Art has the power to connect and inspire people. Art often emerges from unexpected places. In 2002 I was creating wall-hanging and freestanding digital art- very colorful abstract large-scale works. I had my first major exhibition at a gallery in my hometown in Providence, Rhode Island- 40 pieces which I had spent a couple years creating. I lived in a tiny studio apartment and worked in a shoe store to pay the bills while working on my art career in my spare time. 6 weeks after the exhibition began, I dismantled the show. None of the pieces had sold. Flashback 10 years, growing up on a farm in rural New Hampshire, I would watch my mother stain rawhide leather and stitch together harnesses, repair bridles and stirrups. Jumping back to my present-state with a studio apartment overtaken by all my unsold artworks, going in every day to assist customers pick out shoes and bags for social outings. Over the next year I eventually connected the dots from my past and the present- I cut up some of the canvas prints and fashioned them in to evening bags. I had a little showing of these handbags with some of my customers from the shoe store and they sold immediately. Over the course of the following years, my handbags went with me to various lemonade-stand-type events. Gradually getting in to some festivals, on to top juried fine-craft shows, then came celebrities, several hundred retail accounts, global travel. All around this simple idea of using a handbag as a way to frame my art- with themes extending from my original abstract artworks, to light-hearted pieces featuring realistic 3D clasps of donuts and sushi and practically everything else you can think of. My signature style of vibrant crossbody clutch with contrast piping has an instantly-recognizable quality. Once you see one, you will then always be able to pick them out from a crowd. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t considered that I could adapt by making a few littler adjustments from my original concept of what I thought constituted art.
In March of this year, after 5 weeks of solid travel with my collection, like everyone else, I got grounded. I gradually saw my entire year of events cancelled. The stages of grief manifested first in a rush of ambition, followed by days of not wanting to get out of bed. Long ago the studio apartment was replaced with incremental upgrades in my housing, and the addition of a beautiful studio where my team and I worked to craft each piece. I began cleaning in the basement and sorting through nearly 20 years of early-generation bags and was reminded of the origin of my enterprise. Shifting and adapting brought me from the edge of failure to a thriving livelihood. While I saw many designers heroically diving in to manufacturing protective gear, my heart was pulling me to create pieces of curious intrigue. My online business was fortunately established and my production being in-house allowed me to continue to do some scaled-down business.
My web and social media team-member began reaching out across the country to meet new people and share stories and talk about collaborating on some e-projects. I began a video project titled “Grey Areas” which will be released later this summer. All working within the game plan of social distancing and safety regulations set forth by our state governments. When my city experienced the first violent riots in the early hours of June 2, many of the restaurants and independent boutiques that contribute to our vibrant downtown had just been allowed to reopen the day before. Many of them were destroyed. It became obvious that the conversations that needed to take the airwaves would require that I pause my regular uplifting version of online story-telling. Refocusing on assessing the need to listen and continue connecting the dots to adapt again to the shifting landscape. Finding ways to continue celebrating the power of the imagination and the need to connect across cultural, economic, and political lines is our only hope for the future. Giving ourselves and others permission to grieve, learn, while not forgetting to let joy in, this is what my heart seeks. www.kentstetson.com