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North Neighborhoods
Artist sculpts puppets from stuff of life

Wednesday, April 02, 2003

By Jill Cueni-Cohen

Teachers often ask their students to bring in items from home.

Still, this one seemed odd.

"We got a letter telling us that the kids needed to bring dryer lint into school," said Lisa Pilarski. Her daughter Sara, 7, a Poff Elementary School second-grader, "told me they would be making puppets with it."

On laundry day, Pilarski cleaned her lint trap and reluctantly gave the fluffy wad to her daughter.

"My biggest concern was how to get lint that didn't have hair and Kleenex bits in it," she said. "I couldn't imagine what kind of puppets they could come up with. Dryer lint is disgusting."

Not to everyone.

Second-grade teacher Cristine Dougherty, 29, was introduced to the possibilities of lint by artist Cheryl Capezzuti, a friend who creates sculptures and puppets out of the soft, dusty remnants of countless loads of laundry.

While brainstorming with colleagues for a presentation with a storytelling theme, Dougherty mentioned that she knew an artist who makes puppets out of dryer lint.

"I had known her work because I'd seen her shows, and I thought it would tie in nicely with our curriculum," Dougherty said, "so I e-mailed Cheryl, not knowing if she ever went to schools."

She did. In fact, as a teaching artist for the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts residency program, Capezzuti was used to providing students, young and old, with an aesthetic appreciation of the significant role that everyday rituals play in our lives.

The 33-year-old Pittsburgh-based puppet maker often spends weeks at a time in different schools. She taught visual arts at Winchester-Thurston School from 1996 to 2001.

But a one-day visit to Poff Elementary School in the Hampton School District was an irresistible offer.

"I went to Poff," said Capezzuti, whose parents still live a block and a half from the school. "I'm doing this because I know Cristine, but normally I'll do a 10-day residency and connect it to the curriculum."

After earning a degree in integrative art from Penn State in 1992, Capezzuti stayed in State College to pursue a master's degree in art education and learn to make puppets from master puppet maker Sara Peattie.

Capezzuti started playing with lint that same year, mixing it with glue and molding it into small human-like figurines.

"The whole lint thing really started as a lark; something I did just for fun in addition to my serious work as an artist," Capezzuti said.

She let her friends know she was in need of lint that had special meaning, and she began getting letters with fresh fluff from friends and strangers.

She returned to her hometown in 1996, and the lint letters -- known as The National Lint Project -- followed, with hundreds of lint donations coming in from around the country and the world.

Standing in front of a classroom of 7- and 8-year-olds Thursday, Capezzuti credited her Poff teachers -- many of whom are still there -- with giving her the early support and inspiration she needed to follow her dream of becoming a professional artist.

"It's important for kids to see that you can grow up and be a creative individual," said Capezzuti. "Thinking about materials in a different way is a valuable skill."

Take a moment to ponder lint -- it comes out of the dryer in various colors and contains myriad minuscule fibers from many different items. Pointing to the baby-sized hanging "lint angel" she'd created for the class out of their previously collected lint, Capezzuti said lint holds memories and the potential to become a unique work of art.

Capezzuti got the kids laughing with a video of giant lint puppets dancing in a coin-operated laundry. She also showed them slides of her more traditional work with giant puppets made of papier-mache.

Included in Pittsburgh's First Night celebrations since 1998, Capezzuti's huge "Skyscraper Puppets" were adorned with representations of the city's famous buildings. "I like to make things that are connected to the world," she said.

The kids peppered Capezzuti with questions as she mashed lint together with wallpaper paste. Capezzuti wore a mask and gloves to protect her lungs from the dust and her hands from the toxic chemicals in the paste.

"Lint is just as clean as the clothing we wear," she pointed out. "I have no problem touching clothing that has been washed, and lint is primarily just that -- but in a different form."

After listening to Capezzuti's lively one-hour presentation, which included putting Dougherty into a giant lint puppet costume, Sara Pilarski now plans on sending the artist some special lint to make a memory with.

"I thought dryer lint was disgusting, now I think it's cool," she said. "Mrs. Capezzuti made me want to be an artist."

Capezzuti, however, admitted to the kids that she didn't always think her "lint guys" were anything to brag about. "At first I was embarrassed by it because I wanted to be a serious artist," she told them.

Despite her self-consciousness, Capezzuti continued to pursue her odd passion because she was getting lint in the mail from people all over the country.

"If someone sends me lint and a letter about where it came from and what it means to them, I'll send them back a lint person someday," Capezzuti said. She just can't make any promises about when the lint creations will be finished.

But it wasn't until a gallery curator became interested in showing the one-load-of-lint-sized figures that Capezzuti realized her unusual creations were really "a document of everyday life found within a mundane material -- fluff -- and transformed into a gestural figure."

Since 1998, Capezzuti's lint sculptures have appeared in group exhibitions across the country, including the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. And the Lint Project has grown, piece by fluffy piece, to include installations of human-sized figures, contemporary puppetry and performance events that often take place in coin-operated laundries as well as on stage.

Capezzuti told the children how one new father sent her the lint from his baby's first load of laundry. Capezzuti turned it into a sculpture she titled, "Baby Blanket Lint." She said it represents all the new chores that come with a new baby.

"People have sent me their grandmother's last load of laundry lint, and [the resulting sculpture] helps them to remember their grandma and the beautiful, everyday life she had," Capezzuti said. "The letters I get about this banal household ritual are fascinating."

Thanks to a grant from the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts, which supports her mailing expenses, Capezzuti describes the Lint Project as a free art service.

"In the past two years, I've had support for it," she said. "As soon as you turn it into a money-making thing, it stops being about art; it feels less sincere.

"I sell my work quite a bit, but the individual-size pieces are almost like gestures, and I regularly share them for free. It's a process, and it's not about money or time."

It's likely that anyone who has had a chance to experience Capezzuti's wispy looking, yet surprisingly solid form of art, will never again dismiss dryer fluff as garbage. "I don't look at lint the same way anymore," said Dougherty.

Which is just what Capezzuti wants.

"People are stunned that I can be a successful adult and make puppets out of dryer lint," she laughed. "It doesn't mean that I don't work hard -- I work really hard -- but I think it's important to share with children that there are a lot of possibilities in our world, that you can be what you want to be if you're willing to work really hard and find out what it is."

Capezzuti has been married to David Sluss, a computer programmer, for four years. They live in Morningside.

"So many people get caught up in just making money to have things that they like, instead of doing things that they like," Capezzuti said. "There's nothing wrong with that, but doing what I love makes me more financially successful."

Eight-year-old Daniel Grzybek didn't even know what lint was before his teacher asked him to bring it to school.

"I thought it was amazing that you could make things out of lint," he said. "I think it's a good thing to use your imagination, because if no one ever used their imagination, a lot of things in the world wouldn't come to be."

Anyone interested in participating in the National Lint Project should visit Capezzuti's Web site: www.studiocapezzuti.com


Jill Cueni-Cohen is a freelance writer.

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