A Conversation With Smokeware Artist Alex Simon

Stepping into ceramic artist Alex Simon’s world is like sliding down the most colorful rainbow on the sunniest day of the year while being delicately dusted with glitter and ultimately landing in a lusciously multi-colored pool of rhinestones. The self-proclaimed “jewnicorn” and “rhinestoner” has become widely known for her quirky, brightly colored pipes that resemble everything from the infamous Hitachi Magic Wand and deliciously textured pickles to fire engine red lipstick cases and bedazzled inhalers. 


Simon has no qualms pouring herself into every piece she creates and glazes; in fact, it’s the most integral part of her creative process. Everything Simon makes is a direct reflection of who she is, which is why her work rings unique and authentic. As a queer, body-positive, extroverted, Jewish, cannabis-consuming “sparkle queen,” Simon innately creates curiosities like pipes, unicorn mugs, rainbow menorahs and hanging boobie planters that fall under one or more of those categories she defines herself by. What’s inevitable is that Simon’s work will make you do a double take. Simon’s work is an undoubted example of having fun with the work you make and happily watching as other people connect to it. I sat down with the budding artist to find out what makes her tick. 


I know you’re an East-Coaster, but how did you end up in Portland?


After graduating from college in Vermont, I did a four-month road trip around the country trying to figure out where I wanted to land, and Portland just stole my heart. It was so beautiful, and I experienced so many random acts of kindness, and there was such a fun art scene. It just felt like I fit. I’ve been here for almost 10 years! 


When were you first introduced to ceramics?


I started in high school, but there was never enough time in those classes to get into it, I just loved it. I picked a college based on whether they had a ceramics program, but I thought I was going to study psychology and just do art on the side. Then came Week One of school and I was already in the studio until 2 A.M. every night and I was like, “Oh… okay, here we are.”


Ceramics is such a tactile practice. Have you always been drawn to working with your hands?


Yeah, I’m an only child with exercise-induced asthma, so I was always crafting alone and always working with my hands trying to make everything a game.


You use the phrase “Make Good Choices” in most of your branding. Where did that come from?


“Make Good Choices” was a phrase that my mom used to say to me when I was a kid. When she started making some questionable choices, I started saying it back to her, and it became our funny witty banter. She had a cake delivered to me for my 21st birthday that said “Make Good Choices” that I stuffed my whole face in after getting wasted. It just became this thing that was positive but also snarky—eyerolls but also genuine. 

When I moved to Portland, a couple of years in, I got the Instagram handle and was working in production pottery factories making pots by the thousands. I had the social handle way before I had an Etsy account or even thought about self-employment. So I started making my own work on the side and cut to a few years in, I was ready to set up my Etsy, but not ready to go full-time with it. So it was kind of an easy transition to get that Etsy handle too, although my Etsy handle is “Make Good Choices Shop.” The person that owns “Make Good Choices” on Etsy doesn’t even use it, doesn’t respond so whatever. 


When I decided to go full-throttle with self-employment everything was already there, you know? It was a seamless transition. 



How did you decide to go from working full-time and working on personal projects on the side to full self-employment?


The company I was working for at the time was expanding, and the pieces that they were about to start making were exponentially bigger. My body was really strained doing that level of production. Extending myself to lift thousands of pounds of clay and molds a day was really intense. So my Etsy started to pick up, and I started getting into all these craft shows that I had been applying to for years, and I was like, “This could be a thing.” I [had] wanted to be self-employed for years and was kind of working towards it. I was doing Make Good Choices and working for this production pottery company pretty much full-time for months… and then I just did it. 


That’s no easy leap.


Yeah. It’s probably the biggest question I get asked by makers who want to do it. They’re like, “How did you switch over? What advice would you give?” I was so poor my first year, and I can tell you where the food banks are in my neighborhood. Luckily, I was never close to being homeless, but I was really close to hitting rock bottom financially, dealing with the repercussions of being a production potter versus making art that I love. 


So I met some inspiring artists that were really making it work that gave me some great advice, essentially, “Make better art, charge more money, get better photography done, don’t sell yourself short, don’t make it look like your work is cheap. Invest in yourself and your space and your business, and that will show through.” 


Once I started spending more time on my pieces and charging what was right for them and standing in my power, people started to buy more things. People started to like my work more because I was liking my work more, and that was way cool.


And you’re a one-woman show. 


It’s totally a one-woman show, and there are times that I ask for help and that’s been really cool to learn that you actually don’t have to do everything on your own. I do a lot of trades with photographers when I’m about to release a batch. I have seven or eight photographers that I call in a favor every two or three months. I ask a different photography friend to do a trade so I’m never burning a bridge, no one’s every working for free and burning out. I’ve learned that it’s okay to ask for help or it’s okay to call in your best friends to bedazzle fifty lighters one night. It’s okay to make shipping fun and to invite your friend. Unfortunately, my dog is useless—she’s eye candy. 


Tell me a little bit about the process of creating a new piece. How do you come up with the idea? Is it an object that’s in your everyday that you’re like, “Ooh, that would be interesting to make a pipe out of”?


Everything I make is a reflection of who I am. So I am a queer, body-positive, Jewish cannabis consumer, femme, extrovert, sparkle queen, you know? All of my work falls under some of those categories. I’m a pickle addict, so I was like, “Oh my god, what if this was a pipe?” Or I’ll go to a cannabis event, and we’ll talk about cannabis sexual stuff and I’m like, “Oh my god, we should turn this Hitachi into a pipe, wouldn’t that be so funny?” Or drinking coffee, I’m like, “What if that was a unicorn? What if your mug was a heart shape? What if it made you laugh? What if it made you feel like drinking coffee was really special and fun?” Also, I realize it sounds like me prancing through life like, “What if we did that!” and “How fun would it be if that was a thing?” 


After I have an idea it’s like, how do we get there? I have to think about if I am making molds of actual pickles and inhalers and Hitachis and found objects, or if I am hiring a company to turn my sketches into 3D digital renderings and then 3D printing a model. If I have to make molds from something that I have to create myself, I might have to sculpt that gnome hat onto that vintage cat I found at Goodwill and then make a mold of that. Maybe I am dipping fake flowers in liquid clay and firing those. The prototype process is all over the place, but it’s from found objects to making them myself to fabrication to paying big money to having them fabricated, like my lipstick pipes I had digitally rendered. I had the lipstick pipe 3D printed lipstick, casted in silicone, and then I made molds of those in plaster. 


I used to think that if I don’t do every single part of the process, it’s not me. I worked for these companies that were crushing it by doing whatever means was necessary, and I was like, “Oh it’s fine. It’s still me and you know after this, it goes through like 20,000 more stages.” It’s whatever you need it to be. 


Anything is fair game for you. 


Yeah, and some things are out of reach. Some forms are too hard to cast. I tried to make a mold of a stuffed animal once and that was a terrible idea. I’m learning what my limits are. 


Are there any other new products or ideas you have in the works right now?


I’m re-doing the pickle pipes entirely. I’m dating new pickles. I have an errand today where I have to go to Cash and Carry, Winco and some other superstores. I’m buying all these pickle jars, and I’m going to lay them all out on my table and pick the pickles that are the cutest or the funnest, which is a hilarious task.


Well that’s an amazing part of your work.


I’m going to put on a lab coat or something, maybe get a clipboard and take some serious notes. So I’m going to remake my pickle pipes. Instead of making a mold of the pickles, I’m going to cast them in silicone first, because they were leaking juices while I was pouring out the plaster and plaster leaked out and they were shrinking and it was so stressful. I am going to be doing heart profile mugs. My hope is to do those more simply and at a lower price point so people can buy a set of four which would feel really good. There’s a lot of stuff that I need to redo.


Many of these pipes have kind of rattled the male-dominated cannabis industry and what we’re used to. I’m used to going into a nasty head shop and buying some bulbous pipe that I don’t even really like but gets the job done. When I was introduced to your work, it was like I can connect to all these pieces. Why do you think it’s so important to be celebrating sex-positive stoners through this new stonerware?


I think it’s just like, weed is for everyone, you know? It can be feminine, it can be masculine, it can be gay, it can be fat, it can be Jewish. Who cares? I think different aspects of humanity are underrepresented in many fields, not just cannabis obviously. 


But it’s fun to put my spin on it and watch people connect to it. Like the asthmatic stoners… they just go crazy over the inhaler pipes. They’re like, “We’re stoners too even though we shouldn’t be!” I really like to make work that makes people do a double take, and I like making pieces that make people feel a little more represented or inspired or fancy, or like they’re worth it. It’s really special, it’s such a high, pun intended. To get to do that is an honor. 


I’m having a lot of fun with my work, and I think that shows through. I think buying my work is like buying a piece of me or a piece of my magic.


We were talking about how the cannabis industry is so propelled by men, especially “white cis” men. How have you tried to put your feminine, fun and queer stamp on the industry?


Just putting as much of me into it as possible. There are a lot of rainbows, there’s a lot of representation. I’m documenting it and putting it on the internet. I’m actively trying to grow my following all the time and target the people who I want to see my work. I make other things besides pipes like mugs and vases and lighting, and I like to put queer phrases on them like “Never been gayer” or “Astrology is just math for queer people.” 


Do people reach out to you?


Oh yeah, people reach out to me all the time. People do studio visits when they’re in town, people ask me questions. I think I’m ready for an assistant to be honest. I’m ready to have an extra pair of hands to do the backend stuff for Make Good Choices so I can focus on the creative aspects. I’m not quite there financially, and my dog can only do so much. It’s so cool… the positive reactions and interactions with strangers is one of the best parts of this. People sending pictures or writing reviews of how interacting with my work has been good for them is also so cool.


People can interact with your art on a daily basis if they want, and they’re using it in a way that you can’t use other pieces of art. You can’t use a canvas—it’s hanging on your wall. 


The pipes and mugs are some of the only objects that interact with your hands and your mouth at the same time, and I think that that’s a really intimate, incredible experience in general. It’s so much a functional piece but also has the potential to be really powerful and to be an act of self-care and self-love. I think cannabis is just that. It’s doing something sweet for yourself, like drinking a nice cup of coffee is, in a different way. So I think spending the extra money on a ritual object or something that’s going to make you feel like you’re treating yourself right is the coolest thing. 


See more from Alex Simon and Make Good Choices. 

Website – makegoodchoicesshop.com/

Instagram – instagram.com/makegoodchoices/

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