Crystal Popko, ’00 Sculpture

It’s such a personal way to live – creating with my own two hands and then sharing what I made.

by Bob McCarthy

Go For It

“I love what I do!” says 2000 CVPA graduate Crystal Popko, who makes her own line of jewelry under the name Popko Shop. “I’m the hands and the heart of the business; I am the photographer, shipping department, customer service, graphic designer, social media and craft show coordinator. I design and create everything.”

Looking back, it seems inevitable that Crystal would build a business around her inspired natural art. Creativity and entrepreneurial spirit are traits Crystal inherited from her parents and shares with her four sisters. Encouraged by their parents, at an early age the Popko girls began creating pieces to sell during their summer stays on Cape Cod. The tourist season providing a steady stream of potential customers, each week the cars lining route 6 delivered new vacationers to the sisters’ collection of painted shells and plastic beaded earrings.

For Crystal, the youngest of the girls, those early creative endeavors were essential to building her dream. If not for the support of her family, Popko Shop might not have progressed beyond wishful thinking. “I would have never started this or taken the chances to get here if I hadn’t grown up with my family always encouraging me to have a beach sale or put myself out there. When you hear ‘Try it!’ ‘Go for it!’ and ‘Yes!’ your whole life, it makes taking chances really easy.”

A Variety Of People

The can-do, try-anything spirit fostered by her family was reinforced when Crystal enrolled at UMass Dartmouth. It was on the advice of a high school art teacher that Crystal applied to UMass Dartmouth, hopeful of attending a college where she could study art while being exposed to a variety of people in many different disciplines. “I wanted a school that didn’t only specialize in art and design. I wanted to have the opportunity to be influenced by all kinds of people, not just like-minded people.”

Accepted into into the College of Visual and Performing Arts, but uncertain which medium best suited her, Crystal enrolled in general arts studies. “I didn’t have a real plan of what to study or how you could be an artist and make a living, which was my end goal.” Drawn to designing physical pieces that she could build with her hands, Crystal was excited to learn that not only could she major in Sculpture, but that it was a field in which she could pursue a career. “During freshman year I discovered that Sculpture was an actual area of study with an actual degree, that people did that for their life’s work; I could get a degree in something I liked all along but had no title to describe it.”

Working side-by-side with other artists, Crystal enjoyed the creative and collaborative atmosphere of the CVPA. “There would be several of us working at all hours of the night in the sculpture shop, recreating scenes from Flashdance with our power grinders and just hashing out ideas and making all kinds of things.” In the work of other students Crystal found ways to improve her own creations. During studio work and peer critiques, she refined her skills by questioning fellow artists about their processes and techniques. “I loved doing critiques, where we could just stand around for hours and ask questions. I always had so many questions.”

An  important influence in her artistic development were UMass Dartmouth’s professors, whose teaching and advice still resonate with Crystal. “[They] treated us like adults and artists, even though we were just learning how to be both.” Practicing artists themselves, the CVPA faculty served as a necessary bridge to the creative life she desired. “They helped me see that you can be a working artist in a lot of different ways.”

Encouraged by Professor Stacy Latt-Savage to travel the world, after graduating in 2000 Crystal moved to Amsterdam and worked with a sculptor making oversized puppets for a theater. Upon returning stateside, she then apprenticed for accomplished sculptor Jack Kearney in Provincetown before moving to Providence, where she stenciled lampshades and glazed ceramics at Altamira Lighting. “They were two artists who had their own full-time business making something by hand and selling it. It was what I wanted to do, and they taught me how it can all happen.”

Creating A Dream

After Providence, Crystal drove west, living briefly in California. In need of an income, she began making mosaic framed mirrors to sell at craft shows. For her entire stay in California, she made a living selling her work. Those shows represented a return to her childhood and selling handmade pieces with her sisters; but they were also a glimpse into the future. Making and selling her own art, that was what she was meant to do. When she moved back East, Crystal was intent on turning her talent into a career.

For the next eleven years, Crystal waitressed in Provincetown during the summer then committed herself to art over the winter, working towards “the big idea.” Though she still had a passion for sculpture, welding steel and pouring concrete were not activities suited to her limited work space. Also impractical were the heavy mosaic mirrors she had sold in California. Crystal’s solution was to adjust the scale of her pieces. “I began to work smaller and smaller, until I came upon jewelry.”

It was by chance that Crystal first used a butterfly wing. “Someone had given me a wing that they found on the beach and I kept it in my studio for inspiration. One day I chose to incorporate it into one of my castings.” That decision altered her life, transforming her struggling part-time business into a full-time career. The butterfly wing pieces were met with immediate enthusiasm, the brilliant colors and intricate patterns making for eye-catching jewelry. “The butterfly wing is a beautiful and unusual thing to see up close. The wings can have natural iridescent colors or translucent patterns…to wear one as an adornment piques a lot of interest.”

It took nearly five years to refine the process of putting the delicate wings under glass and into a setting, but Crystal created a striking line of natural jewelry that includes pendants, rings, earrings and accessories. Though she also uses feathers, birch bark, and leaves, and still casts and fuses glass, the butterfly wing pieces are the most popular.

Popko Butterfly and Peacock Feather Jewelry 2 - 2048x1536In the past year, Popko Shop has flourished in ways Crystal never expected. In addition to a thriving online storefront, she sells at the region’s top shows, as well as at a number of boutiques and shops. After years of working alone in a cramped room in her house, she moved into studio space in the Indian Orchard Artist Mills and hired a production assistant. With growing success has come recognition. In March, the Boston Herald featured Crystal in a piece on wearable memories. And in May her jewelry graced the cover of Where magazine’s Boston edition. Though her brushes with celebrity include Taylor Swift’s stylist ordering a piece for a photo shoot, and a member of the Black Eyed Peas purchasing a necklace, Crystal’s greatest satisfaction comes from running her own business. “I am proud that I made this from my own imagination, and my business keeps growing because of the time and effort I’ve put into it. It’s such a personal way to live–creating with my own two hands and then sharing what I made.”

Time and again, Crystal has received the same worthy advice: Go for it. It’s an ethic that was instilled in her at an early age, and one that accompanied her to UMass Dartmouth. “[When I enrolled] I didn’t have a real plan of what to study or how you could be an artist and make a living, which was my end goal. It was sort of a gamble, but I knew that I could make anything happen.” Having the courage and confidence to take a chance on herself allowed Crystal to turn her passion for creating art into a career. “You can accomplish amazing things if you just go for it.”

Crystal Popko lives in Ludlow, MA with her husband John. Visit Popko Shop to see more of her amazing work!

© University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and UMass Dartmouth Stories, 2011-2014.
TERMS OF USE: Unauthorized duplication of this material is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links to this article may be republished provided credit is given to the AUTHOR and UMASS DARTMOUTH STORIES. Redistribution of significant portions of this article requires written permission from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

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