Maker Feature: Jami Darwin
“Starting in high school, I just loved paper,” says Chicago-based artist Jami Darwin. “I was obsessed with it.”
As she grew up she began to doubt, as humans tend to, that her passion could be turned into a successful career. Her older brother would hear none of this uncertainty though. As Darwin studied fashion design at the University of Texas at Austin, he would often leave her notes on her car that simply said “make paper.”
And make paper she did. After a brief stint working in visual design for Neiman Marcus — first in Texas and then in Chicago — Darwin, who is brunette with bright eyes that seem to constantly be smiling, decided to create her own stationery line. To learn the business side of things, she worked at a stationery store in Lincoln Park, learning price points and befriending her bosses and paper reps. These people then helped guide her as she started her line, Letterspace.
It grew to 12 employees, was sold in 1,200 stores around the world, and thrived for 12 years. At which point, “It was just not as creative as it once had been,” Darwin says. “It just got to be a lot.”
So, in a turn that Darwin would be destined to repeat in her life quest for creativity, she moved on to something new. As it happened, Darwin’s two children attended the same school as the children of agencyEA and Savage Smyth co-founders Gabrielle Martinez and Fergus Rooney. When Martinez was looking for someone to make paper trees for a holiday celebration at the White House that agencyEA was producing, she approached Darwin.
Darwin crafted Christmas trees and sculptures — including one of the Obama’s dog — from paper and felt. And her creations went over so well that she worked on this annual holiday event for four years, from 2011 through 2014.
“It felt like marrying my stationery world with doing visual,” Darwin says. “I can make worlds out of paper.”
Martinez couldn’t agree more. “Jami’s vast experience as an artist combined with her out-of-the-box perspective gives her the ability to create something extraordinary from next to nothing,” she says.
From there, Darwin was commissioned to make paper installations for more events, working with clients like Lurie Children’s Hospital and the U.S. Tennis Open. The woman obsessed with paper had built not one but two successful businesses around it.
“If you really do love something,” Darwin says, “you really can make a career out of it.”
A fact Martinez attributes to Darwin’s talent and adaptability. “We’re at ease activating her for any project — she has a proven ability to riff with all sorts of environments and mediums to create art or an experience perfectly suited for any setting.”
The time had come for Darwin to pivot once more though. She realized, despite all her work with paper, she’d never really drawn or painted. So she has spent the last two years doing just that — and selling her artwork to companies to use on their products. Most recently, she’s been illustrating a children’s book, which will come out next year.
With as varied an artistic path as Darwin has followed, she’s constantly learning. She may have no idea what she’s doing at first, but “I’ll figure it out,” she says. “I totally trust myself.”
“I feel like, as an artist,” she continues, “that’s the goal.”
So it was when Darwin was asked to create two art installations for Savage Smyth. One lived in the Savage lobby during the venue’s week of preview events — a sort of feather mobile that hung four stories down, along the staircase.
“I did a lot of research on feathers and found that turkey feathers are the biggest,” Darwin explains. “I ended up hand dying them…that was a crazy process, just hand dying turkey feathers.”
She wanted the mobile to feel natural, as if the feathers — which are one of the symbols of Savage Smyth — were perpetually falling or floating.
The other installation is more recent. Darwin visited Great Lakes Yard, searching for pieces to hang on Savage Smyth’s fifth floor room just off the roof. “The inspiration is when you go and see artifacts in a museum,” Darwin says.
The pieces she found were originally part of a church and are painted a bright gold and blue. When Darwin brought them back to Savage Smyth, she traced them on butcher paper and then started hanging different combinations on the walls to see what flowed best together, using her visual design background to make the space even more dynamic.
“I think it’s such an incredible space,” she says of Savage Smyth. “It’s so versatile and beautiful.”
Darwin has seen this versatility in action, having attended a few events at the venue, including a formal dinner and a Girls Get Loud gathering for young girls supporting Hillary Clinton.
“To see it filled with little girls and temporary tattoos,” she recalls, “it’s just so open and inviting. Everyone just loved it.”
So, considering Darwin’s talent with paper, is she constantly making homemade gifts? Not necessarily, she says, but she will make gifts or cards if someone is having a rough day or simply just because.
“If you can do everyday kindness for no reason, it’s so impactful,” she says. “Kindness really matters.”
“You can’t control what’s around you,” she continues. “What you can control is your actions and how you make people feel.”