By Sara Payne, Point Park News Service:
When routine oral surgery turned into never-ending pain and a diagnosis of atypical trigeminal neuralgia in May of 2010, Alethea Okonak had never felt more isolated. But she found hope just outside in her mailbox.
“It really meant something when I would go to get the mail, and it was a ton of medical bills, but then there was a bright, blue envelope with the handwriting of someone I love and something really sweet inside,” she said. “It was really motivational for me.”
When she was finally well enough, the Aspinwall resident started making cards for other people. Her crafting soon turned into something more than she ever pictured, and for less than a year now, it has been her full-time job. John the Craftist and its industrial-looking cards yelling Pittsburghese phrases can be found at shops and events throughout the city.
“It turned into my friends saying, ‘Can you make these wedding invites, or this card?’ Then people started trying to hand me money for what I was doing and then it becomes a viable business opportunity,” the 36-year-old said. “I didn’t think, ‘This is something I’m going to do.’ It was more organic than that.”
Okonak says the name of the business always throws people as they look for a male owner. Not an entirely religious person, she found the play on words fitting as John the Baptist is the patron saint of people with seizures and other maladies.
“I kind of see him as an inspirational person,” Okonak said. “I like the idea of John the Baptist as the first hippie. He’s kind of out there wandering in the wild.”
Among many loved ones, Okonak credits her then-boyfriend Frank Salati’s presence throughout her battle through the illness. He saw first-hand how her outlook improved because of the sentiments from friends and family. Working in the same bookstore, he would bring home cards from co-workers.
“Thea’s reaction to those cards, the thoughtfulness, knowing that so many people cared about her well-being, were some of the brightest moments in some of the darkest hours,” Salati, who is now Okonak’s husband, said. “I couldn’t do much, but I could bring home cards from our friends, and sometimes that was enough.”
Throughout her recovery, Okonak appreciated the variety of cards she received in the mail. From the spiritual cards older family members sent her to the wacky cards friends hoped would make her laugh, they all played their own role in helping her. When choosing the designs for her cards, she goes for a rough look that makes it look like someone is yelling because she pictures Pittsburghese as always being loud, she said. A lot of her work is trying to find the right phrase to fit on the card. It shouldn’t be too aggressive, but still funny.
“I listen to a lot of conversations on the bus,” she said.
Despite growing up in Fox Chapel, Okonak didn’t have the Pittsburgh parents people might think when they see her cards adorned with Pittsburghese words and phrases including: sammich, yinz, gittin’ and n’at. With a mom who was an English teacher, she grew up in a much different household.
“She was really always serious about grammar and spelling growing up. To the point where we would be correcting other kids if they were making mistakes,” Okonak said. “The fact that I make these cards now that are really grammatically incorrect on purpose is kind of funny.”
Choosing to create her own major, which was a mix of sociology, anthropology and creative nonfiction, at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, Okonak is a self-taught artist, making everything digitally. Coming from a family of makers and do-it-yourselfers, crafting comes naturally to her, she said.
Before pursuing John the Craftist full-time, she worked at WildCard in Lawrenceville. Owner Rebecca Morris chose to sell Okonak’s witty designs even before hiring her. While working at the store, Okonak made connections in the crafting world, leading her to sell cards at different events. John the Craftist can be also found on Etsy.
“Thea has a great sense of humor and is always thinking of great ideas for new cards. She works hard to fill orders, cutting each card by hand and making sure each item is perfect for the customer,” Morris said. “Her cards are still very popular at WildCard, and we have started to feature them on our website as well.”
Salati describes Okonak’s initial diagnosis as a blur of doctors’ offices and sleepless nights. She would sometimes have as many as seven appointments in one day, but she has learned to live with an “invisible illness.”
“Some days are worse than others, but overall, she has proven herself to be the strongest person I’ve ever known,” he said.
Neuralgia will never go away, but Okonak has found a number of holistic methods to help her with pain management. The woman, who at one point thought washing three dishes that day was an accomplishment, now laughs with ease at how different her life is compared to what she imagined. Because of what she’s been through, Okonak doesn’t have detailed plans for the future of John the Craftist.
“I think more than anything one of the lessons I’ve learned is it’s important to stay open-minded. You shouldn’t see things as obstacles; you should see them as opportunities,” she said. “I think when you see it that way it’s hard to know what’s going to happen. You never know.”