Isaac Bower was tinkering in his Polish Hill art studio one day, playing with pieces he had left over from artwork a client had commissioned. Some of the shapes had hooks and fit together, creating interesting patterns.
Though the job had paid well, he was left feeling a little empty with the exclusivity of making fancy things for wealthy people that few others might see.
“I began to feel, this isn’t what I want to do, how I want to function as an artist in a community of people like me, or a more diverse community,” Bower recalls. “I began to play with these shapes and I started really enjoying the process almost more than thinking about making a finished piece of art, the experience of sitting down and exploring with these things in a mindful way. It had a wellness quality to it, and fun and surprising things would happen. It was like, ‘Wow, look at that.’ And I wondered if other people could get the same experience.”
It was the start of Cojiform, his system of interactive sculpture parts that Bower leases to schools, museums, libraries and senior centers to give people a creative experience. The pieces lock together but aren’t meant to be permanent artwork.
“The first thing I tried, I went to Market Square when they were having an outdoor festival and I pretended I was part of it. I dumped the shapes on the ground, and people seemed to really have fun,” he says. “People of different ages got into it.”
Bower is one of 50 Western Pennsylvania entrepreneurs recently granted $2,000 apiece from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council to support their businesses as part of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts’ Creative Entrepreneur Accelerator program. The photographers, illustrators, woodworkers, printers and others can use the money to start or operate a business.
“This second round of funding for Pittsburgh’s creative economy had an overwhelming response,” says Shaqui Scott, manager of grants and membership for the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council. “We awarded double the number of entrepreneurs when compared to the first round.”
The program launched in October 2021 to support economic recovery and increase opportunities for creative workers whose businesses gross less than $200,000 annually. In the first round, 24 Western Pennsylvanians received the grants. In addition to the money, applicants receive free consultation services from local small business development organizations. The money went quickly and the state will not offer more until the fall.
Sophia Pappas, an illustrator who prints cards, invitations, stationery and more on her letterpress at her Millvale studio, wanted to use her grant to build a better storefront display at her Studio PDP at 507 1/2 Grant Ave., but she also needed to replace her desktop computer, so the money was well spent, she says.
She first used the 19th century-style of specialty printmaking while in college when she took a book-making class and loved it. Her custom projects can be more expensive than digital printing, but the result is superior quality.
“You pay for the materials and the plates and the time, but it’s generally a more tactile finished product,” says Pappas, who produces her own projects between editorial work for clients. “It’s definitely a passion project of mine. … My biggest goal this year is to add more products to my store, redo my display, and have the sale of my stationery line be more of a contributing factor to my income.”
Bower is stepping up the marketing of Cojiform, which already has a life on Instagram, through tutorial videos. He has several kits that he leases out, typically for four weeks, but he works alone and making more is time-consuming. He’d like to use the grant money to hire someone to help with the finishing work of sanding and polishing the plastic when the pieces come out of the molds.
The project took its name from “collaborative” and the “J” hooks that are part of the interlocking pieces. He likes the fact that letting others lease them contributes to their nature of sharing the experience.
“That whole piece of it has been one of the things that has sustained me,” says Bower. “It’s very hard for me to sell these because they take a long time to make — and I have sold some. I thought, these would have to be so expensive to make it work, and then I’d be back to the only people who could buy it would be really rich people. … And then the other side is, not everyone in America needs to buy Cojiform from me and then what? It’s going to sit on a shelf, or I have to make hundreds of thousands of these in a factory in China?”
Bower began the project before Covid, but took a break during the pandemic since he couldn’t travel and demonstrate Cojiform. He tested the product before Covid at the Children’s Museum (a good test of durability for the parts), the Library of Accessible Media for Pennsylvanians and at senior citizen centers, among other locations. This year will be a building phase for the company.
“I decided that coming out of the pandemic, it felt like interesting timing,” he says. “Everyone’s ready for things that put them back together. … It’s really good for seniors, and an interesting social experience to sit around the table and work on these together.”
Unlike Legos, which explain how they should be put together, Cojiform allows its users to experience the joy of discovery, Bower says. Even people who might say, “I can’t draw,” or “I can’t dance,” will pick up a few pieces to try it and realize they can take part in an art project.
“One of the positive things about Cojiform is when you handle the object you can tell they look very specific,” Bower says. “They seem like they have some functionality, or are designed to do something, but you need to play with them and have some trial and error and you’ll make discoveries about how they hook onto each other. They become kind of meaningful because of that — you feel like, ‘I’ve figured something out here,’ and you become excited.”
Keeping people connected to hands-on activities in our digital world is important, too, he says.
“As we continue down the digital path, I’m very passionate about humans still using their hands in the three-dimensional world,” says Bower. “Connecting mind and hands and focus and persistence, and remembering what that experience is like — that is a big part of what I think is good about Cojiform.”
Until now, Bower has been spreading the word about Cojiform largely through cold calls, but he is exploring options — such as whether to work with a company that sells team-building experiences to other companies and might want to use Cojiform kits.
“They seemed pretty excited about Cojiform,” he says. “I’m not sure where they will go, but they’re looking for things that check all their boxes and Cojiform does that with wellness and mindfulness.
“It’s a daily practice for me, to work with the Cojiform shapes myself. So I try to take a similar approach to thinking, ‘Where is this going as a business?’”