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Art trends, crafts taking Pittsburgh by storm

By Emily Bastaroli

Point Park news Service

A gray brick warehouse sits along Penn Avenue tucked away from the street. A spunky woman wearing two braids in her strawberry blonde hair under an orange, pink, blue and green knit cap and a white dog with black spots greets its visitors. The space is open, but filled with various pieces of artwork, with different stations and a small stage and microphone in the far back, past a couple of worn out couches.

To the right is Katy DeMent’s workspace, where she makes paper, T-shirts, toys, household items and her personal favorite, the Beermit: a mitten-and-beer-can-koozie-in-one. The warehouse is a chilly contrast to the 60-degree, sunny weather outside, but the 51-year-old is hard at work. She wears brown work boots, worn jeans, a blue T-shirt under a gray repurposed sweater and a multicolored knit scarf that matches her hat. Today she is making paper.

Every piece of art and item she makes is made from repurposed items, a trend known as upcycling. While the term “upcycling” is still new, it’s just a way to say something is repurposed. In DeMent’s words, an upcycled item is an economically, readily available, reprised resource. Because DeMent grew up in a household of crafty, thrifty women, she has the value of thriftiness bred into her.

“Ninety percent of everything in [the warehouse] is made up of recycled and repurposed materials,” DeMent said.

The Georgia native and Highland Park resident recycles just about everything she uses, from old sewing machines and blenders to containers for pitchers. DeMent also uses a lot of fiber in her art work, to give it an old-fashioned look. In her paper-making station, cutouts of black-and-white photos and paintings sit on a backdrop of handmade paper. For these, DeMent uses old cloths and books, overgrown vegetables, plants and okra.

“You can make art and art supplies out of anything,” DeMent said.

And she does. She held up a bikini she made out of sea creature Beanie Babies and dog sweaters made out of old sweaters. DeMent also uses repurposed and reused items in her packaging and displays. She takes old T-shirts and makes them new. She prints or paints fun sayings or patches on them.

In her scavenges for material, there is always something that catches her eye.

“I’m inspired by the materials, their perceived history, and their potential history,” she said of taking something and using it for something different than its original purpose.

Once DeMent is finished with her many projects, she takes them on the road to art fairs and galleries, puts them for sale on etsy, and even has a few items in the Art-o-Mat machines nationwide.

The Art-o-Mat machine is a vintage cigarette machine that vends miniature crafts and pieces of art. It was started in 1997 by Clark Whittington in North Carolina as a temporary art project. Now it has grown into a permanent piece of art and has become quite a success.

Another Pittsburgher making new out of the old is Jen Primack of Squirrel Hill. She has her own page on etsy – an online venue for selling handmade crafts, clothing, housewares, and everything in between – called Upcycled Designs on which she mostly sells clothes and accessories for children and women. Her latest project is towel shorts, swim cover-ups for boys made out of old towels. While upcycling is becoming more of a trend, it has been around for a long time, Primack said.

“Women have been making quilts from old clothes and repurposing [items],” said the 42-year-old in between sips of coffee at the Coffee Tree Roasters in Squirrel Hill. “People have been doing it for a long time, not because it was cool, but because it was needed.”

Primack started upcycling in 2009 after her father died. She cleaned out all of his clothes but did not know what to do with them. Her husband taught her how to sew and soon she was making pillows and blankets out of Steelers shirts and suits and ties.

Soon, her husband and a friend encouraged her to sell her items, so Primack set up an etsy site, which then helped her get some items into retail places like Contemporary Concepts in Squirrel Hill and the Penguins Store in South Side.

Among the clothes she makes and sells are skirts, dresses, shirts and T-shirt quilts. She also does some custom work for customers. Primack said she draws her own patterns, finds the fabrics and teaches herself new sewing techniques. But finding the clothes and materials to use is the most exciting for her.

“I find the treasure hunt at thrift stores very exciting. [Finding the perfect item] can make me smile all day,” Primack said smiling.

Primack also takes custom orders from people. Recently she made a dress for a little girl out of a Metallica T-shirt as a Father’s Day present. She also makes some clothes for kids with the stitching on the outside. It makes it more comfortable for the kids, and gives clothes a different look, she said.

In addition to selling items online and at local retailers, she also takes her items to art shows, where she is inspired by other people’s art. She said people are now upcycling unexpected items, like turning credit cards into guitar picks.

“They see things we think of as trash that can be made into new things,” Primack said.

Lynne Kropinak, 52 of Penn Hills, is one of these people. She makes jewelry out of unusual things she finds at thrift stores, flea markets, estate sales and antique shows, like Cracker Jack charms and pencil sharpeners. Some other things she’s found and made new are old silverware, porcelain dolls, aspirin tins and keys.

“I like finding something no one else seems to value on its way to the landfill, and seeing the beauty in it, then creating and transforming it into something new,” Kropinak said during a recent interview at the Panera in Robinson.

Kropinak crafted since she was a kid, finding rocks in her yard and painting them and selling them, and making beaded necklaces. She said upcycling and repurposing old items adds and extra special aspect to her craft.

“It’s something people love and appreciate. It saves and helps the environment,” she said.

In addition to her jewelry, Kropinak makes “funvelopes,” envelopes out of old salvaged books. She sells these at Wild Card in Lawrenceville, where she has a lot of her products. Kropinak also sells items at the I Made It! Market and Handmade Arcade, two art fairs coming to Pittsburgh, and in her Travelling Craft-o-Tron and Upcycla machines.

The Craft-o-Tron machine is a vintage cigarette machine that now vends crafts and art from locals to promote their art. While it was inspired by the Art-o-Mat machines, it is different in that it vends handmade crafts made by Pittsburghers. It also travels to different places like museums, cafes, restaurants, etc. The website says
The goal of the machine project is to spread the word about the local craft scene by placing the machine in different locations throughout the city – museums, art centers, welcome centers, hip bars, health food stores and wherever the machine rests its gears
The goal of the machine project is to spread the word about the local craft scene by placing the machine in different locations throughout the city – museums, art centers, welcome centers, hip bars, health food stores and wherever the machine rests its gears

The goal of the machine project is to spread the word about the local craft scene by placing the machine in different locations throughout the city – museums, art centers, welcome centers, hip bars, health food stores and wherever the machine rests its gears.

Kropinak’s business is called Charmed by Nature, and while she has an etsy site to sell these items, she prefers selling them to people in person.

“I like watching people’s reaction when they try on the products, like the jewelry,” she said, adjusting her green sweater.

Like Primack, she also does custom work. Recently, she made a necklace for a newlywed out of her wedding’s champagne caps. Kropinak said she gets a lot of return customers who are always curious to see what she’s come up with.

While all three of these crafty women have their own unique craft, there is one thing they share: passion for helping the environment. They all use upcycled and reused items that would have been landfilled or composted. Also, they hope upcycling will become a bigger trend.

“I think upcycling is becoming main stream in art trends. There are so many rich resources and reusable materials available,” she said. “With the economy, people appreciate the practicality of it…I think [upcycling] will continue to grow and become the norm. In my world it already is.”

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