Functional & beautiful
Speakeasy Works and Papercraft Miracles: Two artists having fun with upcycled materials
Michelle Perkins of Speakeasy Works; Janna Willoughby-Lohr of Papercraft Miracles.
Photos by Stephen Gabris
Bypassing mass market retailers to purchase artwork locally not only slashes the carbon footprint to get the piece to your doorstep, but also keeps more of your dollars in the community. Some artists make it an even greener choice by using eco-friendly materials, cutting waste, and adjusting their processes. Here, two local creatives share how they work—and live—green.
Putting vintage fabric to work
Almost six years ago, Michelle Perkins stumbled upon a set of beautiful and unusual silkscreened fabrics at the estate sale of a local watercolorist. “They had really interesting graphic shapes on them,” she recalls. “It was clear that no one was going to rescue these things, so I took them home.”
Repurposing the fabric, Perkins made several small bags and shared them via social media; offers immediately came in to buy them. Thus began Speakeasy Works, a small business through which Perkins creates home and personal accessories, mostly using vintage and upcycled fabrics. As an artist, she believes art can be functional—that objects or pieces you use in daily life can be beautiful, evocative, and useful all at the same time (hence the “Works” in her company name).
“I don’t think art is just something you see on the wall. I want it to be my bag, I want it to be the clothes I’m wearing, I want it to be my jewelry,” she says. “It can surround you and be functional in your life, and not just be something you look at. If I could integrate it into every part of my life, I would.”
Home accessories made from vintage and upcycled fabrics
This idea permeates her business and helps her—and her clients—reduce their environmental impact. Many of the handbags or other pieces Perkins creates are made from one-of-a-kind vintage textiles she finds or receives from clients, which not only helps to preserve them but also keeps them out of landfills. She’s transformed heirloom pillow shams from a client’s late mother-in-law into a pair of stylish bags. Another friend gave Perkins fabric from her wedding and her children’s old clothing to upcycle into new, practical pieces that would recall fond memories. Increasingly, Perkins is even crafting small items—like washable cloth napkins, lanyards, and key fobs—to use the offcuts from her other products and keep those scraps out of the waste stream.
“A lot of my best ideas come from my customers, and I really love to be able to work on projects that are special to somebody, again with that idea that art and the things around us should mean something to us,” she says. “If somebody has a piece of vintage fabric from their grandmother that they’ve never known what to do with, I’d love to help them with that.”
For most projects, Perkins draws inspiration from her customers and the textiles themselves. But she also finds creative stimulation all around—from conversations with her husband, a musician and woodworker, to a weeklong retreat she took this summer in Maine to slow down and explore new techniques, like eco-dyeing. In addition to her full-time role as a book designer, Perkins also helps coordinate pop-up sales for Stitch Buffalo, a nonprofit sewing center for refugee women in the area—and another source of inspiration for Perkins, who often purchases leftover textiles to use in her work and support the organization financially.
“The idea of women helping women, and especially women helping refugee women, was really important to me,” Perkins says. “[Stitch Buffalo] is super local and committed to the West Side, which is where I live, and I loved that they were upcycling all of their products and have a real commitment to being eco-friendly and having as little a footprint in terms of waste, as I do in my own business.”
Learn more at etsy.com/shop/speakeasy.
An eco-friendly Miracle
Sixty-four solar panels sit atop the pitched roofs at 1888 Niagara Street, home to Janna Willoughby-Lohr’s growing business, Papercraft Miracles, and her residence. With virtually uninterrupted sunlight most days, the panels supply roughly ninety percent of the energy used each year by her business and family, as well as a residential tenant and pair of commercial tenants.
For Papercraft Miracles, clean energy is just the beginning of its commitment to sustainability. Willoughby-Lohr conceived the idea for her business about fifteen years ago as a college student in North Carolina. She grew up surrounded by poetry and art (“I made murals with Band-Aids on the walls,” she recalls, laughing), and discovered papermaking and bookbinding during her freshman year. Instantly, she wanted to turn these art forms into her career but, as so often happens, life got in the way.
After years of sporadic craft shows and one-off custom projects for friends, she left her full-time job in 2016 and dove headlong into the business. Today, she creates handmade paper in many forms, from gallery work, to stationery and greeting cards, to every paper good needed to plan a wedding or event.
“There are so many things you can do with paper. It’s something I make with my hands for the sole purpose of communication of some type,” she says. “When I work with [wedding] clients, they tell me their story, how they got together, and I figure out a way to build that into the materials and how their paper is put together to tell their story.
“I have a quote on my website that says, ‘There’s something about handling paper that simultaneously sends me to the moon and brings me back to Earth,’” Willoughby-Lohr continues. “In between heaven and Earth, that’s my jam. I love what I do.”
Along with running on solar, Papercraft Miracles only uses packaging that can be composted or easily recycled, and partners with local businesses to reduce waste by incorporating used paper and junk mail from offices and schools, as well as leftover flowers and greenery from florists, to make new paper.
In addition, some of Willoughby-Lohr’s products literally give back to the earth. She creates flower, vegetable, and herb seed bombs in vibrant colors, and also saves offcuts to make plantable confetti that won’t harm the environment.
Pick a bouquet of flowers made from eco-friendly materials.
“This is my labor of love, and if I get to support my family doing what I love and give back to the world in some way, then what’s better than that?” Willoughby-Lohr asks. “My number one reason for wanting things to be sustainable is because I have kids. I know that sounds hokey, but I don’t want my kids to see that I have a business that exploits people or the place where we live.”
Last year, Papercraft Miracles got a major boost after winning a $25,000 Ignite Buffalo grant, allowing Willoughby-Lohr to hire her first employee. Her reach has expanded considerably as well; recently, for example, individuals in Buffalo, Missouri, and New Zealand were on her website within the same hour. But her dream customer remains elusive: Oprah.
“Someday, Oprah’s buying stuff from me,” she says. “It’s happening. I know people think I’m crazy, but people thought I was crazy for wanting to make paper in the first place.”
Learn more at papercraftmiracles.com.