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Rhode Island artist fuses design and accessory to create art you can carry


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: One artist has taken ever-popular designer handbags to a whole new level, transforming artwork into accessory.

As Pamela Watts of Rhode Island PBS Weekly reports, instead of his creations hanging on the wall, he decided to put them right in your hand.

The story is part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Kent Stetson, Artist: Twenty-two years ago, if someone had told me I would be making purses from my artwork, I don't know if I would have been happy hearing that. Now I'm living the dream.

Pamela Watts: The dream for Rhode Island artist Kent Stetson is being a designer of handbags, whimsical, colorful, topical. They are all made by hand in his mill workshop and sold in hundreds of boutiques worldwide.

The purses are clutched by celebrities such as Martha Stewart, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Megan Thee Stallion. Not only do his bags star on the red carpet; they fly down the runway. These are not your mother's pocketbooks. They are a fusion of art and accessory.

Kent Stetson: I think, in terms of art, it's interactive, it's modular. I think it speaks in kind of an interesting way.

Pamela Watts: And an interesting twist carried Stetson into the world of high-fashion accessories.

Stetson grew up in this cabin on a working horse farm in New Hampshire. He studied studio art and philosophy at Brown University and started out creating these digital hybrid paintings.

Kent Stetson: So, computer-generated paintings at the time, we called it new media. Today, I think it's just called digital art. And so these were very colorful, abstract pieces.

Pamela Watts: But Stetson admits he was unsuccessful selling his modern art. So he pivoted. His plan B translated to in the bag.

Kent Stetson: I worked at a shoe store at the time, though, and I had a gift for convincing people to buy shoes and handbags that they didn't particularly need. And so I connected the dots.

Pamela Watts: How did you land on purses as the frame for your artwork, of all things you could have picked?

Kent Stetson: It was a way to package my art in a format that had some use. A handbag gave me much more license to be fun than I ever felt I had permission to do with a piece hanging on the wall.

And so, almost instantly, I made pieces that were a little bit of reverence and tongue in cheek and funny.

Pamela Watts: Funny, as in notoriously tasteful. Stetson's popular confections feature doughnuts, animal crackers, sushi and even Rhode Island's famous New York System Wieners.

Kent Stetson: Three all the way. New York System is an iconic Rhode Island comfort food. And so we had to translate it into a bag.

Pamela Watts: Stetson says, when you carry one of his designer handbags, it starts a conversation and might make a friend, whether it's one of his doggy bags or a selection from his bar cart of popular cocktails.

They're a statement piece.

Kent Stetson: It's an exclamation point on your outfit. I mean, it does not get the silent treatment. When you carry one of my pieces, it gets acknowledged.

Pamela Watts: Kent Stetson's signature handbags, which sell for between $150 and $300, support a number of charitable causes. One style references the lace collar of late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Kent Stetson: When she passed, Mariska Hargitay used this bag on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

Actress: Just got an alert. Irene is building.

Mariska Hargitay, Actress: OK, Kat, you and I will go up.

Kent Stetson: Sales for this piece sort of went haywire. And so we donate the proceeds to the ACLU.

Pamela Watts: Others may tote an alligator handbag supporting Everglades preservation.

Kent Stetson: Everything starts to finish is done right here.

Pamela Watts: Stetson says making each purse takes 50 steps and three days to complete. First, he creates an image, formats it on his computer, prints and laminates the canvas.

But while the process begins with high-tech innovation, the rest is old-world craftsmanship, hand tracing and hand sewing. In general, Stetson's signature bags are slim envelope styles.

A lot of people look at it and say, I can't get anything in this bag. What do you say?

Kent Stetson: It's a fun little going out bag. Listen, if I made a larger bag, I'd have to leave Rhode Island. We're the smallest state in the country. I got to be making small bags.

Pamela Watts: Describe what it is you want people to see in this form of art.

Kent Stetson: Well, I think I want people to know that I made this with love and a sense of Joy. And I know that it's going to make an outing just that much more fun.

It's come from my hands, my studio. I sign inside each piece as we sew them up. And so I want people to feel like they have a real connection to the creation of this piece, where it came from. And I think this is sort of like the farm-to-table version of personal accessories.

Pamela Watts: Accessories that will do all the talking.

Kent Stetson: People are going to say something, you're going to light up the room. So if you want to be left alone, if you want to chill, low-key evening, do not carry one of my pieces.


Pamela Watts: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Pamela Watts in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

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