Richmond’s ‘Pin Pals’

A local high school teacher has created a world-wide button exchange. On why this effort accommodates all artistic skill levels, and how it helps a local organization promote art in under-served communities.

Its genius derives from its simplicity, actually. Brainstorm and create five button designs, send them in the mail or via email, and then wait for buttons sent by strangers from across the country (and even the world) to arrive at your door several weeks later. It’s a “worldwide button exchange,” says Deanna Miller, founder and principal executor of Pin Pals, a global craft project based in Richmond that is in the midst of committing to its inaugural artistic exchange project.

She first conjured the idea shortly after participating in the 2010 Sketchbook Project. Those participants committed to filling a sketchbook with their art. Sketchbooks were then culled into a touring art show, along with a digital collection accessible to the public. Although a lovely idea that could only happen in our digital and socially-connected age, spending hours creating a sketchbook to only part with it unnerved Deanna. “Should I send this out?” she asked herself, feeling hesitant. She was quite taken with the concept of the Sketchbook Project, but felt that creating an entire sketchbook was a laborious, time-consuming activity, and ultimately left the artist with nothing to take away from it once it was sent away. It would be more fun if it “was something not so time-consuming,” thought Deanna.

As it so happened, buttons popped into her imagination this past January. After all, they could be easily designed and submitted, much quicker than an entire sketchbook. Their size also made it more easy to integrate an exchange component, whereby all participating button designers would receive unique, one-of-a-kind buttons from strangers in return. She is also digitally tagging each button, so that should someone in, say, Georgia, want to know who made a specific button that they received, they can access the Pin Pals Flickr page, enter keyword tags related to that specific button, and find the designer. She has received roughly 50 registration requests from countries as far away as Taiwan, Canada, the UK, and Japan. To help handle the workload, her friend, Jason Mazzola, assists her with the project.

After signing up, Pin Pals emails a design template to participants, who only have to design their buttons (Pin Pals “crunches” the buttons all themselves) and send materials through either email or the Postal Service. “It can easily be done in a day, or an afternoon even,” says Deanna.

Additionally, one of the five button designs that participants submit will be used in a Gallery5 art sale during the September First Friday Art Walk, with proceeds going to benefit Art 180, a local organization with the goal of providing “art-related programs for young people living in challenging circumstances, encouraging personal and community change through self-expression.”

Deanna, a high school teacher who will begin her fourth year of teaching at The Academy at Virginia Randolph in Glen Allen, knows full well that benefit of Art 180. She has had students remember, and think fondly of, how the organization furnished them with art-related supplies and opportunities when they were younger.

In addition to the Pin Pals project, Deanna has also co-started LOL Richmond, a business wherein a live photographer takes pictures à la photo booth snapshots. In just one month, LOL Richmond is already being specifically requested for events. When asked about the busy schedule that she’s undertaken during the summer, when most teachers prefer to surround themselves in serenity and the absence of people, Deanna cracks a smile.

“I’m the opposite of a procrastinator.”

Note: Participants have until August 10 to submit their Pin Pals designs.

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