We recently had the pleasure of taking our Stories series on a journey out west, to the moss-laden Pacific Northwest, and the surprisingly sun-drenched city of Portland. A bike ride to the northeast corner, brought us to the charming studio of jewelry designer, Teresa Robinson of Tiro Tiro. Greeted by her adorable 4-legged friend, we entered her beautifully converted space, a dream for any artist or maker; complete with woodburning stove, sky lights, and a nook and corner for every little treasure. Teresa's work embodies natural and architectural, in a refined elemental form, it was hard to leave the space, without her entire collection in tow.
Nativen: You're from Seattle originally?
Teresa: Yeah, kind of all over Washington, actually, I bounced around until I left for college. I moved here straight after, literally packed the dorm room into the Volvo and drove directly out here, with my best friend and I've been here ever since.
Nativen: That's awesome. Do you think growing up in Washington had anything to do with your choice to start jewelry making?
Teresa: No [laughing] Both my parents are artists. I grew up with a working artist, as a dad. It was really normal for me to see that you could make a living, going out to your studio, making work and selling it places.
When I was in college, I spent six months abroad in Mexico, and I took a jewelry class there. I really, really loved it! I came back, finished my last year of school as an art major, because we didn't actually have a jewelry program at my school.
When I came out here it was still on my mind so I started messing around with some stuff, and everything sort of snowballed from there. That was 2002‑ish when I got started?
Nativen: I know you just talked about being inspired in Mexico, but was there a specific moment in your creative pursuits through art or design in general, that made you realize this, jewelry design, was what you wanted to pursue?
Teresa: I was 24 and didn't know what else to do with an art degree, which qualifies me to do actually nothing in the real world. They don't tell you that when you get a very expensive art degree. [laughs]
When I started jewelry stuff, I was teaching art at an after school and summer program, out in the burbs. Had I gone another direction I think I probably would have stuck with that and maybe taken more of the teaching route. It probably has more to do with my upbringing, but I really wanted to make a living from stuff that I made.
I was in a position where I was able to try it out while I was still working part time. Once it started working at all, I was like, "OK, cool, I'm just going to try this." That's what you do when you're 24.
You have no idea what you're getting into. Because I knew nothing about the business end of it, literally zero. It was like, "Oh, OK. Well, I can sell this and then they will give me money and that money will pay the bills." That was the only connection that I was making. It's definitely all been a learning process, but it's worked. [laughs]
Nativen: Absolutely. I feel like that’s the case for most small businesses, especially for designer/creative people that are pursuing small business and have next to no understanding of what it means to be a business. You just kind of throw yourself into it, because it's something that you're passionate about, especially when you're younger and have the energy. It's easier to be like, "This is what I'm doing and I'll figure it out." Then you, hopefully, have those creative moments at least that remind you why you're doing it. When you're dealing with all of the, "Oh my God, this is what it means to be a business," side of it…. There's no one formula that works for every business.
What do you love most about Portland? Do you think that's integral to your work in any way?
Teresa: I think it was when I moved here. I came here in 2000 when Portland was still really, really cheap. Having a super low cost of living and I think a pretty high population of other young people who had no idea what they were doing, it makes it a lot easier to do what I was doing. To have financially the freedom to be able to take some time to mess around and be able to live in a house where I was paying 200 bucks a month for the room that I rented.
The city has changed. It's a completely different place than it was even five years ago, but the thing that's carried through that is there is still a really great creative community here. I've made a lot of really incredible friends through the maker and designer community, and it's nice to feel like we're all kind of on the same team [chuckles] .
Nativen: [sings] We're all in this together... These are just a couple rapid‑fire Portland questions. Do you have a favorite restaurant in Portland?
Teresa: Oh, I have about 10 [laughs] Biwa is really good, that's my current favorite. There's a lot of really good food here.
Nativen: Yeah, it seems that way just in the short time I’ve been here. I feel like I’m eating my way through Portland.
How about a favorite home goods store?
Teresa: I don't shop very much. Beam & Anchor is really beautiful. They always have a good spread of everything.
Nativen: Do you have a favorite clothing store here?
Teresa: Palace, over on Burnside.
Nativen: Oh, I just went there, actually. It's really great.
How about a favorite park or outdoor space?
Teresa: Having quick access to the gorge is really amazing. It's 40 minutes away and incredibly beautiful.
Nativen: Yeah, that's what I keep hearing. I have to do some nature exploration while I'm here...
Teresa: If you have even an afternoon, just shoot up there. I think I heard somewhere that Oregon, in general, has more waterfalls than any other state. It's kind of magical out there [laughs] .
Nativen: It seems that way! I feel like just looking at pictures of Oregon, it's like the waterfall capital of the world, basically.
What do you think is the greatest resource to your work here?
Teresa: I think, again, probably just the community that's built up over the past 12-13 years that I’ve been here.
Nativen: A creative community is super‑important. Again, it's that sort of reminder of why I'm in this and what motivates me, and how to figure things out.
Teresa: When I hang out with friends of mine who have real jobs, there will get to be a point in the conversation where people say, "Oh yeah, I'm looking for this new job." "Oh, have you talked to HR?" "What's your hire‑on package?" And I'm like, "Uh huh? Uh huh? …Cool!"
I have no idea, because I've never had a normal job. It's really nice to have those people who you can say, "Who's your caster," or talk about issues with… that's the good part.
Nativen: The small business support group.
Teresa: Yeah, totally [laughs] .
Nativen: It's important, it's very important. Do you have a favorite piece that you've made so far, or maybe something that was your greatest accomplishment?
Teresa: That is hard to say, because my business has been through three different incarnations over 13 years. I can't really think of a favorite piece… But I think switching over, the revamp that I did a year‑and‑a‑half ago to, Tiro Tiro and switching the direction of my work, and really allowing myself the room to evolve creatively a little bit more, that is my favorite thing that's happened recently.
Nativen: That's cool. It's interesting with small business too, the way that your business evolves and has to shift functionally, but also personally, creatively as you grow and change, and your aesthetics change.
Teresa: Yeah, because when I started the work, I started before Etsy was a thing, at the beginning of the putting a bird on it. I did that. But stylistically, the work that I was doing was very, very kind of rigid. I was known for this one very specific thing, like, "Oh, that's the girl who makes the little glass squares with the silver cutouts over it."
It didn't give me a lot of room to expand at all. It's nice to be in a new place, and after a really, really long time of making that work, I could hardly even look at it anymore. It was just spending years doing production on the exact same thing. So it's nice to be in a place where I shifted focus and really a lot of that was about being able to go wherever I want to with it.
It's nice because I feel like as I have grown up and matured, I don't feel like I need to worry about appealing to a specific customer, or trend or anything, I feel like my customer has grown up with me, which is nice.
Nativen: What part of the process brings you the most joy?
Teresa: I just like making stuff, sometimes that's designing. Sometimes I hate designing, because that can feel like there is a lot of pressure to come up with the next great thing that everybody's going to like and is going to pay your bills for the next year. Sometimes it's twisting ropes and doing production for a day.
Nativen: Zen-ing out in your creative mode.
Teresa: Totally. Yeah, it really varies a lot. But yeah, mostly just hanging out out here.
Nativen: It's good that you enjoy all steps of the process, even if it's an alternating love/hate, because, like you said, having never had a full time job, you don't really know anything else. But to know that you love all of those elements, it's a good sign that you're doing the right things.
Teresa: I hope so.
Nativen: Is there a part for you that's maybe the greatest struggle or you think that stands out as, this is the thing that makes it really hard for me, or my business?
Teresa: Marketing, absolutely. I went in to this, like, "Cool, I can just hide in the studio all the time and I don't have to talk to anybody." It's really hard for me to be like, "Hey, I made this, isn't it fantastic?" I don't want to bother people. I'm like, "I don't want to impose, but I made this thing. Do you want to buy it?"
That's really hard for me and it's a lot of work. I feel like that's a full time job in itself. It's the thing that always gets shoved to the back burner. If I can keep up with Instagram, I'm like, "OK, I'm doing great."
Nativen: Yeah, there's a reason that that's a job, in most companies.
What destination do you want to travel to and do you think that might inspire or alter your work in any way?
Teresa: Oh, where do I want to go? Lots of places. I want to go to Iceland. I would like to go to Southeast Asia. I would like to go back to Mexico. I'll always go back to Mexico.
Nativen: It's beautiful there.
Teresa: Those are probably the top three…. Oh, Germany, I would like to learn German.
Nativen: Do you have German heritage or anything, or are you just attracted to Germany?
Teresa: I don't know, I've just never been. It seems like a fun idea.
Nativen: I'd love to explore Germany a little more too. But that's not one I hear often, so that's cool.
I don't know if you listen to music while you're working, but do you have a song or anything on heavy rotation these days?
Teresa: There's this Chromatics cover of "I'm On Fire" that has been on for the last couple days. I listen to a lot of podcasts, too.
Nativen: I love The Chromatics, so you're preaching to the choir.
What's the most helpful advice you've received or what's some advice that you'd give to creatives who are looking to pursue their own craft?
Teresa: Stop doing what everybody else is doing.
I think the most important thing, and the thing that I really try to do with my own work, is make work that's different than what other people are making. Just because you can operate a jewelry torch and make that band of wire ring with the one arch in it that is in 75 different Etsy shops, doesn't necessarily mean that you should.
But I think really thinking about finding your own voice, and what that is. I think experimentation and imitation, they're all part of a learning process. But really, really focusing on finding your own voice, pushing yourself to find new solutions to things, and new fresh takes on stuff that's already out there, because we are all a part of the same zeitgeist, and trends are going to influence all of us. I think that really trying your best to do something new is the most important thing you can do.
Nativen: Absolutely. It's the thing that creatively pushes us all forward, from what we get inspired by, or what we take things from that aren't natural environment elements. That's really good advice.
Do you have a hero, or someone who has helped influence your work in a big way?
Teresa: There are a few different people like artist‑wise, but as cheesy as it sounds it's probably my parents! [laughs] They've totally supported everything that I've done. They've been really great examples, and really great role models for building the life that you want to live and making it work. When I was four, they decided they wanted to move to the country, so they moved us all up to Orcas Island.
My dad set up his studio there, and started working. That's how he supported us for my entire childhood. They're definitely my biggest influence.
Nativen: That's great. That's inspiring. That's really good to have that kind of support network in your family.
What are three objects you can't live without?
Teresa: A really good coffee cup.
My stupid phone, which is horrible. I'm a little too attached to it these days. [laughs]
My bed. I really like my bed. [laughs]
Nativen: I can definitely relate to that.
Check out more of Teresa's work here.
Interview and Photos By: Lily Hetzler
This interview has been condensed & edited
all images copywright of Nativen