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Wearable ArtWearable ArtSome businesses come from detailed business plans.  Others evolve, and that's how Robin Schuttenberg's Wearable Art came to be.  She started painting dinosaurs onto T-shirts for her two sons 20 years ago, and then for their friends.  Soon she was selling her shirts at craft and juried shows.  Three years ago she began to draw large, detailed pen and ink images. "I started drawing dragons and the dinosaurs and all other sorts of creatures," she says.  "A friend of mine looked at them and said, 'Boy, you should send these out for tattoos or for museums to put on T-shirts.'  And so I did."

Today her designs are for sale in museum shops including the local Museum of the Earth and New York City's Museum of Natural History.  She starts with a pen and ink drawing about 20" x 14".  The designs are intricately fine lined, but must be distinct enough to be reduced to about 12" x 11" to be printed on T-shirts. Her shirts have a smaller second design on the back.  "On the dragons right now I'm in an eye mode, so different kinds of dragons' eyes on the back of the shirts," she says.  "Sometimes it extends more and you get more of the brow, and some of the nose, and sometimes it's just the eye, and sometimes it's in a box and sometimes it isn't."

Schuttenberg began drawing as a child, and helped put herself through college by selling art etched in tree fungus, then painted.  The sculpture/paintings sold briskly in tourist shops in the Adirondacks.  Though she loves art she studied science and communications and never had formal art training.  "I like the things I use every day to be functional but beautiful," she says.  "And so I'm looking at clothes and I want the clothes to be functional.  I wanted something my kids could wear but there was absolutely no reason why they couldn't be fun at the same time.  So that's kind of the slant that my art has."

Her biggest client so far is the Museum of Natural History.  "I got a really pretty box and I put some of my best designs in it and shirts and mailed them off to the Museum of Natural History with a note that said, "Gee, this is what I'm doing.  Would you be interested?" and they were.   After a year had passed I got a phone call.  They said, 'Wow those dinosaurs you sent to me were really great, but what we want is your dragon shirts.'  I said, 'Great!' because I loved doing the dragons but I hadn't actually sent them any dragons."

Robin Schuttenberg wearing her design for the Museum
of Natural History's Mythic Creatures exhibition

It was her company logo, a drawing of a fierce looking dragon, that snagged them.  They wanted the shirt for their 'Mythic Creatures, Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids" exhibit, which runs at the museum until January 6, 2008 before going on tour.  Schuttenberg shipped her first order of 500 shirts on the first day of March to prepare for the Memorial Day opening.  The day after the opening the museum called her to reorder, and right after receiving it called again for a third batch.  The shirts are sold at the museum, on their Web store, and locally at Cat's Pajamas in Ithaca.

In the meantime she began work on other designs, printing small batches on different colored shirts and a selection of inks to see how they looked best.  She is working on an otter series that she hopes will interest another museum of natural history, as well as a phoenix series.  But Schuttenberg says her favorite thing to draw is dragons.  "They are so elegant and you can have them on land, you can have them flying in the air, she says.  "I do this kind of crossover dragon that's kind of mix between the Asian dragon and the Western dragon with a little Aboriginal art influence in there.  They are just so much fun because you can basically draw these incredibly twisted squiggly lines and give them wings and form and you got a dragon."

A dragon's eye adorns the back of the shirt

The original art is drawn on paper, though recently she has been experimenting with a digital drawing tablet attached to her computer.  But she says she thinks she will always work with pen and ink on paper, the medium she has become comfortable with.

Schuttenberg works closely with a local shirt printing company to make sure her designs show up the way she envisions them.  The company scans or photographs the original art.  "We stretch a T-shirt out on the table and I say I want it placed right here," she explains.  "I tend not to want my designs to go in a straight line on the T-shirt which drives the printers absolutely nuts because I want them at a certain angle, and never want them where they would traditionally want them placed.  We're always going in and doing lots of measuring from different seams and (making sure) the placement is just right.  Then they actually scan it into their computer system and their screens are cut by a computer."

Schuttenberg sells her test shirts at various shows and festivals during the year.  "They are high quality cotton shirts and it's just that I'm experimenting," she says.  "I print only a few in each size and color and ink and design.  So what you're getting is a one of kind pretty much limited edition shirt and you're getting it cheap.  So what it does is pays for my experimentation by being able to turn it over and sell it."

While her shirts were originally intended for kids, she is finding that adults love them, too.  "Over the years what was interesting is I'd say over the last five years, my sales gradually tipped," she says.  "I just never ever make an adult shirt, and now over the last five years it's gradually changed and changed, and now most of my sales are adult.  So I don't know if my audience grew up or people are just getting more relaxed and willing to have fun with what they are wearing."

She is kept busy with new designs as well as keeping her current customers stocked, but she is also looking forward to Lansing Harbor Festival this August 25th, where she plans a special sale.  "It should be fun because I've decided that that's going to be my big sale day," she says.  "I will have a lot of stock left over from the last two years and it's all going to be $5 a shirt, which is basically my cost.  So there will be dinosaurs and a few dragons -- there are not too many of those left -- and maybe a few Phoenixes.  And I'm hoping it will be brilliantly sunny, happy weather."


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