero on an airplane ride, as one 30-something white lady business owner does. She talked about making a decision to do something and then honoring yourself by just actually doing it. I realized I wasn't following through on getting it done and it would never happen if I didn't sacrifice my work time and knock it out. I really battled with just investing time, let alone a few dollars, into making a space better. Now that it's done I feel like improving your physical environment is one of the most powerful gifts you can give yourself. For me anyway, environment makes a huge difference and I'm so glad I took a couple weeks to work really hard and make the space function for us.
Can you shed light on the freedom and the challenge of working for yourself?
The challenge is to constantly believe in yourself and encourage yourself, because you are your own boss, your own coworker, your own employee. Financially, it's just a challenge. My accountant, Maribel, says that the first 2 years of any business is like taking care of a baby, feeding it round the clock, and don't expect it to give you much in return. But by year three, if you've done well, the baby starts to feed you. PGR has been feeding my soul, and slowly, slowly my bank account. The freedom of working for myself and the adventure of running a business is invaluable to me.
You've placed and hung words of inspiration and goals throughout your studio space. i.e. "Earth is forgiveness school." - Anne Lamott and "Your worth is not measured by your productivity." Would you speak into the importance of surrounding yourself with these kind of visual reminders and goals you have for yourself?
Yes! As someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, training my mind how to think in ways that serve me rather than destroy me is a necessity. And it's constant work. Our thoughts create our feelings, which create our reality. The more I can become aware of my thoughts, notice the effects they have, question them and improve them, the more energy I have for things that promote life in me and through me. I don't want to waste my energy on stuff that my brain could obsess over that might not even be true, that might be exaggerated or coming from fear or just unnecessary and unhelpful. The two things that need my energy more than anything in my life right now are being a mom and making a living as an artist. I don't have room for unnecessary bullshit thinking if I'm going to continue to pursue being a profitable working artist.
What does health and self-care look like for you?
Oh gosh I could talk your ear off. Postpartum anxiety and depression was a gift to my life in the long term because of how it set me on a path toward better self care, quickly. My number one self-care is to take care of my mind, as described above. After that, boundaries in relationships are my new mega fav way to care for myself. Then exercise (I use Fitness Blender videos and the Down Dog yoga app on my phone), healthy fuel, and a rhythm of work and rest. Taking care of my space and finances and getting around friends and family who love me, and flossing all fall in there too. There's a lot that goes into maintaining yourself!
Being a Christian, how has your faith shaped and informed your work and inspiration?
This is maybe the hardest one for me to answer. I think it's hard to separate spiritual beliefs from anything we do. They're pretty integrated. My spirituality has been in a culture shift lately, since being outside of a specific church community for the first time in my life, really, for the past 1.5 years. I feel like I stepped outside into springtime (no offense churches everywhere). I've really been shedding the Saviorism we soak ourselves in, particularly in evangelical church culture. The paradigm of us/them, of everybody else being lost and people inside church communities found, doesn't hold true when you get in real, reciprocal relationships with people. I feel so enriched and more "found" than ever by broadening my relationships and teachers. As far as how all of that looks in my work itself, I'm not really sure I can recognize it.
I can say for sure that my creative process, experimentation and the willingness to fail all comes from a belief that I'm inherently valuable and loved no matter what.
How do you remain deeply rooted amidst the hustle and competition of social media?
Well, I got off Facebook because it felt like a waste of energy. I highly recommend this. I really only use twitter for news when somethings happening in the world or my neighborhood. So that leaves Instagram, with which I have a love/hate relationship. I call Instagram my patron saint because I've gotten so much work from using it. For an artist, it's like having your whole portfolio publicized and available for anyone to look at and hire you at any time. However, it's also created a lot of work and it seems like there are always new tasks that we have to do in order to be seen, a higher bar of what the design needs to look like for your photos, your grid, your stories, and constantly changing rules of the visibility game. It's exhausting and can be consuming. It's helped me to use a scheduling app and try to stick to intentional engagement instead of the unintentional scroll.
How about your hopes for your business–do mind sharing with us some dreams you have?
Right now my dream is to really contribute to my family's income so that we all can do more of the things we love. I want to get really skilled at my work and make some really badass stuff. I want to create series of work and show in galleries. I want to integrate creative writing with my work. For example, right now I'm making a zine to go with an upcoming series. I don't have any large scale plans for an empire at the moment and I'm resisting the churchy habit of needing to save the world, make an impact, or make it anything more than simply being myself and working with my hands. I feel really happy just to make a living doing something I love and be good to people around me.
Describe your ideal client / project.
Anything that allows me to create work that comes from my innards.
What do you love most about Chicago, its art scene, and its community?
I love Chicago's parks, restaurants, boulevards and old working class homes. I'm not sure I can say a whole lot about it's art scene but from what I know, it feels fairly down to earth and midwestern. People seem relatively accessible and willing to collaborate. The artists I know love to support each other. I think Chicago's community is full of energy and ideas, although we have a long way to go to heal broken systems of racism and classism in our highly segregated schools and neighborhoods. My husband Nate is involved in a lot of city-wide community collaboration and we are always AMAZED by how much is happening and how many people are putting their weight behind building bridges and creating opportunities for people with less access. It's a beautiful thing.
What's been inspiring you lately?
The idea of selfishness. I've been growing in the area of personal boundaries/shedding codependent behaviors and my brain has been sorting through everything I've ever been taught about being selfish, deconstructing it and redefining it.
On a lighter note, natural dyes! I've heard a few times that a painter should always mix their own colors- that if you paint straight from the tube, it's obvious. I feel that way now about dyeing my materials. They just look so much more custom and original. And the process feels like going back to a time when we were more connected with the earth. Everyone should try it.
Are there any fellow women entrepreneurs or organizations you've been grateful to journey alongside and collaborate with that you'd like to share with us? Or folks you'd like to collaborate with? :)
YES, my goodness yes. That's one of the best parts of starting to sell my work. Joselyn Villalpando of J.Villa Workshop has been a huge encouragement to me. Kenyatta Forbes of Urban Macrame Fibers, also dear. Both of them have been supportive as fellow fiber artists. Carly of Unpatterned, and Liz and Mo of Scratch Goods have been so welcoming to me and supported my work in various ways. Nikki of Feminest is a business coach who has given me lots of encouragement and community through her work. And I love the community of local makers Emily of Orange Beautiful and Michelle Starbuck, a local jewelry designer have made with their podcast Pancake Town. I've loved collaborating with Unison Home, the Chicago Children's Museum, and the Children's Museum of Art and Social Justice on projects.
Any advice for people who are preparing to leap, or encouragement you could offer to those who are in the trenches of pursuing their callings?
There is grace for you to be at the beginning and grow. Just show up consistently and do your best. Be willing for things to morph and unfold, and not have to be perfect. Allow other people to be wrong about you. What you have to offer isn't for everybody and that's okay. You can call wasted time and money "failures," or you can call them your business education.
Everything that doesn't work is good information. Just keep going.
What are you learning right now?
I've been watching some youtube videos about really basic drawing skills. I don't remember ever really being taught how to draw, and I have several ways I could use it in my work. Personally, I'm reading a bunch of books about money and why it's okay to earn, charge, and want it. It's been a total mind shift.
Is there anything else you'd like to share with readers?
Just to call me if you need any large scale textile art. :)