Rebecca Wood: I know you are from Athens. Why don't you talk a little bit about what it was like growing up in Athens, and then why did you decide to stay in Athens?
Rinne Allen: Sure, yeah. I was born and raised here to two parents that grew up here and some of their parents grew up here too and their parents, so I have a long, long Athens lineage going. Growing up here, I really knew it was great at the time, but it wasn't until later when I left that I realized how special it was. I grew up in the 70s and 80s, early 80s. That was right when Athens was really, so much was coming together on the creative scene here in the arts and in the music. As Rebecca discussed, I was a teenager when she was a little ahead of me in the art world. I absorbed that when I was young and a teenager. I spent a lot of time downtown with my friends. I remember going to the skate shop and I remember hearing bands play downtown, whether it was out at night in a club or just out in public on College Square.
All of that really fed into me wanting to, or me feeling like I wanted to be an individual or unique. It fed into my really early creativity. I started taking art classes in high school and did a photography class when I was 15 at the university. I took advantage of the university. I did like a little night class there. I was the only person in there under 35 years old, but my mom encouraged me to do it. I felt like having that accessibility to the university was so great, and taking that class is what led to me doing photography.
When it came time for me to to go college, I did want a different experience than UGA. I wanted something smaller, so I went about as opposite as you could get to, a very, very small school in Tennessee called Sewanee which, coincidentally, Rebecca went to as well for a short time. I very quickly fell in with taking photography classes and was in the dark room all the time and knew I was going to be a photography major.
The thing I say about Sewanee, which is similar to my life in Athens, I was outside all the time. Growing up, when I was little, all my memories almost from childhood are playing outside and building forts in the woods and playing in our creek near our house. A lot of my memories from Sewanee are walking in the woods or watching sunsets with friends or going in caves and rivers there, because the natural world is such a part of that school. When I got done with college, I had lived for a year in Europe and I wanted to come back to Athens at the time to get back in touch with my roots. I was thinking I might just be here for a little while then move away.
I always knew I'd come back to Athens, but what happened was within a month of me graduating from Sewanee I got a job with Rebecca. Rebecca is 100% the reason I ended up staying. It was her as a person and her role as ... Again, we keep saying I hate the label, Rebecca, but she very much was a mentor for me then and still is a mentor now. I was this young art student coming back to my hometown and trying to figure out what all that meant. Being able to step into a job like the one with Rebecca was so amazing because she was the first artist I had ever seen that had figured out a way to make her art in such a way that she could spread it around to many, many people. It was accessible. It wasn't too precious. It was something people could use every day.
I also had a group of peers working at the studio with me who were all creative people. We would all come together, make the pottery all day, and we all learned a lot from each other. I worked for Rebecca all through my 20s. As she said in her interview, back in those days we all did every job there is to do in the studio, whether it was making the ceramics or packing them to ship or sending out the invoices to customers or cleaning the bathroom or sweeping the floor. Everybody just jumped in, and I feel like that was really formative for me too because it made you realize what all it takes to get things out the door and get them into the hands of people who love them.
RW: What would you say is the biggest influence on your work?
Rinne: It's always hard for me to answer that question. Obviously, I was referencing nature and the natural world. Nature is always my biggest inspiration, but I would say living in Athens is almost the single biggest influence on my work. I'm mainly a photographer, but I do other creative projects as well and often collaborate with people here in this community. Again, when I was younger and in my 20s everyone I knew was either self-employed, whether it was in a creative field or not, but Athens had a relatively low cost of living.
It was a little bit of a different time than it is now, but there was affordable studio space. You could rent or even buy a house for not too much money. So many people around me were exploring their own thing, again, whether it was in the creative field or starting a restaurant or maybe having some sort of other type business. I found that really inspiring when I was young because we would all get together and share what we were doing.
It made you want to keep trying and keep going with it because you had other people in the same boat with you. When you add in the layer of Athens being a beautiful place and a place with a lot of history, and we've preserved a lot of our architecture, and we have things within walking distance that can provide a sense of community. All of that layered together would definitely make me say that Athens is one of my greatest influences.
RW: I think what you said is really true. There's so many self-starters, creative people, here that are doing their own thing that have their own business. Practically everyone that I know has their own creative business going, and that gives you the can-do attitude and also plenty of people to mentor you and help you along. When you see everyone else doing their creative thing, you just sort of like, "I'll jump in there." That's been really great. I agree. This goes into what you already said about, from your perspective, what are Athens' greatest assets?
Rinne: Yeah. I do think Athens, I like the size of Athens. I like that we can get to Atlanta, either for cultural reasons or for the airport or for supplies easily, but we're not so close that we feel like we've lost our identity as a town. I think the university, of course, is a huge component of Athens and all that it brings, both from the students that it churns out every year, but also all the interesting professors and visiting professors and visiting artists and visiting speakers who just may dip in for a day or a week. The university is so, so important.
Then I think the people of Athens. I think Rebecca said this too. The individuals that choose to live here, even if they're transient, people really feel inspired to get involved and make their community better. I don't think we have ... Of course, there's complacency everywhere, but I think a lot of people who choose to live in Athens, it's because they want to make their community better. That's very inspiring to me as a person and as an artist. Like I said, Athens has a lot of natural beauty that hasn't been destroyed. It's got identity, both in its spaces and places. The more I think we can preserve of that, the more it will feel unique and not feel just like another place or town.
"Nature is always my biggest inspiration, but I would say living in Athens is almost the single biggest influence on my work."
RW: Yeah. What do you think that Athens could use to make it better for you?
Rinne: Yeah. Well, for the community as a whole, I do feel like Athens can be limited in what it can offer for employment to people who maybe have a lot to offer but maybe don't want to start their own business or they don't want to be their own boss. Sometimes I feel like we lose really important, interesting people because they can't quite find their niche with work here because not everyone is made to be their own boss or to be a self starter. They may contribute better in a group setting or collaborating with others. I am a mother of young children, and we've had friends over the years who've had to leave Athens because they couldn't figure out the work component here. I'm not sure what the answer would be, but I think that creating a business environment of all types of business that could be nurturing and supportive to businesses that can help retain some people here would be great.
RW: I agree. What are the greatest needs for your business to grow and stay here in Athens?
Rinne: Well, I am a self-employed freelance photographer. I have a background in art, but I do a lot of commercial photography for other creative businesses and artists and artisans. A lot of times, I'm hired by that individual artist or those creative businesses to help them make photographs that document how they make things and the types of things that they make. I also do work for magazines and newspapers and books.
I love my work because I get to meet a lot of different, creative people throughout it, but I have to travel for 90% of my work, meaning I have to work outside of Athens for my work, which I love. I love going to these places and meeting people, but there are definitely times where I wish I had more people I could collaborate with and work with here in Athens. It's not even a cost thing. My rates are kind of reasonable, but for whatever reason most of my work is outside the city limits.
Then I bring in a lot of people to work here with me. They'll fly in, drive in, they'll stay in our hotels or in people's houses and contribute to our economy. For me, I don't really want to grow my business too much. I don't want to have a large studio with many employees because I can be a quiet person when I'm in my creative mode and I don't want too much bustle around me. I hope that my work, both inside Athens and outside Athens, helps promote Athens because I feel like that's one of my big missions in life, is promoting Athens.
Gallery: A few of Rinne's stunningly beautiful photographs above
RW: I'm going to ask you a two-part question. Tell us about a work project you're currently working on, just to give people an idea of what's involved, and then tell us any project you've got coming up this year that you're excited to do.
Rinne: Yeah. Well, I know exactly which two I'll talk about. I have a personal project that I've been doing for a few years that's about southern harvest. It takes me all around the south, and I interview and photograph different people, not necessarily just farmers growing food, but anyone that interacts with the natural world. Again, back to the natural world. It's my endless inspiration. The project has led me to so many interesting people that basically depend on nature to give them the ingredients they need for their work. It may be a citrus farmer outside of New Orleans growing satsumas, it might be a couple that makes sea salt from the Atlantic Ocean near Charleston, or it may be a painter that harvests berries and presses them into pigment that she uses in her art.
It's all different types of harvest, but it has really inspired me on getting more in touch, I thought I was already pretty in touch with the natural world, but it's gotten me even more in touch with the natural world and how dependent we are on it. Even though a lot of our systems and ingredients for daily life have been mechanized or industrialized, if you take a moment and look around, there's so many resources in the natural world that can yield what we need. I love that project, and it's ongoing and it runs with the New York Times and other people have run some of my pieces too. I love that. Back to just spreading the good word about good work. I love when my work can reach other people.
The other project I'm real excited about is I do a lot of book projects and I have a new book project that I'm starting in February that is with a author based out of New York. Again, a lot of my work is based away from the south in bigger cities. It's a book about making and why people make, why artists create, why artisans make things, both for functional reasons, but mainly for personal expression reasons and artistic reasons. The book will be really great.
I feel like it's the culmination of all of this other work I've done for other people all these years, but the book will take me to other countries and all over this country and it'll be a four or five-month project for me where I'll be traveling and meeting all of these different creative people, both entrepreneurs but also fine artists. I'll be meeting some different artisans, like in smaller rural communities in Mexico and other parts of the world. I feel like I will learn a lot and get a lot of inspiration from that project.
RW: That's going to be dreamy. All right, so now we get to the part where you give the name of a rising talent in your field.
Rinne: Yeah. Well, only because she's in this room, I'll give a shout-out to Kristen Karch. She's actually documenting our visit now. I'd already thought about bringing up Kristen already because she is a young photographer. It's crazy to think about that she's almost 20 years younger than me, which doesn't seem right. One thing I love, back to being in Athens, is the university has ... I've done a lot of work with the university over the years. I've talked with their classes, I've been the beneficiary of many interns.
Kristen came to me from the photography department. One of her professors referred her to me, and she started as an intern and now has worked with me for almost two years, or a year ... Two years. Kristen reminds me a lot of me when I was her age. Back when I started photography, it was pre-digital. Everything was slow and in the dark room. Even when I was working for Rebecca, I was trying to get my own photography business going. I tried a lot of different types of photography. I had my own shows, I did weddings, I did portraits, I worked with people like Rebecca, like artists and artisans.
But what I quickly learned is you had to just keep moving and keep doing photography and you had to keep having your own personal projects because it's real easy to lose your fire and your inspiration. There were periods where I didn't do a lot of photography, but one thing I love about Kristen is she keeps going and she's always got something that she's trying. She always keeps her personal work going in addition to the commercial projects that pay the bills at the end of every day. I would say Kristen.
RW: I would agree.
Rinne: We should watch out for her.
Kristen Karch photographs a stack of Rinne's light drawings. Rinne has been producing these in her garden for more than ten years.
RW: Okay, so who do you think is someone we should interview within your field?
Rinne: Okay. You know, I'm going to broaden my field from just photography to ... Well, actually, you know what, I'm going to say two people. Two people in my field, one in photography and one just in the creative community. In my field of photography, I would say Carl Martin. Carl has been a working photographer for 30 or 40 years, but he also has a design build business, like an architecture and interior design and design business.
One thing I love about Carl is he's maintained his photography even though his day job is slightly different. While his day job is inspiring and creative, he's still been able to pursue his photography. The other thing I love about Carl and his wife, Carol John, who's also a artist, she's a painter, they've contributed a lot to that built community of Athens that I think we so enjoy and everyone takes advantage of. They've created a lot of spaces that I feel like our communities congregate in, and they get some good credit for that.
The other person I think that should be interviewed is also Rebecca's and my collaborator, Kristen Bach, because she created her business, Treehouse Kid & Craft maybe six years ago, I think. What I love about Kristen is, again, she has an art background. She also worked for Rebecca, but her mission is for the young people of Athens, like the really, really, young people, like the children. I feel like her business has been a good example of a new form of business for Athens. It's a retail shop, but she also offers all these classes that I feel like reaches a whole new group of, again, young Athenians and reminding them the importance of creativity.
RW: I agree. Someone we should interview in another field.
Rinne: Well, the one person I think about that, our prompt here is it could be community service, business innovator, education, finance. For this one I'm going to say Heather Benham from the Athens Land Trust. I really admire how the Land Trust has broadened their vision over the years from just land conservation to all sorts of sustainability issues with affordable housing. I love what they do at the West Broad Market Garden and their market. I think Heather, she's only been the director a few years. There are good leaders there before her, but I think Heather's got some great energy in her group. The Land Trust and their board is doing really innovative things that could help Athens on many different levels and the deeper levels of helping people who really, really need Athens to be a good place to live.
RW: I think that sounds good.
RW: Any other things you want to add about Athens or your work here?
Rinne: The only think I think I'll say in summary is one of my biggest influences, also, my family, and specifically my dad, taught me a lot about ... His family has had a small family business here for over 60 years. Growing up with an entrepreneur in my family, even though I didn't really notice it at the time, it was a very big influence on me. Both my brother and sister and I all inherited that creative entrepreneurial brain. While our mother gets a lot of credit for encouraging all of our creativity, I feel like my father has influenced me beyond measure. I really can't say how much he's influenced me because he's been real involved with the Athens community and the business community for years. Both he and my mom encouraged us to be real involved from very young, and we still are today.
RW: That's what makes Athens so great.