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Chester County Press

Little pieces of joy: Local artisan regains her love for color during pandemic

12/16/2020 10:52AM ● By Richard Gaw

By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

The business social media page of Catherine “Cat” Stenta serves as more than an online picture book of her handcrafted jewelry, which she has been officially creating under the name EcoCat since 2017.

It is a sketchpad of shared emotions – a running journal that invites the visitor to rummage around in the head of the artist, witnessing the two steps forward-two steps back journey that is common to everyone blessed with the ability to create something from nothing.

The words she writes are the open door accompaniment to the vibrant kaleidoscope of colors that her become her trademark – turquoise and ruby reds and fiery orange and burnished brown that find their way to the curve of a woman’s wrist or accessorize a woman’s dress.

The names of each piece leap from the screen: Autumn whisper, Shim Shimmer, American Robin and Sixth Sense, as do the adjectives used to describe them. In the past three years, EcoCat has quietly created an online presence for the woman who wishes to add a zing of bohemia to their style or add a pop of color to a formal dress.

Heading into 2020, Stenta, the married mother of two boys, was juggling the increased demand for her beaded products at her Kennett Square home.

Then in March, COVID-19 arrived, and this past spring, Stenta posted the following on her businesses’ social media page:

“Here’s some Zen headed out the door...Through the ups and downs of emotions in COVID-19, I’ve been working on embracing and accepting change. I finally get comfy with one state of being then things get whirled around and I have to accept another way. There seems to be so much whirling, that I had imagined my brain literally being a scribbled mess. So, in my last meditation, I breathed a cleansing, calming, untangling breath into my brain and imagined all the mess washing away. It felt powerful and necessary.”

‘I tried to push through my emotions’

“I had a mental shut down, a roadblock of feeling very scared in general,” Stenta said. “I had a hard time sitting myself down at my table with a positive attitude. I didn’t want to sit and have negative emotions while beading, and as I tried to push through my emotions, I began to think that I was doing a disservice to the eventual wearer.

“I wanted beading to be positive, and I needed to get myself back in the right place. The colors…I couldn’t pull the colors out of me.”

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Like every artist, Stenta’s creative journey has been defined by its absorption of influences that have stacked themselves along for the ride, and everywhere, there have been colors. As a child growing up in Winchester, Mass. she made scrunchies and Christmas ornaments, and by the time she reached college, she was making her own Christmas cards with different textures and colors of paper.

As a college graduation gift to herself, she took a month-long Outward Bound trip to Utah and Colorado, and saw a thousand variations of reds and browns in the canyons and terrain.

By the time she began EcoCat three years ago, the colors of Stenta’s life had already emerged from every known crevice of her imagination, representing more than just a patina of difference but a signature of originality and attitude.

To Stenta, no one served as a living personification of that belief than her grandmother “Kitty,” a vibrant fashionista with a penchant for leopard print designs, and whose choice of eyewear – over-sized circular frames – become one of her trademarks.

“She had a style about her that when she entered a room, everyone wanted to see what she was wearing,” Stenta said. “She had her own style that wasn’t intrusive and not trying to gain attention. She just had this energy about her that seemed like she wasn’t even trying.

“She was kind, but she never cared what others felt about her. She empowered me to say that I will not live my life having people tell me what I should be or what I should do.” 

Her son and the backyard birds

During the pandemic, Stenta collaborated with Shannon Blake of Penny Lane Emporium in Kennett Square on a “small business to small business” project. She continued to shop local, and as she has done since she began EcoCat, Stenta purchased her materials at Blue Santa Beads, an independent store in Media.

And yet, as COVID-19 forced the world to turn within itself, Stenta did the same. She took a six-week hiatus from her work. She stopped posting on her social media page. She shared her emotions with her artistic colleagues, who told her they were all feeling the same way. The normal influences of colors and ideas that had flowed so easily just a few months before had vanished somewhere in the swirling tornado of current events.

Stenta sought out inspiration from any avenue that would have her. She began to visit the websites of museums and embark on virtual tours of new exhibits and permanent collections. She flipped through the hundreds of photographs on her phone that have given her inspiration to create her earrings: clothing styles and their color combinations.

She took long walks in nature with her closest friends, where they shared their frustrations of living through the pandemic, as well as the wildness of their creativity.   

What Stenta did not know at the time was that the influence most responsible for lifting her out of her creative hibernation slept just down the hall from her.

“A major exodus out of my funk happened when my youngest son Jackson got into birding in the spring,” Stenta said. “He began to read National Geographic books on birds from cover to cover. His love of the natural world is astounding, and his knowledge of birds is intense.

“A year ago, I would look at the birds in our backyard and not be able to tell the difference between them, but he began to point out the birds in our backyard to me. It was his childlike enthusiasm and joy for nature and discovery that truly got me out of this period I had been in.”

Together, they explored birds on nature walks at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum in Philadelphia. They hiked through the ChesLen Preserve and stopped to admire the birds along the trails and ponds that surround their Kennett Square neighborhood. The feathers, wings and breasts flew over her head and stopped on a branch to reveal their plumage. Soon after, Stenta got herself back to her work, and in November, she wrote the following on her EcoCat social media page:

“Feeling Zen in a time of chaos and uncertainty is key. My new COVID strategies to keep Zen are simple: Do ONE thing every day that makes ME proud. That feeling of pride becomes contagious (yep). SO many feelings have the ability to transfer from not just human to human, but can also slowly transform ourselves and how we see the world. WHEN you do something good and kind for yourself, smile in those moments...that happiness always wins.

“Gratitude is EVERYTHING this year. Sometimes I go numb and want to shut down, turn off, burrow. Often, this year, actually. But then I get an order. And another order. Or a compliment on my work. So YOU have managed to help lift me up and give me a sense of purpose when I felt like the world was crumbling around me. There’s so much hope now for a better future.”

“I have come to understand how much my jewelry has become the equivalent of little pieces of joy, especially now,” Stenta said. “They are something to get excited about when you’re a woman wearing sweatpants at a Zoom meeting, and then you put on my earrings and suddenly, you feel a new vibe of renewed energy.

“It all flows. It’s the same energy that comes from my renewed faith in the power of colors. The energy I put into my work is the same energy that is felt by the woman who wears my earrings at that Zoom meeting.

“I think we all wish to live our lives that way, in totality.”

To learn more about Stenta and EcoCat, visit her on Instagram, Etsy Pattern, on Facebook, or by email at [email protected]. Locally, EcoCat jewelry is available at Trail Creek Outfitters, 120 West State Street in Kennett Square. 

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].