Creating in the Judgement Free Zone

story and photos by Libby Cook

“I’m what they call an outsider artist,” Corinne Stern says. “I’m not art-school trained, but I’ve wanted to be an artist since I was a little kid.”

The Ithaca-based artist, teacher and entrepreneur has been living out her childhood dream and inspiring her students through collage-making from a home addition-turned-art-space called FLOOF Collage pARTy. Corinne’s friend and local artist Alice Muhlback inspired the brand when she told Corinne she admired her ability to just “floof things up.”

For over nine years, Corinne’s studio has become an inviting escape for all artists. The space is packed with opportunities for self-expression. Each wall is adorned with neatly stored supplies like piano keys, fabric swatches, deconstructed designer high heels and anything else in which she finds artistic potential. Handmade signs encouraging creators of their capabilities are scattered around the room, and a stack of hot glue guns await the next project.

“I find uses and beauty in all kinds of things,” Corinne says, admiring a computer circuit board transformed into a miniature cityscape. “I love taking things apart. It’s what my sister calls the ‘little scientist’ in us. I take apart everything that breaks in my house, and whatever is salvageable comes to the studio. I guess it’s my imagination, but I can see possibilities.”

Much like Corinne’s art training, which includes a painting class she took when she was eight years old and a few recent art courses at Cornell, her path to building FLOOF was quite unconventional. “My husband calls it my checkered career path,” she laughs.

Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, Corinne pursued multiple careers before settling in Ithaca with her husband. She taught deaf preschool students and worked at an advertising agency as a layout artist before attending nursing school when she was 38. Corinne was a nurse for 16 years and simultaneously took up photography as a creative outlet. Eventually, she found working in the medical field to be too emotionally taxing. It was difficult to witness so much pain and illness every day, so she returned her focus to a more optimistic world in art.

Corinne worked as a curatorial typist at the Johnson Museum and assisted a leather crafter in making jewelry. In Ithaca, she taught hearing students for a year before launching her own fashion brand, selling renaissance and wedding hats, as well as kippahs for men and women at the Ithaca Grassroots Festival. For over a decade, she attended the festival and traveled around the country, wholesaling her hats. Today, Corinne has put all her energy and focus into growing and creating with FLOOF.

Before the pandemic, Corinne welcomed students of all ages and artistic backgrounds into her studio for FLOOF events, birthday parties and after-school programs. She was delighted to share her space with other artists and wanted to incorporate teaching into the experience. “I wanted to be an art guide,” says Corinne. “I go over the color wheel and I say to my students, this isn’t just art. It’s physics. Say you make a mobile. How are you going to balance the two sides? There’s math in measuring things. There’s geography in picking up a handful of seashells and asking where they came from. It’s history.”

During her after-school program visits, Corinne also helps students with life skills. “A lot of the after-school programs that I’ve taught have kids who are in English as Second Language classes,” she says. “I found this is a great way to teach English less formally. The kids teach each other, or they learn how to ask me for help finishing their projects.”

Corinne also makes an effort to teach her students about sustainable creation. Almost all FLOOF materials are upcycled. In her newest product, “Art-Maker Paks,” over 80% of supplies are upcycled. “This is one of my ways of giving back and saving the planet,” she says.

When her guests began requesting goody bags, Corinne thought about introducing the paks. She’d offer them a bag and a chance to gather supplies from her inventory she’s named “miscellaneous madness.” The paks have kept FLOOF artistry alive throughout the pandemic. Corinne sells the paks through her Etsy account, @FLOOFCollagepARTy. She offers six different size paks, ranging from one ounce to one pound, that can be shipped or picked up at her studio.

When Corinne isn’t putting together paks for her customers, she keeps busy donating supplies. She has given paks to the Belle Sherman after-school program, a local synagogue and auctions hosted by non-profits, including Hospice Care and Suicide Prevention. “I think this is important right now because people need something joyful and creative to take their mind off their stress,” she says. “It’s also empowering because you don’t need any talent to do this. I always hate it when people say, ‘I don’t have an artistic bone in my body,’ or ‘I can’t even draw a stick figure’! That’s not what art is about. Art is about expressing yourself any way you want.”

Corinne is passionate about breaking down typical artist stereotypes and redefining art to be inclusive toward anyone wanting an outlet. She could limit herself to the typical artist title by drawing or painting, but she finds greater interest in guiding students to use everyday objects to make something abstract and original. “I’m a quick and dirty artist,” Corinne jokes. “In all the projects I’ve made, I don’t strive for perfection. It’s the one place in my life where I’m not critical of myself.”

Corinne takes pride in operating a “judgment-free zone” in her studio, which is part of the Inclusive Recreation Resource Center and is wheelchair accessible. “I enjoy playing and I like seeing other people play, especially people with disabilities,” Corinne says. “I’ve had a lot of kids [in the studio] who were on the autism spectrum or had speech problems. For them to have that freedom to find something they feel joyful about and successful at is really important.”

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