Isaac Bower was tinkering one day in his Polish Hill art studio, playing with leftover pieces of artwork that a client had commissioned. Some of the shapes had hooks and interlocked, creating interesting patterns.

Although the job paid well, it felt a little empty with the exclusivity of doing fancy things for rich people that few others could see.

“I started feeling, 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 recalled. “I started playing with these shapes and started to really enjoy the process almost more than thinking about doing a finished piece of art, the experience of sitting down and exploring these things in a conscious way It had a feel-good quality, and funny and surprising things were happening. It was like, ‘Wow, look at that.’ And I was wondering if other people might have the same experience.

Cojiform interactive sculpture pieces. Photo by Isaac Bower.

It was the start of Cojiform, his system of interactive sculpture pieces that Bower rents out to schools, museums, libraries and senior centers to give people a creative experience. Pieces lock together but are not meant to be permanent works of art.

“The first thing I tried, I went to Market Square when they were having an outdoor festival and pretended to be part of it. I threw the shapes on the ground and people really seemed having fun,” he says. “People of different ages got into it.”

Bower is one of 50 western Pennsylvania entrepreneurs who recently received $2,000 each from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council to support their businesses through the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts’ Creative Entrepreneur Accelerator program. Photographers, illustrators, carpenters, printers and others can use the money to start or operate a business.

“This second round of funding for Pittsburgh’s creative economy has had an overwhelming response,” says Shaqui Scott, grants and membership manager for the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council. “We rewarded double the number of entrepreneurs compared to the first round.”

The program was launched in October 2021 to support economic recovery and increase opportunities for creative workers whose businesses make less than $200,000 a year. In the first round, 24 Western Pennsylvanians received the grants. In addition to cash, applicants receive free consulting services from local small business development organizations. The money went fast, and the state won’t offer more until the fall.

Sophie Papas

Sophia Pappas in her studio. Photo by Sean Carroll.

Sophia Pappas, an illustrator who prints cards, invitations, stationery and more on her letterpress at her studio in Millvale, wanted to use her grant to create a better storefront 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 said.

She first used the specialized 19th century printmaking style in college when she took a course in bookmaking and loved it. His custom projects can be more expensive than digital printing, but the result is top quality.

“You’re paying for the materials, the plates and the time, but it’s usually a more tactile finished product,” says Pappas, who produces his own projects between editorial work for clients. “It’s definitely a project that excites me. … My biggest goal this year is to add more products to my store, redo my display and make the sale of my stationery line more of a contributing factor to my revenue.

Some of the cards available from Studio PDP. Photo by Sophia Pappas.

Bower is stepping up the marketing of Cojiform, which already has a life on Instagram, through tutorial videos. He has several kits that he rents out, usually for four weeks, but he works alone and more takes time. He would like to use the grant money to hire someone to help with the finishing work of sanding and polishing the plastic when the parts come out of the molds.

The project gets its name from the “collaborative” and the “J” hooks that are part of the interlocking pieces. He likes that letting others praise them contributes to their nature to share the experience.

“That whole part was one of the things that kept me going,” Bower says. “It’s very difficult for me to sell them because they take a long time to make – and I’ve sold a few. I thought it would have to be so expensive to make it work, and then I would come back to the only people who could buy it, they would be really rich people. … And then the other side is that not everyone in America needs to buy me Cojiform and then what? Is it going to sit on the shelf, or do I have to make hundreds of thousands of them in a factory in China? »

Bower started the project before Covid, but took a break during the pandemic because he couldn’t travel and demonstrate Cojiform. He tested the product before Covid at the Children’s Museum (a good durability test for parts), the Library of Accessible Media for Pennsylvanians, and senior centers, among others. This year will be a construction phase for the company.

“I decided that coming out of the pandemic was an interesting time,” he says. “Everyone is 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 together.

Unlike Legos, which are told how they should be put together, Cojiform lets its users 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 out and find they can participate in an art project.

Examples of Cojiform creations. Photo by Isaac Bower.

“One of the good things about Cojiform is that when you manipulate the object, you can tell it looks very specific,” says Bower. “They seem to have certain features or are designed to do something, but you have to play around with them and do some trial and error and you’ll find out how they hang together. They kind of become meaningful because of that – you feel like “I figured something out here” and you get excited.

Keeping people connected to practical activities in our digital world is also important, he says.

“As we continue down the digital path, I’m very passionate about humans still using their hands in the three-dimensional world,” Bower says. “Connecting mind and hands, focus and perseverance, and remembering what that experience is – that’s a big part of what I think is good about Cojiform.”

So far, Bower has raised awareness of Cojiform largely through cold calling, but he’s exploring options, like working 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 don’t know where they will go, but they are looking for things that tick all their boxes and Cojiform does it with well-being and mindfulness.

“It’s a daily practice for me to work with Cojiform shapes myself. So I try to take a similar approach by thinking, “Where is this going as a business?”

Creative Entrepreneur AcceleratorGPACGreater Pittsburgh Arts CouncilIsaac BowerPennsylvania Council on the ArtsPittsburgh artists

About the Author