The Artsmiths of Pittsburgh

Artist Interview: Samantha Bower of designs-by-samantha

Samantha Bower of designs-by-samantha

Samantha Bower of designs-by-samantha

Mt. Lebanon jewelry artist, Samantha Bower of designs-by-samantha is a gem.  A talented jewelry designer, devoted mother, teacher, savvy entrepreneur, and a member of the Pittsburgh Beer Ladies, Samantha amazes us with all that she is able to juggle and accomplish.  With her keen eye, sense of style, and impressive body of work, it is no wonder that she is one of Koolkat’s top-selling artists.

When asked about Samantha, Koolkat owner Kate McGrady replied, “When I met Samantha seven years ago she was a teacher with a hobby. It has been my extreme pleasure to watch her develop as a jewelry designer. With each new, young and funky piece, she expresses her constant positive energy.”

On Saturday, November 16th from 10am to 5pm, Koolkat will be hosting Samantha for a trunk show of her work. Samantha is known for creating stylish, versatile and affordable pieces that are as fun as they are fabulous. Whether it’s her bib necklaces, flower cabochon earrings, recycled paper bead jewelry, funky charm necklaces, or Swarovski and pearl wedding pieces, Samantha’s work is very popular with customers of all ages. Her trunk show will feature a broad range of rings, earrings, bracelets, necklaces and tile coasters.

Samantha is the subject of this week’s artist interview.  See if you can guess her favorite color before the end of the interview.

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Please introduce yourself, and tell us about your handmade business.
My name is Samantha Bower, and I started designs-by-samantha in 2004. I learned to weave crystal/wire necklaces as bridesmaid gifts for my upcoming wedding. After the wedding I realized that making those necklaces was one of my favorite parts of planning. It quickly became an obsession – going from hobby to small business in a matter of months. Now, I enjoy selling at boutiques and galleries (like Koolkat Designs), and I love interacting with customers at shows!

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I live in Mt. Lebanon with my wonderful husband and our adorable son. I have loved crafting for as long as I can remember — I was the girl in high school with a lot more on the outside of her notebooks than on the inside! I love trying new ideas and using new materials — my dream studio would have equipment for many types of media. I’m left-handed, which people say explains why I often have many projects going at once.

What does handmade mean to you?
To me, handmade is everlasting. When our economy took a nosedive, the handmade movement stayed strong and helped many men and women stay afloat. Assembling and creating pieces of art into something you can truly call your own is “handmade”. Dreaming of an idea and seeing it come to fruition in your hands is “handmade”. Buying handmade, local wares has become a passion for me, as I am constantly telling anyone who will listen!

What is your impression of the handmade scene in Pittsburgh?
I have absolutely fallen in love with the handmade scene in Pittsburgh. There is a phenomenal group of men and women that keep the Pittsburgh arts scene churning everyday. I am in awe of many artists that reside in Pittsburgh — every time I meet one I feel like I’ve met a hero! The creativity and work ethic in our city keeps me motivated to be a better person/artist.

How did you first become involved with Koolkat Designs?
I first became an artist with Koolkat in early 2007. Kate took a chance on me — I couldn’t even make earrings at the time! In the summer of 2007, I became the store’s first team member. Now, I help on the weekends and help to plan events when I can.

What is your favorite thing about Koolkat Designs?
The ladies of Koolkat — the five core women that help make the store so great — are like family to me. I am so proud of what Koolkat has evolved into over the past 7+ years. And I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the future!

What art festivals and craft shows have you participated in?
I currently participate regularly in the I Made it! Market shows, and will soon be back for a third time at Handmade Arcade. I will also be trying my first show in Cleveland (Last Minute Market) in December.

What are your art goals for the coming year?
I’d love to be better organized, and to find more time to devote to creating. A real website is in the works as well.

What does it mean to you to have someone buy your work?
I am truly humbled by my customers. I feel so grateful to have others enjoy my hard work. It’s such a boost of confidence to see a piece sell to a happy customer!

What advice do you have for people looking to turn their hobby into a business?
Try and fail, but don’t fail to try. Listen and take feedback from your customers. Listen to your heart, and do what makes you happy.

How do your values impact your process?
I do enjoy being as “green” as possible, at home and with my work. I buy recycled bags, and go paperless whenever possible. The paper beads that I use are upcycled from magazines, and come from the Bead for Life organization. I buy them fair-trade from Uganda. I enjoy helping a good cause with such beautiful beads.

Just for fun, what’s your favorite color?
Any shade of blue, especially dark blues.

Artist Interview: Susan Fiori of CHA-CHING Coin Jewelry

Coins and jewelry have long been bedfellows, dating back to the early days of coin minting.  According to Rayner W. Hesse’s book, Jewelrymaking Through History: An Encyclopedia, Roman men and women first began adorning their necks with coin pendants and amulets as early as the first- to third-century C.E.  Through the ages, other cultures, like the Vikings and Rai women of Nepal,  incorporated coins into their daily fashion.  Coin jewelry became popular in the United States in the 1880s when male soldiers and travelers turned foreign coins into “sweetheart jewelry” for their girlfriends and mothers.

One of Koolkat’s artists follows in this long tradition of coin jewelry making—Susan Fiori of CHA-CHING Coin Jewelry.

Artist, Suzy Fiori

Artist, Suzy Fiori

This Saturday, November 9th, from 10am to 5pm, Koolkat will be hosting a Trunk Show of Suzy’s beautiful bracelets, necklaces and earrings made with coins from all over the world.

As Kate McGrady, Koolkat’s owner, says, “Suzy gives the beautiful designs of coins a second life. For many people, this connects them to their heritage or a place they’ve traveled in a unique and interesting way.”  Koolkat customers can special order jewelry that incorporate coins with meaningful countries of origin or significant years (popular for birthday and anniversary gifts).

Suzy is the subject of our first ever blog interview!  Grab a cup of tea, and enjoy learning more about Suzy and her work.

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Tell us about your neighborhood in Pittsburgh.  Does your neighborhood or community support the arts?
I live in Brookline when my elderly mother doesn’t need me to be with her. There is a summer sidewalk festival they do in conjunction with the Brookline Breeze, a 5k race.

Describe your studio / working space for us.
I work at home and I’m surrounded by money! Coins are everywhere, always waiting to be sorted or drilled or something! My biggest challenge is keeping all the parts organized.

Chinese Coin Earrings & Bracelets

Chinese Coin Earrings & Bracelets

How did you come about using coins in your work?  
I bought my first pair of coin earrings at the National Apple Harvest Festival in Gettysburg. They were Mercury dimes. The vendor was a silversmith and they were the only coins that he had. I wore them constantly and always got comments on them.  I was in the Bahamas when it occurred to me that my piggy bank full of foreign change would also make some nice earrings. I was shopping in the Straw Market when the clerk handed me pennies with starfish on them. The lightbulb went off and I am now completely obsessed.

Working with coins from around the world, are any coins in particular your favorite?  Why?
Like most of my customers, I’m partial to the coins from my family’s proud heritage. But I am always looking for new and interesting coins and manage to have a new favorite all the time. Sometimes, it’s the image on the coin that gets me like the Egyptian 5 millièmes commemoratives  of the International Women’s Year that have Nefertiti and the women’s sign of peace. Or it could be some Vatican coin with the Blessed Mother on it, I have a thing for her. Or it could be the Czech bi-metal coin that’s brass and copper, so rich looking! Do I have to pick just one?

What is your favorite part of your arts process?
I like imagining.   How will a piece look, what coins to use, should beads be added, what colors to use?

How do your values impact your process?
My mother taught me from a young age to “do things right or don’t do them at all.” She made me rip out a zipper in a dress I was making 5 times because it wasn’t right. I was 12. It’s as if she’s standing over my shoulder when I work. I also try to recycle or repurpose and reuse anything I can. It adds to that challenge of keeping things organized.

A Custom-Made Coin Bracelet

A Custom-Made Coin Bracelet

If people could only take away 3 things from your work, what would they be?
The world is small and we are all related.  Money is not the root of all evil.  It’s all about context.

What was the first work you ever sold?
When I decided to pursue the idea of making jewelry from coins, I raided my piggy bank and bought some parts and started making prototypes to show my friends. They were my market research! One of them had a thing for copper and bought a pair of Canadian penny earrings.

Why are handcrafted objects important?
Handcrafted objects are an expression of someone’s creativity. Humans are healthier when they express their creativity which makes society in general healthier.

Greek Athenian Owl 2 Drachma Necklace

Greek Athenian Owl 2 Drachma Necklace

What does it mean to you to have someone buy your work?
To me it means that I’ve touched on some relationship they have with someone or something. It also means I get to eat this week; I do make my living from this. In essence, it means that I get to make a contribution as I am contributed to.

How did you first become involved with Koolkat Designs?
A friend of a friend told me I should have my work at Koolkat.

How long have you been selling at Koolkat Designs?
I’m artist number 033, it’s been a few years!

What is your favorite thing about Koolkat Designs?
Kate McGrady! You didn’t think it would be some thing did you?!

One last question.  Favorite local artist. What do you love about his/her work?
Only 1 pick? I’ll tell you my new favorite. I just love the way [Thea Okonak of] John the Craftist incorporates Pittsburghese into her work. My brother loved her “Happy Birthday ya jagoff” card!

Work by John the Craftist

Work by John the Craftist

Three Rivers Arts Festival

Artist Market
Friday, June 7th – Sunday, June 16th, 2013
12pm to 8pm daily

Koolkat is happy to be in the Artist Market representing our talented local artists in our fourth year on Gallery Row. We will have a great selection of hand-crafted jewelry, accessories and art. You can find us at Booth #56 & #57 near the Gateway Center Fountain for the entire duration of the Arts Festival.

This fun and exciting event features more than 300 artists in the Artist’s Market, lots of great exhibitions, musical, dance and theater performances, interactive experiences, food and more.

Friday, June 7th, the Point Park Fountain will have a grand reopening with a light and laser show, and  live music by River City Brass Band, Donora, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes.  We hope to see you there!

For more information about this fantastic annual event, please visit

Be sure to follow us on Facebook for our posts and pics Of the Arts Festival.

Whooo loves owls?

Ceramic Owl Sculptures by Yoko Sekino-Bové © 2013.

These ceramic owls by Washington, PA master ceramicist Yoko Sekino-Bové are incredibly popular.  One of our delightful customers came in to buy more of Yoko’s work for her mother for this past Mother’s Day.  She had given her mother one of Yoko’s bird sculptures as a gift before, and her mother was so excited to find the hole in the base of the bird.  For practical purposes, the hole provides an escape for the hot air that may otherwise build-up and explode the ceramic work when it’s in the kiln.  But this customer’s mother told her of a tradition of writing a wish on a piece of paper and stuffing it in the hole on the bottom of ceramic birds.  Supposedly it helps the wish come true, or at the very least, keeps it safe.

We have all been very curious to know more about this quaint tradition ever since we learned about it, but our searches have been unsuccessful.  Has anyone heard of this tradition?  If so, please share with us.

Czech Glass

This lovely beaded necklace by Olga Mihaylova of Oli’s Beadwork was made with Czech glass beads. Czech glass is known for its high quality and beauty.  A tradition of the region since the 13th century, the beads are cut by hand by a cottage industry of skilled artisans.  Visit Koolkat to see how Olga and our other talented artists use Czech glass beads in their jewelry creations.

New Work by Katie Keally

We recently received a new shipment of miniature paintings and art dolls by talented Ellwood City artist, Katie Keally of Bobbidi Boo.  We love her use of color, and the distinctive personality each of her works has.

Art Dolls by Katie Keally © 2013.

Art Dolls by Katie Keally © 2013.

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