Inspired by Science and Nature: An Interview with Amy Roth

Widely known as Surly Amy, artist and activist Amy Davis Roth sat down with me for an interview. I walked away inspired. She is one busy woman!

BT:  You make ceramic jewelry, Surlyramics. How long have you been doing this? How did you get started? Tell us about your Surly process and set-up, tools used, etc…

SA:  I have been making Surly-Ramics since 2006. I opened my Etsy shop in 2007. I first began making necklaces after a failed attempt at running an art gallery. I had run into a bit of bad luck and had taken a job as a cocktail waitress at a bar in Hollywood. I was miserable. I started making the necklaces while I had that job and wearing them into work to remind myself that I was still an artist. People started buying them off my neck and soon I was able to quit that job and make the jewelry full time. It was a wonderful second chance that I am forever grateful for. I now have a full ceramic studio in Los Angeles with my own kiln where I use everything from rubber-tipped pencils to wood block carvings to create the work I do. I find inspiration in science and nature — which means I find inspiration literally everywhere.


BT:   Where did the Surly moniker come from? Why are you called Surly Amy?

SA:  The name happened rather organically. I was very unhappy when I wasn’t making art, and it was during that same time that I was working as a waitress. I had gotten a reputation for being surly around the workplace. When I started making the necklaces and wearing them into work, people began to ask for them and I realized I could sell them. I had to think up a business name so I could sell at events and online. My boyfriend at the time (now my husband) and I were joking around in the car on the way home one night with words that sounded like “ceramics” to try to come up with an original business name. We combined my surly attitude with the word ceramics and Surly-Ramics was born. I opened my Etsy shop right after that and named it just “Surly” so it would be easy to type in and find online. In the early days of Etsy your shop name was your user name and so people started calling me “surly.”  I have become a much happier person since then, but every once and a while my original surliness does come out and the name totally stuck — which I don’t mind at all. 😉

BT:  You spoke about your harassment-themed art project at Skepticon last year. Tell us about the project and what the experience of sharing it with the Skepticon audience was like.

SA:  The exhibit was called “A Woman’s Room Online” You can read about the exhibit itself and see some images from the show, or you can watch the video of the talk I gave about the exhibit at Skepticon. The experience was pretty much what I expected. Most everyone at Skepticon was absolutely wonderful — it is a great conference — and the audience was very receptive. The reaction online after, as you can see by the comments and reaction to the YouTube video, are quite predictable and proved the point of the exhibition, which was the fact that women have a problem with harassment on the internet that often goes ignored.


BT:  How has being part of a family of artists inspired you?  Challenged you?

SA:  I think that coming from a long line of (primarily) women artists has mostly driven me to find ways to make a living at making art. I have a seen a lot of frustration in my family when art has been pushed to the side as a nesessity to make time for a job that had no creativity involved. From a very young age, I had decided to make sacrifices in order to pursue a career as an artist. And even though I have failed multiple times, and found myself living a very meager existence for many years, I had been born with the drive, thanks to my family, to brush myself off and get back to making art — no matter what. I think that never-give-up attitude is what has carried me through a lot of difficult times in my life and helped to get me where I am now.


BT:  Tell us all about your new podcast.

SA:  I am the cohost of a new podcast called Mad Art Cast. You can find us on iTunes.

Mad Art Cast is the official podcast of and so you can read details about each episode and find links to listen and contact us there as well. The podcast is about the intersection of art and science, and I can not express to you how much fun it has been to do! My cohosts, Ashley Hamer, Brian George and A.B. Kovacs are some of the smartest and funniest people I know. Each week we discuss art and science and seriously, we have such a great time! I think the podcast is doing well because we all genuinely enjoy not only discussing the topics of art and science, but also hanging out with each other each week.


BT:  You started LAWAAG, tell us about what it is and why you started it?SA:  I started LAWAAG, The Los Angeles Women’s Atheist and Agnostic Group, in reaction to the relentless harassment the feminist women in the atheist community were dealing with. I was tired of it and I wanted to create a safe place free from that harassment were women could lead discussions about issues that were important to them and build friendship and community without having to worry, or look over their shoulder, or get talked over by the men in the room. The group has been a great success, and I have made so many wonderful new friends since launching the group last year. LAWAAG is one of the best things I have done. If you are an atheist or agnostic woman in the Los Angeles area, I recommend you join our meet-up or our Facebook page and then come hang out with us! It’s a group of really kind and brilliant people. We meet the first Tuesday of every month at CFI Los Angeles. We just started a book club and our next meet-up will be a book discussion led by a woman named Leslie B. We often have speakers come and present to the group, and we are planning on doing another charity walk for the homeless again this fall. Last year our team raised close to $2,000! LAWAAG members helped build the art installation “A Woman’s Room Online” and we are currently planning another art show that will happen at the end of this year or early next year. We have also recently opened up our meet-ups to all genders to foster more inclusivity — though some of the meeting each year are still for women only, so check the meet-up page for details, and all of the talks and groups meetings are always led by women.amy-lawaag

BT:  What is something about you that people wouldn’t expect?

SA:  When I was really broke I used to do a lot of extra work in TV and movies to make extra money. I had bleach blond hair and one time I was hired to be a stand in for Christina Aguilera in a music video with Nellie called Tilt Ya Head Back.

Haha. I even made it into the final video for like half a second. Christina was really nice by the way. 🙂


BT:  What’s next?

SA:  I just started a Patreon where I am creating large paintings and ceramic fine art pieces that are inspired by science. Not only is the art inspired by science, but I have actual scientists advise me and review the work for accuracy! I am hoping that my Patreon will give me the freedom to get back to my first true love of painting and help me encourage science communication through art. So if you like art and/or science, or just care about the work I do, please consider pledging as little as a dollar to my Patreon page. It would mean the world to me and will help me to continue doing the work I do and much more.


SCOTUS Hobby Lobby Decision

Earlier this year, Secular Woman signed an amicus brief filed by the National Women's Law Center in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius. These cases involve for-profit companies challenging the Affordable Care Act's requirement that all new health insurance plans cover the full range of FDA-approved contraceptives and related education and counseling, without cost sharing.

Then, this week, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court decided in favor of Hobby Lobby. Hobby Lobby sought to impose religious beliefs upon employees by denying comprehensive health care coverage, while still reaping the tax benefits for providing that coverage. The majority opinion, written by Justice Alito raises more questions than it answers.

Perhaps the most obvious result of the Court’s decision is that it extends religious rights, citing Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, to any closely held “corporate persons.” In doing so, however, they negate both the religious and reproductive rights of employees, who are actual persons. How does that correlate with the Act, which codified religious rights for people and religious entities? Also, does ascribing the personal beliefs of owners to their business pierce the corporate veil?

How can the Justices rationalize overlooking both science and law?

In their case, Hobby Lobby objects to four of the twenty birth control methods currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Coincidentally, these are four of the most effective methods, and are included the vast majority of insurance formularies. The objection to these is based on religious belief, not science, with the claim that these methods cause abortion instead of prevent pregnancy. However, by both scientific and legal definitions pregnancy occurs when a fertilized egg is implanted in a hospitable uterine lining. How can the Justices rationalize overlooking both science and law?

People purchase insurance, or it is provided either in whole or in part as part of employee compensation, and should expect to be covered. That a corporation was given the right to dictate to an insurer which services they can and cannot provide is unconscionable! With Justice Alito’s reasoning, it would follow that any employer could dictate to employees whether they can purchase other objectionable things like intoxicants, pork products, or even beverages containing caffeine. Will the intrusion stop at birth control or can we expect more?

Hobby Lobby may find fault with either of these solutions and sue again.

What this decision forces our government to do now is to provide that coverage, either by funding it or, more likely, by allowing the insurance company to provide it separately. Hobby Lobby may find fault with either of these solutions and sue again. So, if birth control is purchased with tax dollars, or provided to employees without cost, will their objections hold? They pay taxes after all… so, where is the line drawn?

Justice Ginsberg wrote a scathing dissenting opinion which addressed some of these gaping issues – recognizing the magnitude of this ruling, its likely impact, and that it was a “decision of startling breadth.” In what seems to be an attempt to mitigate that, there were several clarifications in the court’s majority opinion, each more disturbing than the last.  

Justice Alito intends to set the high court up as arbiter of what is and is not a valid religious belief.

It would seem that with the statement, "[t]his decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to mean that all insurance mandates, that is for blood transfusions or vaccinations, necessarily fail if they conflict with an employer's religious beliefs," Justice Alito intends to set the high court up as arbiter of what is and is not a valid religious belief.  This sets a dangerous precedent whereby courts may determine the validity of religious belief, leaving the door open to discrimination against minority religious practices and making it more likely that religious beliefs which harm minorities and women will be legally sanctioned. One may find it necessary to question the wisdom of that.

The clarification that, “It does not provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice,” adds to, rather than subtracts from, the worrisome precedent set here. Under the previous administration, the HHS ruling was that if any medications were covered, a specific class could not be excluded. To exclude a class of medications which are primarily used by women is discrimination on its face. There was no objection to providing coverage for birth control before ACA. Why the change, and why now? Is discrimination no longer discrimination?

Finally, there lies a question in the financial implications for the insurance companies. Insurers are incentivising preventative care because it saves them money. In addition to prevention of pregnancy, which is a huge part of preventative health care, these medications are used to treat all sorts of things, from acne to endometriosis. Hobby Lobby now gets to prevent insurance companies from saving money, while also getting a tax break for making insurance available that doesn’t even have to meet the ACA’s minimum standards!