Kristen DePante and her family were watching an MTV Cribs episode about skateboarding legend Tony Hawk and instantly recognized the beaded geckos on his children's bedroom walls.
"That's us!" they yelled as the camera flashed onto the figures created by their company, Grass Roots Creations.
Indeed, the owners say, anybody who owns any kind of beaded animal artwork probably got it from the Pasco County business, whether they realize it or not. It is one of the few companies — if not the only one — that makes figures from wire frames and glass beads. Its retailers include Disney, Busch Gardens, SeaWorld, Hallmark, Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry and scores of other gift shops, zoos, airports and garden centers all over the country.
"We're really the only people in the world doing what we do," DePante said.
In fact, the company created the 7-foot Burning Giraffe and 6-foot Praying Mantis — both iconic Dali images — that will be placed in the new Salvador Dali Museum when it opens next month a few blocks from the current building in St. Petersburg. Grass Roots will sell regular-sized replicas in the museum gift shop.
DePante, 42, grew up with a talent for art. As a young girl, she said, she "painted things and sold them or traded them for cookies." She started the company in 2002 after admiring a beaded gecko her mother, Roseann Vitassa, brought home after living in Africa for several years. They were taken with the art and the people who created it. Their goal was to have the local artisans create figures based on DePante designs for the mainstream.
An industrial design major at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, DePante hired African artisans to bend and bead galvanized wire into creatures that she designed back home. As the company grew and the political climate deteriorated, production was moved to China.
DePante and her mom trained Chinese men to make the frames. Done only with pliers, the process takes great physical strength, she said. Making the frame also takes much precision, as once bent, the wire will not straighten back out without weakening.
Much of the beading is done by women. The colorful glass beads are woven through the wire in a complex process. The workers typically travel to a supply center, pick up their materials, then work at home in their farm villages.
"It's become a cottage industry," Vitassa said. She estimates they employ about 200 people to make the products.
As for why the work isn't produced in the United States, DePante said it's physically challenging and painstaking.
"Not many people want to do that kind of work in this country," Vitassa said.
DePante has a design team in China that includes a master beader and master framer. They use her designs to create a sample that meets her approval. Sometimes that can take three or four tries.
DePante designs her work on paper and then on the computer. She's constantly on the lookout for ideas. She rips pages from magazines and often takes photos of images or even colors that catch her eye. She's been known to sketch things on whatever's handy. Ideas also come while doing laundry.
"I once asked a woman on an airplane if I could take a picture of her earrings," DePante said.
The figures range from a 4-inch fish to a 4-foot peacock that sits on a stand.
DePante even names some of them. She points to a bumper fish she calls Bruno. "I imagined him as an older guy sitting in a lawn chair, smoking a cigar."
The company catalog lists about 600 items. Top sellers are dog breeds, with a Yorkshire terrier holding the No. 1 spot.
The design for another fish she nicknamed Elvis started out on a dinner napkin.
In the beginning, DePante and her mother packed orders in their basement. They shared one antiquated computer. On the weekends, they made and sold potpourri at flea markets to pay the bills.
DePante's husband, Joe, whom she met five years ago at his blinkie light booth during an Orlando trade show, manages the finances. His son, Derek, recently joined the company as general operations manager.
DePante spends half the year at home in Land O'Lakes and in Holiday, the other half traveling to merchandise shows all over the country. She also keeps an apartment in China.
The company keeps a large production going all the time to create volume and keep prices within reach. (The beaded creatures range from $7.99 for magnets to $550 for a nearly 31/2-foot-tall giraffe.) She thinks everyone should be able to afford to own a piece of art, even if it's a key ring.
Her latest ventures are Bounce, a line of rubber jewelry, and Zig Zag bags, a line of colorful purses and totes handwoven using pallet strapping.
While the company is profitable, the work is steady and busy.
Ten years after its founding, Grass Roots has expanded to a 10,000-square-foot, cream-colored warehouse on Alt. U.S. 19.
"We're paying our bills," DePante said, although she added: "We haven't had a vacation in six years."
Lisa Buie can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4604.