Diana Nelson Jones' Walkabout: Pull of Pittsburgh crafts made visible by old cigarette machine


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The cigarette machine, once a ubiquitous fixture in bars and restaurants, has all but vanished. But wait! What's this in the back of the Crazy Mocha in Bloomfield?

What used to be a cigarette machine has risen from the ashes. It is now Craft-O-Tron, a machine that dispenses $5 packs of whimsy. Sorry, no Lucky Strikes, but how about a Kreepy doll?

Craft-O-Tron is a project of Lynne Kropinak, a crafter who in 2010 took on the promotion of other locals who hand-make items. She bought a used cigarette machine on eBay for $100 and drove across the state to pick it up.

She held an online fundraiser to have it retooled to recognize $5 bills; the machine was retired long before cigarettes cost that much. Since then, she has taken it on tours lasting several months each to the East End Food Co-op, Whole Foods, the Mattress Factory, the Children's Museum, coffee shops such as Crazy Mocha and other area destinations. A second converted machine lives at the Wild Card gift shop in Lawrenceville.

Boxes the size of cigarette packs sit in the machines, stacked behind a facade that's decorated with decals, drawings, found objects and messages.

Each box contains the business card of the crafter and his or her creation -- objects like a crocheted pierogi, a silk-screened hanky with squirrel motifs, a bag of Pittsburgh-centric magnets, a cat-making kit, robot earrings. The items change like the menu of an inventive chef or, as Ms. Kropinak describes it, "like beers on tap."

She changes out and refills the 22 slots with 10 to 15 craft packs every four or five days.

Ms. Kropinak of Canonsburg describes the machine as "the metal ambassador of crafts. It's like a miniature craft show.

"I saw an article in a magazine about an Art-O-Mat that used a recycled cigarette machine" to sell small works of art, she said. "I thought a machine that's just for Pittsburgh would make ours special."

The Craft-O-Tron sign was made by paper-cutter Kathryn Carr. A box on top of the machine accepts the sturdy cardboard packs that the items come in so they can be reused.

Ms. Kropinak buys crafts up front and pays for the boxes. Outside each slot, she mounts an example of what you're buying. Each artist gets from $2 to $4 per item, depending on the crafter's assessment of his own cost.

"Sometimes the machine buys my lunch," Ms. Kropinak said, in explaining that she's hardly motivated by profit. "This is such a supportive community, it's just a lot of fun to do. My main goal is to keep a variety of items in the machine."

Crafters have a special relationship to each other. Many have a special relationship to stuff that most of us would never envision a second or third use for. An old bent fork becomes a piece of a wind chime. A wool felt flower pin came from the boiling of a beat-up, fraying sweater. Some crafters make their living selling wares. Craft-O-Tron's featured crafters include John the Craftist, the Kreepy Doll Factory, Everyday Balloons, Whimsical Wonders, Audra Azoury, the River Rats, Alicia Kachman and Mary Tremonte.

"When I first heard of the Craft-O-Tron, I could not envision a more fitting way to get eco-friendly, upcycled delights into the hands of people," said Patricia Noel, who works as Brown Bird Green String and remains impressed by Ms. Kropinak's vision. "I feel lucky to be a part of this and pinch myself every time I think, 'I make some things that are sold through a craft robot!' "

Ms. Kropinak also sells her work in the machine. She has been crafting for 30 years, starting as a doll maker, and is now making jewelry from old hardware. Like hundreds of people in her network, she makes the rounds of crafts shows.

"I think of the machine as a sampler of what people are making in Pittsburgh," she said. "It's an introduction" to the bigger scene, which brings out hundreds of crafters and thousands of shoppers to fairs such as the I Made It Market and Handmade Arcade. The settings for these events have grown from the likes of a former church in Braddock to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

Craft-O-Tron will live at the Bloomfield Crazy Mocha, 4525 Liberty Ave., into the spring before moving to its next stop at the Crazy Mocha in Downtown's Cultural District. Craft-O-Tron is on Facebook and Twitter and can be emailed at pghcraftmachine@gmail.com.


Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

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