From scraps to sculptures: Kruk’s wearable art

Kruk+models+her+wearable+art+sculptures%3A+%E2%80%9CFly+for+Peanuts%2C%E2%80%9C+a+flight+attendant+uniform+made+of+peanut+packages%2C+%E2%80%9CTraje+de+Luces%2C%E2%80%9D+a+costume+made+of+M%26M+wrappers+and+%E2%80%9CLady+Lifesaver%3A+Race+for+the+Covid+cure%2C%E2%80%9D+a+nurse+outfit+made+of+Lifesavers+candy+wrappers.

Graphic illustration by Christy Yu

Kruk models her wearable art sculptures: “Fly for Peanuts,“ a flight attendant uniform made of peanut packages, “Traje de Luces,” a costume made of M&M wrappers and “Lady Lifesaver: Race for the Covid cure,” a nurse outfit made of Lifesavers candy wrappers.

Christy Yu

With her creative dresses made of wrappers, parts from trophies and packaging paper from airplane snacks, art teacher Charlotte Kruk uses artistic skill and imagination to turn what others see as garbage into wearable pieces of art, which she calls sculptures.

Kruk came from a family of seamstresses, but initially, she was not interested in fashion or sewing. She at first pursued an art degree at UC Santa Cruz, but quickly transferred to San Jose State where she started taking several classes in business, physical education, nutrition and communications before she finally settled on majoring in art again. Having previous experience in several arts such as needlepoint, clay and other crafts, Kruk was comfortable in her art classes but really found purpose in a ceramics class.  

“I was like ‘This is where I belong!’” Kruk said. “I would stay in the lab until one or two in the morning. They had to kick me out. It was a telltale sign that maybe I was a creator, and not really a business major.”

Raised by women who were traditionally feminine, Kruk opposed those ideals. As she took more classes, she took interest in metalsmithing and found guidance under her professor who taught her more traditionally masculine skills that she longed to learn. 

Metalsmithing paved the way for Kruk’s endeavors in unconventional, wearable art. On a camping trip with her family, Kruk brought one of her metalsmithing projects with her. It was a dress that had plastic “cabochon” crystal stones soldered on. She thought the project would fail because of the weight of the cabochons, but when she tried to put it on, a new idea for her artwork sparked.

“At that moment, when I draped it over my head, my family said ‘It’s a headdress!’ although it was supposed to be a dress.” Kruk said. “As I sat there, eating Now and Later [candies], I saw that there were no garbage cans anywhere. It was in that moment when I realized I could sew these [wrappers] together and make back the original textiles.”

After this epiphany, Kruk learned how to sew and practiced under her mother’s guidance. She challenged herself to master the skill before using it in her projects.

Kruk’s latest piece “Fly for Peanuts” is displayed in the art exhibition “Curated by the Sea”, a gallery in Santa Cruz. She was personally invited by the gallery to display her piece, which is made entirely of peanut sacks from the Southwest airline she rode on a trip. It used to be a norm on airlines to hand out soda and a bag of peanuts, but after a spike in peanut allergies in the late 80s, almost all airlines had stopped doing so. Southwest Airlines was one of the last airlines Kruk knew of to still hand out peanuts.

“For me, it was a kind of nostalgia from my youth,” Kruk said. “I loved peanuts, and so I tried to get as many of the peanuts [packets] as possible.”

She asked many people to help her obtain the peanut wrappers, which she used to create a flight attendant uniform. Kruk designed the entire outfit such that the colors from the packaging would come out intrinsically.

The outfit also consists of a purse made from a globe she cut in half, drilled holes in to build a handle with and stitched a zipper on. She used the peanut wrappers in the details of the accessories such as the shoes, specifically the steel toe of the boot. Additionally, she hand-stitched several little bird wings made from old trophy parts onto her shoulders, wrists and shoes. She used gold leaves to give the wings a gold finish and stitched a husk made from peanuts and wood filler for the back of the shoe. She also used peanuts and trophy parts to make an epaulet, gloves and hat to complete the look.

“I’m a repurposer, an upcycler, and my mission in life is to get people to see the mass consumption and waste people produce on the planet,” Kruk said.

As a collector, Kruk repurposes waste materials into her own artwork. Oftentimes, she will have the collection of materials before she gets an idea of her next piece. Collecting is intriguing and allows Kruk to think about all of the possibilities. 

“It took me a long time to get the peanuts,” Kruk said. “I used every single last one. I usually create one sculpture a year, and sometimes two if I work slavishly over the weekends.”

Kruk’s sculpture, placed in the middle of the gallery,  is one of the first pieces you can see when you enter. When Kruk visited the gallery to see her artwork, she was honored to be able to see it with her family. The debut video of her sculpture drive-in was released on Nov. 7 and 8, and she went to an opening on Friday night with her family. 

“My parents are so cute, they got a hotel room in Santa Cruz and brought my sister who is my heart,” Kruk said. “I got to be with my family, and for me, they’re my number one fans so it’s very nice to have them around.”

Kruk’s favorite part of the community are the multi talented students, and she enjoys their willingness to learn and to be guided. She is proud of her students who now make incredible artwork themselves. One alumnus is a toymaker now, and another is doing upholstery work and furniture design.

Inspired by other instructors she once had, Kruk strives to create meaningful connections with her students to support them. Some of her alumni still connect with her on dinner dates and invite her to weddings and other family events. Additionally, she has hired many alumni to model her artwork on the runway. 

“A couple of them performed really incredible dancing with my sculptures,” Kruk said. “That makes me really happy to have connections to students and really give them opportunity too. Some of them have really made a lifestyle out of that.”

One alumna who still reaches out to Kruk has formed a close bond with her.

“There was one student who always comes back and shows me creative things even though she hasn’t plugged herself in[to an art career] yet,” said Kruk. “She was someone who needed the strength of my personality, and she was someone I just loved connecting with. She has a very tender heart, but struggled through highschool. I am still glad to be a friend of hers, and still have her to have dinner with.”

Kruk is in the process of making a new piece that she plans on completing next year. Made of coffee packets that she collects every morning, the dress is modelled after a famous dress in “Gone With The Wind,” a movie that takes place in the south during the Civil War. Kruk was inspired by the idea of having conversations over comforting, familiar beverages—such as a cup of coffee—and associating it with difficult topics about racism. She wants to emphasize the importance of discussing and normalizing these topics, especially in light of the recent injustices from this year.

Kruk strives to make her work conversational, evoking emotion and discussions over important topics through bold, unconventional and original designs.  Furthermore, Kruk hopes that from her class, students will take away the courage to be original and acceptance of making mistakes as a part of the creative process.

“Don’t throw away the evidence of your past,” Kruk said. “Honor that you will improve as you passionately assert yourself to your goals. Stay true to your path, be an originator. Don’t be afraid of the mocking voices—allow that to fuel you to find yourself.”