museums&MORE Fall 2010
Artist Spotlight: Grass Roots Creations

Transforming everyday materials into something unexpected

By Abby Heugel, Managing Editor

It all started with a tiny beaded gecko.

When Kristen Depante and her mother, Roseann, started Grass Roots Creations in 2001, it began as a way to sell the handcraft that Roseann brought back with her after living in Africa for several years. They were so taken by the art and the people who made it that they decided to start a new business importing African handicraft by integrating their own designs to appeal to the mainstream market. While Depante had been making things people want to buy for years, one particular beaded gecko was especially popular, and from there the Beadworx division was created.

“Because we can do exhibit and location-specific figures like geckos or animals, Beadworx has a very broad demographic,” Depante said. “We sell to gift shops and boutiques, zoos, aquariums, theme parks – including Disney – tourist spots, state parks, garden centers and children’s stores.”

They named the company “Grass Roots” because it truly was just that – a grass roots effort. Depante said that from the start the mission has been to bring handcrafted product to the mainstream public, and that it’s always brought her great personal satisfaction to provide mentoring and work to people with few resources.

Perhaps that’s because when they started, they had few resources themselves – no money and one computer that Kristin and Roseann shared each day. At night they would go to the basement and pack all the orders that needed to go out, while weekends were spent making potpourri to sell at flea markets to ensure they had enough money to get through another week.

“Ten years later, we’ve expanded into a 10,000-square-foot warehouse with a great crew, an office full of dedicated staff, an amazing development team and we have started selling internationally,” Depante said. “So it was worth it.”

Frame of Mind
Depante attended the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, initially majoring in ceramics, as she was drawn to three-dimensional sculpture and the malleability of clay. After her first year, she realized how difficult it was to market her own work and wanted to create art in her “day job” rather than work another job to support it. As such, she changed her major to industrial design, which is geared toward commercial rather than fine art.

“When I started designing pieces for Beadworx, I immediately gravitated towards the sculptural aspect of the materials, drawing off my background in industrial design,” Depante said. “I wanted to take the technique of wire sculpture and offer my own vision of wire and beads. Our pieces were colorful and happy and people were drawn to them.”

As the company grew, the need for larger production grew. Things became tumultuous in Africa and it grew next to impossible to manufacture their products, so production was moved to China, employing and teaching local artisans in rural villages. This production brings steady work and income to hundreds of people who had no prior opportunity to create stability for themselves and their families.

“At first I was concerned about the change, but soon learned there was poverty everywhere and that I had the unique opportunity to teach people a new skill and create work in rural areas where farming was generally the only option,” she said. “It has become the most rewarding experience, and while I thought I would be teaching these people new things, they ended up teaching me so much.”

Beadworx creations can range in size from a 4-1/2-inch ladybug to a 4-foot tall peacock, and Depante usually has a material in mind and a general idea of how she wants to apply it, often using reference materials to focus her ideas down into a “look” or “feeling.”

“I draw the designs out on paper, then the computer,” Depante said. “Once I complete a design, I send it to my development team in China and they then make a sample from my artwork. They’re an integral part of my art because their interpretation of my design shows in every piece.”

Included in that development team is a master framer and master beader, as the process of wire bending is an intricate and difficult art, requiring great strength and skill. The whole process is done by hand, and due to the lack of pliability of the galvanized wire, they only get one shot to bend the metal correctly without it weakening. Once a frame has been made, it is woven with a rainbow of colorful glass beads, wire after wire wrapping around in a complex process.

“We work together until I’m satisfied with the result and then the pieces go into production,” Depante explained. “I spend a large amount of time in China working in person with my development team, and we have created a symbiotic process. The exciting thing is that every piece is handmade; each piece has its own individuality.”

It’s that individuality that makes Beadworx creations so versatile, and people have told Depante they collect them, name them, place them as decorations in their businesses, homes, on trees, hanging from ceilings – just about anywhere.

“For retailers, the key to successful sales is for the figures to be seen as a group in the best light possible, with a certain number of pieces in the collection,” Depante added. “In a manufactured world, they bring a little bit of whimsy and inspiration to the show.”

For Depante, inspiration is found just about everywhere she goes. She takes photos and rips out magazine pictures of anything that strikes her, creates bulletin boards, trays and boxes where she keeps her creative references and often carries a notebook to jot down her thoughts as they come up.

What’s coming up in the future for Grass Roots is a Beadworx 7-foot giraffe and a 6-foot praying mantis for the new Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla. With the museum slated to open in January 2011, Depante is excited to be not only contributing the giant collections, but to also sell the regular-sized coordinating pieces in the gift shop.

She is also launching a new Fashionworx division, as Depante said stepping into fashion is a great opportunity for her to stretch her wings in a new realm and apply all her concepts of taking an everyday material and transforming it into something unexpected.

“I have designed ‘Bounce,’ a line of jewelry made from colorful rubber,” she said. “It is so different from what you might imagine when you think of rubber in that the designs are contemporary and fashionable, making them perfect for work or play. I am also launching Zig Zag Bags, which is a line of totes and purses hand woven with polypropylene strapping, or ‘pallet’ strapping.

“I always feel like I am about to burst with ideas, and no matter how much I design, I always have a line of ideas pushing their way up to the front of the line to be next,” she continued. “Art should be for everyone and I love giving everyone an opportunity to own a little piece of art. When I see someone smile and appreciate something I have made, I feel that I have achieved my purpose.”

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