Kirsten Lowe-Rebel gets the studio she deserves.
By: John Dubosky
If you follow Steel This Magazine, you’re aware of our fondness for local artist Kirsten Lowe-Rebel. Her work has graced the cover many times, including this issue, and our staff has enjoyed her sketches of town so much that our brand has become synonymous with her cityscapes (the Steel This Magazine website banner is one of her sketches of downtown that adorned our first issue). An article catching up with Lowe-Rebel is long overdue, so here I am, officially introducing you.
I caught up with Lowe-Rebel at her new workshop on the second floor of the Ice House Studios in Central Lawrenceville. Navigating my way through the back alleys of the one hundred blocks near the 40th St. Bridge, I sauntered in five minutes late to our meeting. This was my first time seeing her studio space, and she was excited to show off the new digs. When I walked in, the room looked like she had been there for months. Prints and sketches adorned the southern wall, lit by waist-high windows that envelop the eastern and northern sides. A coffee maker, Lacroix cans, and wine bottles topped with Lowe-Rebel’s signature stoppers gave the warm, welcoming feeling that Lowe-Rebel is known for, her voice rising a few notes with excitement at passing colleagues and acquaintances who pop their heads in her door to say, ‘hi.’ The new space was necessary for her to crack out of her chrysalis, and stretch her wings in a larger ecosystem than her Lawrenceville home and her grandmother’s garage couldn’t provide.
“I was moving into my grandparents’ garage and just taking up more space, more houses. I thought, ‘how could I pass this up with Lawrenceville, the way things are going and being in the heart of it and being close to my home; it’s the perfect space.’ It happened at the right time, maybe three years too late,” Lowe-Rebel said as she lead me on a short tour around the room.
Raised by her grandparents, Richard and Rebecca Lowe, Lowe-Rebel has been a maker since a young age, crafting gifts in her grandmother’s Shaler home. “We always worked on things. Something I look back on now that was important was all the Christmas gifts. Every year we made the Christmas gifts for the family, up until I was probably way too old to be giving out handmade Christmas gifts, but it seemed like everybody loved it. And now I get to do that for the whole city. So, I love thinking about that. People are excited to get gifts of my drawings that I’m making. I think it’s so much fun. I love that connection,” said Lowe-Rebel.
The influence her grandparents had on her life and work can’t be understated. She and her grandfather began working to complete new jobs as Kirsten’s art worked its way off the canvas and onto bracelets, earrings, throw pillows, and many other decorative media. He was particularly helpful with metal work. It was a segue into a world she hadn’t entered before. They worked closely together until his death last summer. “It’s been a tough year,” said Lowe-Rebel.
Her grandfather was an engineer with a surgically clean workshop in his garage. That’s where he’d take on projects after retiring in 2011 from owning his own business, the Fuel Equipment Co., which he ran for 34 years. Until later in life when her work collided with his craftsmanship, she had yet to be invited into that world. Her artwork became a catalyst for a budding friendship between the two. “Our relationship really grew. I think we became buddies. His space was always the garage, and then I was welcomed into it. It was a sacred space. He definitely would, unlike me, clean up after every project. You know, ‘let’s take a minute to vacuum the sawdust,’ where I’m, ‘this order needs done, and we have to move and go as it comes.’ I am doing things faster now because of that; I hope he thinks I’m doing a good job. Our relationship changed quite a bit because growing up he was so reserved and had this meticulous engineer mind, but as I grew and wanted to leave day jobs—I always worked like 16 jobs at a time—and I just really wanted to spend that time with the people who raised me, and just missing that generation you know? I was bartending but then I wanted to try these bracelets and I didn’t want to buy them for however much they were pre-made. So, said, ‘Grandpa, you’ve worked with local metal companies while running your business, do you know those water jet cutters from the 60’s?’ He helped me in all start up capacities, passing on tips from his years of entrepreneurship; he was definitely old school. He wouldn’t even buy a drill press. My grandma said, ‘this is a great gift. We can get you a drill press,’ because I needed it for my wood stops, and instead he built the saw to turn it around so it was radial, and built a contraption so it would hold down the cork. It was so unnecessary because a drill press costs something like $20 or $60, but he spent a week designing it so his 1960’s Craftsman radial saw could meet all my needs as they came. He loved the challenges. He made these tools to make life easier. He was amazing; he had great wisdom,” Lowe-Rebel said.
Now she’s taking what she honed in her grandparents’ house and using it to push forward her expansion into her new studio. To that end, along with the move to the new space, came her first assistant, Caitlin O’Connor.
“It’s been a nice balance of finding where we both have our strengths and where we both need help. And I think that we’re lucky because we’re really complimentary on those aspects, you know? I have a little bit more of organizational focus,” said O’Connor.
“Yeah, I think it’s about finding the right person with a similar mind with creative ideas. I’m glad that she has some managerial-type tendencies because I’m ready to let it go. All of these pieces are one of a kind; we’re not pumping them out. The cuffs take 17 steps each, and I still sand and touch everything, but I want to let that go a little bit so I can focus on the drawings, which is what this is supposed to be about. I can draw Pittsburgh churches bridges for a lifetime,” said Lowe-Rebel.