Jennifer Strunge’s home is the only cobblestone house on the top of a semi-secluded hill over in West Baltimore. However, that is not the only unique thing about this house. As soon as visitors walk into her parlor they are greeted by a life-sized, squid-like … thing.
With green eyes bulging. yellow tentacles stretching and its shark-like teeth bared, it looks like a life-sized stuffed animal. But ask Strunge and she will tell you: it’s fiber art.
The thing, also known as Cotton Monster, evolved when Strunge was finishing up her senior year as a fiber major at the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2004. Traditionally, at the end of a college student’s senior year they are required to do a research project, but at MICA each student had to do a senior thesis. Strunge’s senior thesis required her to use big quilts that had “these eyeball things” coming out of them.
“My senior thesis ended up being something called ‘Under the Bed’ and there was a bed with the quilts on it and then I had all these giant creatures and tentacles coming out,” Strunge said.
Getting her artwork out there and having it be seen by many was a great accomplishment for Strunge. However, it was not too long after that someone was interested in purchasing one of Strunge’s Cotton Monsters. Once Strunge knew she could make money off of her Cotton Monster idea, she began to build her brand.
“Once that happened, I knew that I couldn’t sell giant ones to people because they took weeks to make,” Strunge said. “So I started half scaling down my designs to a prototype that was more feasible.”
Every Cotton Monster Strunge created is made from recycled cloth and linen. Just by looking at Strunge, a person would be able to tell that she is very thrifty. Her home is full of old-fashioned furniture and her style is vintage and frugal.
“I’m taking these old blankets that used to comfort people, that would be something that would put you to sleep,” Strunge said. “And im making it in something that could be scary for one person, but for whoever’s monster it was that would be their protector.”
Strunge does not limit her Cotton Monsters to bed sheets only. She uses different types of fabric from various articles of clothing.
“I like having the variety and just using recycled materials,” Strunge said. “It started out with stuff that I had, but now I go to thrift stores. I go through and I feel the colors. My favorite thrift stores are the ones that are rainbow colored.”
Each Cotton Monster differs from the other. They all may be based around the same idea, but no Cotton Monster is exactly the same as another. Although, Strunge’s work often favors sea creatures, they are never based around one type of sea creature. There are so many different kinds of Cotton Monsters: Jellies, Pentapods, Mini bottom feeders, Watchful Eyes and many more.
“A monster can kind of look like whatever you want it to look like.” Strunge said as she reached to grab one of the Cotton Monsters sitting on the table in her studio. “I mean this looks like an octopus, but it doesn’t really look like an octopus.”
Aside from her Cotton Monster brand, Strunge works at the Black Cherry Puppet Theatre, does some substitute teaching and teaches arts and crafts at an after school program. She also works at the Charles movie theatre on weekends, which serves as her necessary dose of adult conversation after a long week of working with children.
“I love to mix it up. I think that if I had to do the same thing every day, it would get boring,” Strunge said.
Strunge also participates in different art shows and events throughout the year. She used to be a member of the Charm City Craft Mafia, which is a small group of artists who promote handmade crafts in Baltimore. However, she vends at different events and participates in D.C.’s Crafty Bastards art show every year.
Strunge will also be working with artist Jonathan Latiano over the summer at School 33 Art Center in South Baltimore doing an on a site-specific sculptural installation .
She plans on expanding her Cotton Monster brand as time goes on and is working on a variety of wall and ceiling pieces to add to the Cotton Monster collection. All of her pieces can be found on Etsy.com and her website cottonmonster.com. She does not mind taking requests, as long as her creative vision goes unaltered.
“If someone’s like I want a weird thing and I want it to have three eyes. And then I gave them a series of sketches to choose from, they’ll be like I like this thing on this one and this thing on another one,” Strunge said. “then I have to kind of find a way to make it work. So that they’re happy and I feel like I also need to be happy with what I’m doing.”