Popularity is relative, especially in the digital age. You could have hundreds of thousands of followers online, but be completely unknown in the streets — massively famous on Instagram, YouTube or Twitter, but lack any kind of real, authentic cool in person. For our new series, Coolest Person in the Room, New York-based photographer Megan Walschlager pinpoints all the people whose energy is contagious regardless of their following count or celebrity. Meet Austin Smith, the NYC-based visual artist (known online as @empty.pools) turned jewelry designer.
Tell me about your recently launched jewelry line Empty Jewels?
I moved to New York about two years ago, and during that time my artistic interests sort of changed and the way I express myself has changed. I have been accessorizing my personal style more and the art I made was more about accessorizing. I wanted to take away something from the art I was making at home and be able to wear it out in public because I don't always want to look like a freaking demon, but I still like to have something that I'm wearing represent me. So I had the idea, like, "Why don't I just make my own jewelry? I'm wearing jewelry out all the time. It would be fun if I could design it."
Right. How do you get to the place where you make your own jewelry? You had previous jobs before this, correct?
Yeah, so my art history is interesting. It never was fashion based, but I think it all makes sense that I am involved in a little more fashionable line of work. I was always a screen printer and making big fabrics and those fabrics were turning into clothing. Through using my screen printing work to enter into making clothing, I had to think of a broader spectrum of fashion and accessorizing that I'd never really thought of.
I was working at a screen print wallpaper place beforehand and I was going out all the time with my friends and dressing up and being myself, but I would come back to work and not be doing any of that. And it didn't feel as fruitful to me — or maybe it made me feel a little more hollow. The jewelry line blends all of my interests — even like being out with your friends and having them see what you can make, just things like that, it has created more of a conversation in my life than things I was doing before.
I think it's interesting that you do things in a lot of different mediums — like you aren't just focused on painting or screen printing.
When I focus on one thing for too long it gets really stale feeling for me. Even with the art I make on my face, I really enjoy it because I utilize so many different ways of being creative that satisfy me, all within the process of making one thing. Like, I edit on the computer, I photograph, I sculpt things, I design things. I'm not just painting. I'm not just screen printing. I'm putting in so many different mediums to get an end result and that's what always keeps it fresh to me, because I always have to do a different step or figure out how to do something new.
What are some things you have realized since you've started Empty Jewels?
Starting your own business is really freaking hard, especially when you're doing it all on your own. But it's been really fun. I've had to figure out everything — I started this from scratch with no knowledge of jewelry. I've never taken a jewelry class, you know? I'm confident in my artistic pursuits, so I don't necessarily think I'm at a loss because I haven't really studied jewelry.
And that's kind of the fun of it — like realizing you're interested in something. And instead of letting that gap set you back, you commit to actually figuring it out. And that's been really rewarding for me because sometimes I do let things go when they seem too daunting for me, but I really have sat down and figured this out. Every person I've talked to has given me some bullshit, every resource online is bad — like basically nothing is set up to help you do it, so figuring that out has been cool for me.
Right. I know you've talked to me about how hard it has been to find suppliers and that process has been sort of trial and error.
Yeah, basically I started out asking all my friends who are these crazy, weird fashion people in the city about what I wanted to do. I started telling people about this before I had even made one earring. I mean, I had designs drawn but then I would ask them to ask their friends and talk to people. Then it depended on if their friends were nice enough to give a recommendation because a lot of people safeguard all their shit because they don't want other people to come in and take over whatever world of art or fashion that they feel like they're dominating.
From there, I got those recommendations and then just had to test the waters. I'm still not even confident I'm working with the right people, but you just have to get something made and in your hand to really feel like something is happening. Maybe you get it made and it's not as affordable as it could be or maybe it's not as high of quality as you wanted. So you just have to write those names down and continue sourcing, and then eventually you'll build it to the point you want to be. Because you're definitely not going to start at the point you want to be.
How many products are you currently offering?
I have 3 earrings out now and I'm working on the 4th. Everyone keeps asking me when I'm going to come out with rings and necklaces and the answer is: I would love to do it all and I want to do it all and I'm going to do it all, I am just going with my timelines and budgets for right now.
Are you pleased with the response you've been getting?
Yes, it's been great! I think it made a lot of sense for me, I think when I launched it people really got it because so much of what I had been doing was about accessorizing. And people had been kind of asking me to do something like this for awhile. Like they wanted something they could take away for me, because I had already been fairly successful as a visual artist online. So the response has been really good and the product is selling and the interest is high and I've been having fun getting interesting people wear them to events.
Right! You got a big Adam Lambert placement, didn't you?
Yeah, he wore my new earring "The Claw" on Good Morning America which is really fun. And he was singing Queen songs which I think is really cool. And I have a few other styling projects coming up that I can't talk about at this moment.
But that's what I'm most excited about making these things — seeing them on other people and seeing other people happy. Especially when it's people I think are really cool and interesting wearing my things. It's just very cool to see those energies mashup.
Totally. This all kind of stems from your relationship to nightlife — how did you get involved with that?
I got interested in nightlife in college. I just kept seeing photos of all these freaky people online. I was living in Chicago attending SAIC and Chicago had a really cool, edgy nightlife scene, and it revolved around this group of people that I just found to be so fascinating. Like I didn't even know what drag was — and I didn't really think what they were doing was drag, I just thought it was edgy and different. And so I started going out to all the things they were going to and started experimenting with myself.
And that's when I took my screen printing into the more fashion world, because I would wear the things I would make out to those events. Then I got a whiff of what was happening in New York City and it looked way more major and way more fun, so I decided to make the move to be a part of what was going on here.
I think all of nightlife has informed my personal style and my ability to express myself freely. I think that all the people I see out — and seeing them living their best life and doing all the things they want to do — has really inspired me to accept that I can do whatever the fuck I want to do too. Without those limits that I maybe used to place on myself, I think I will become a lot better artist, and creative person, and just overall more successful in the things I pursue. And I'm definitely just more secure in myself as well. So nightlife has just been a really eye-opening self-realization for me. It definitely was really important for me, and it still is, but in my younger years it definitely played a major part.
Do you have any getting ready routines or pregame rituals before a night out?
Now that I'm a little older and a little more reserved and not as crazy as I used to be — this kind of played into me making jewelry — because my getting ready routine was like, since I don't wear that crazy of clothes, I would focus on which rings and earrings I was going to wear. And I have my big padlock necklace. Those were my pieces of flair that I would add over boring clothes that would give my look some personality and pizazz.
That's my favorite part before I leave the house. Putting on all my rings and necklaces and stuff.
Your Empty Jewels.
Yes, now that they are made and exist. I also love that something I made gets to play a part in that ritual as well.
How would you describe the Empty Jewels aesthetic?
It's edgy and tribal but it's still fancy and chic. That's what I've always loved about jewelry. My style has always been a little grungy, but when you make anything into gold and silver it sort of elevates it. Or when you see someone wearing jewelry you get this polished vibe from them, but if you notice the style is sort of dangerous and sharp — that's the duality I love. A sort of chic, grungy glam.
When you're out what is your go-to drink?
Tequila soda because it's supposed to have the least amount of calories.
What's your favorite song to hear out?
Hmm... I don't know because my music tastes are not what I listen to when I'm out. I guess it would be "Like a Prayer" by Madonna.
That is a wildly surprising answer coming from you, please explain.
It always comes on at the peak point of everyone being a little tipsy, maybe on a boat, and it's just such a good song to yell out with your friends, you know?
I do. What are your personal music tastes then?
Definitely more on the metal-y, screamo side.
You're a goth girl.
Yeah, at heart. It may not be a full takeover goth moment, but at heart. And I love to give little hints of it here and there. Obviously I'm not walking down the street with a black hair swoop over my eye, but I love to pay homage to my past and a little bit of my present right now.
I also feel like you're super into health and fitness, which doesn't scream goth to me, but how does all of that fit together in your life?
Actually, I feel like fitness is really goth. A lot of the ex-hardcore kids are really into it. There's a lot of rage and aggression and anger that goes into going into the gym that also exists in heavy metal. That's kind of how I got back into the heavy metal that I listened to in high school. It's really aggressive and really good for exercising to.
I also love that you bounce back really quickly after a night out and always wake up and go on a 10 mile run.
Mhmm. I do my quick 10k and then I'm good for brunch at 11:30 AM after being out till 7 AM.
What do you think are some of the coolest places in New York?
For sure Earrings Plaza. I have to shout her out because I go there all the time. I don't know if it's a cool place, but it's definitely a fun place. Also, Halloween Spirit, 100%. And St. Marks is always fun even though I don't really do much there, but it's fun to stroll down. I guess get an ear piercing and have some good Asian food.
What's next for you and Empty Jewels?
I want to keep merging my art and this jewelry business. I would like to eventually make jewelry pieces that are completely avant garde and not just because I am trying to sell them. Like maybe a crazy face mask that is really well done, or things that have the amount of care I put into the jewelry, but it's not important if someone buys it. Like that's not the goal of why I'm making it. And I think once I'm bigger and more experience I can experiment with that.
I feel like a lot of artists and creators who don't have limitless funds get really stuck up on like not having a million dollars to run a company or start a project the way they envisioned. How do you deal with those sorts of start up costs and expenses?
It's definitely hard. I never liked working a day job — I actually really fucking hated it — but yeah, money is always going to be an issue. If you really care about what you do you can figure it out. I mean, I'm not making so much money, but it's really easy to see these people online going to Mykonos every weekend or whatever and fear you might not get to experience those things because this is the life you chose, instead of choosing something more concrete that would give me the money to go do things like that. But I think as an artist, your passion and what you believe for yourself reigns over that and you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. And it's important to see that light, because a lot of third parties aren't going to see what you see for yourself. So I think what really excites me in my life is success through my art and my business, and that's greater to me than if I were working a normal job.
Photography: Megan Walschlager