When it comes to reusing items, Jen Lopez, the co-founder of Clever Octopus, has been doing it all her life. Her father grew up in Cuba in the 1960s, during communist times when it was necessary to save items and reuse them later on. Lopez can recall multiple instances as a child when they would see something shiny in the road and her father would stop to grab it.
“It would always be something really cool and useful,” she says. “One time, he found a wrench. Another time, there was a dresser on the curb in our neighborhood, and he said, ‘We’re gonna go get that.’ He fixed it up, and it wound up being my mom’s sewing cabinet for years.”
Lopez’s mother was also no stranger to reusing items. She grew up on a farm in east Texas and would save all kinds of pieces and parts like baling wire.
“During the summer, my brother and I would make our own rope swings out of baling wire, twine, and whatever boards we could find lying around,” Lopez recalls. “It kept us entertained. Growing up, I never realized that other people didn’t necessarily save pieces and parts and make other items out of them. For us, it was just normal.”
A New Life for Old Materials
After moving to Utah in 2006, Lopez noticed the lack of art supply stores.
“We didn’t really have much in the way of places to get odds and ends. We had regular thrift stores, but we didn’t have places to get weird stuff that you might use for making things,” Lopez recalls. “I thought, ‘Well, I could really use a place to get these things.’”
Inspired by a store she frequented while at school in North Carolina called Scrap Exchange, Lopez set out to create her own version, and that’s how Clever Octopus was born.
Clever Octopus Is Born
Clever Octopus, a nonprofit organization located in Salt Lake City, Utah, is a creative reuse center. They collect donated materials from individuals and businesses throughout the community and turn them into art supplies.
“Maybe you tried oil painting and you realized that that is totally not your bag, but you want to try water color instead. Those are the kinds of materials that we get in from various places,” Lopez explains. “And our industrial partnerships are really cool. We get some unusual materials that can be repurposed in really cool ways.”
Recently, they received a bunch of foam and padding from a mattress company, which Lopez plans to transform into dog beds.
Clever Octopus also has a market within its store that sells handmade items by local artists. For example, Lopez has been taking part in creating ottomans that are for sale in the shop.
“They’re made out of upholstery items that we got into the shop. I sew them into a cube and then stuff them full of about 40 pounds of miscellaneous fabric that would otherwise go to the landfill,” she says.
Aside from the market and items for art supplies, Lopez and her staff also offer community programs such as sewing classes that teach how to reuse textiles and other items that people may not normally think of.
Along with the programs, co founder Sheri Gibb came up with the idea of the Octopod Mobile, which allows them to provide a variety of classes on the go.
“Typically with brick and mortar stores, you’re limited with transportation,” she says. “My goal with the Octopod was to be able to take art into a community that couldn’t come to us.”
Giving Back to the Community
Lopez and Gibb are also Clever Octopus board members and try to give back to the community whenever possible.
“Our whole intent is to make a difference with the product or the service that we’re providing. We want to create passion within the community,” Gibb says.
At the beginning of the year, Clever Octopus launched a nonprofit reward program that works with eight other nonprofits.
“We have a giant octopus on the wall, and each of the arms has a can. When people come in and shop with us, they get a token, and they can use those tokens to vote for their favorite organization,” Lopez explains. “That organization then gets money toward their projects and programs. They also get store credit to shop for materials.”
Lopez, Gibb and the rest of the Clever Octopus team are dedicated to the organization and hopes that it will continue to grow.
“Our goals are much bigger than where we are now,” says Lopez. “We want to be able to have a livable wage for all of our staff, but we aren’t there yet. Once we do that, we’re going to work on expanding.”
The team have high hopes to put Clever Octopus in other areas throughout Utah such as Ogden, southern Utah, and Logan.
To learn more, visit cleveroctopus.org.
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