'Bubble Gum Kurt' built a fan base in Kansas City with pom pom fashion, but they won't be boxed in
Artist Kurt Ryan began began making pom pom earrings and selling them at local craft shows across Kansas City. Ryan says the expression of queerness and gender identity is “ever-present” in their art, which uses upcycled materials and pattern clashing.
Infusing their work with plenty of color and a DIY approach, Kansas City artist Kurt Ryan weaves their identity into each craft, article of clothing, and piece of jewelry they sell.
Ryan creates their work as Bubble Gum Kurt, and through their business venture FunStarShine.
“I definitely pull from my own personal style, which I would describe myself as a chaotic kindergarten teacher who’s also a clown on the side,” Ryan said. “So I’m pulling from a lot of color clashing and pattern clashing.”
Ryan identifies as transgender, non-binary, and masculine, and the expression of queerness and gender identity is “ever-present” in their art, they said.
“I feel like gender expression and queerness have always been very present in my art,” Ryan said. “I didn’t really self-realize my queerness or my transness until I moved to KC about four years ago. … I think all the work I make is touching on what is the binary, and what is gender expression.”
In that vein, Ryan noted that many of the people who buy their pom pom earrings, scarves, and upcycled clothing tend to identify as more feminine.
“I view myself as a very masculine person, and I feel like a lot of people would put my art in the box of feminine,” Ryan said. “The majority of people who purchase from me are feminine or identify as women, but I feel like my work really challenges [that binary] because I wear it, and I don’t think it’s in a gender box.”
Ryan’s art background extends back years, they said, as the Iowa native received an art degree from the University of Northern Iowa prior to starting FunStarShine.
“When COVID hit, I just got a lot more time, and I was like, ‘Well, all I want to do with my time is make art,’” Ryan recalled. “So I started making pom poms, and I just made a bunch — I was obsessed. … Afterwards, I got settled back into my job, but I really just wanted to ride that high of making.”
To do that, Ryan began making pom pom earrings and selling them at local craft shows across Kansas City, along the way building a fan base, they said.
Ryan has maintained their “day job” in order to have stable income, they said, but has also grown within the Kansas City artist space, most notably by joining the Cherry Pit Collective last year.
“It’s been wonderful being surrounded by artists who are in the same field as me where they’re making money at fairs but also have a side gig,” Ryan said. “We all just support each other, and it’s a great place in KC.”
As they continue to grow their small business, Ryan said they have to remember to not let their ambition prevent them from growing at a responsible pace.
“What I’ve found growing a small business is you have to take baby steps,” Ryan said. “I really have all these grand visions of making a beautiful table [at a craft fair], but I have to just chew it slowly.”
In addition to their craft work for FunStarShine, Ryan also commissions large-scale weavings for purchase and to show at galleries, they said, acknowledging that those pieces are more time-intensive and expensive.
Ryan enjoys the more “playful side” of creating crafts, jewelry, and clothing, they said, especially when they get to see their art in people’s homes or outfits.
“I’m just excited and passionate about these objects, and I want to spark that in other people, too,” Ryan said. “When I’m at craft fairs, and someone buys pom pom earrings, I just want them to be as passionate about the object as I am. I think that something I’m always looking for as I make stuff is a twin soul.”
Ryan encouraged craft fair visitors to engage with the makers and merchants, saying that they enjoy sharing the method to their madness.
“I just love when people come up and want to talk about how I make stuff,” Ryan said. “It’s great at craft fairs if people just want to come and talk to me about my art but don’t have the money. That’s still really fun and validating in a way.”
More than anything, Ryan wants to ensure that the joyful, expressive, and fun-loving nature of their art gets passed along to everyone who views or buys it, they said.
“I just think it’s really important to be able to express yourself in any way you feel, as long as it’s not hurting anyone,” Ryan said. “My stuff is supposed to be joyful. I want someone to look at it and think, ‘This is so fun,’ because I think fashion and expression should be fun.”