2018-07-04 / Local News

Plan for Soups and Sweets alum to sell his art cooked up in the kitchen

By JAYNE JACOVA FELD Voice staff


Daniel Epps is pictured with some of his latest prehistoric creations. Daniel Epps is pictured with some of his latest prehistoric creations. Medford resident Daniel Epps, 26, could easily spend hours on end crafting the fantastical dinosaurs he creates out of pipe cleaners.

From start to end, the process is all absorbing, explained the 2011 Shawnee High School graduate. He finds inspiration leafing through books or watching movies about prehistoric creatures. Depending on the dimensions of the animal he’s working on, it could take days to weeks of patiently affixing pipe cleaners onto a Styrofoam frame before he’s satisfied with his intricate one-of-a-kind designs. The finished products somehow straddle the line between fierce and imposing to beautiful and cuddly.

While Evelyn Epps, his mother, has always been strongly supportive of her son’s art, for some time she has been encouraging him to learn a trade.

“I understand him wanting to do this,” she said, noting she usually purchases the wire online and consults with him from time to time on design elements. “I told him I like to do things too, but we also have to pay bills.”

So that’s how, in 2017, Epps came to Soups and Sweets, Samost Jewish Family and Children’s Service’s culinary training program for adults with special needs. He not only learned restaurant skills during his six-month stint, but with strong encouragement of the school staff has started thinking about turning his passion into a side career.

At first, explained Chef Louis Ruttenberg, Epps gave away his dinosaurs as gifts. But towards the end of the course, as he was becoming a more confident cook, he was also becoming more comfortable with the idea of exchanging money for his highly in-demand dinosaurs.

“We talk in the kitchen while working,” explained Ruttenberg, a retired musician turned chef. “He mentioned how he makes dinosaurs, and I didn’t know exactly what he meant when he told me he makes them out of pipe cleaners. I told him to bring one in, but he said he would make one for me.”

His gifted blue and white dinosaur was the first the Soups and Sweets crew saw of the creations. Everyone was floored by Epps’ artwork, Ruttenberg recalled, and probed even more about the creatures.

“He started making them as gifts for people in the kitchen,” he said. “It was Judy (Stern, a volunteer) who first told him he should be making a living out of them. He didn’t at first understand, but then his eyes lit up when he got it. We told him if he works really hard at something, there is value in the effort.”

Stern’s gift dinosaur is a hot pink and silver meat eater with a wide mouth, silver and white teeth, and alligator eyes, as she describes it. She has since purchased two others, for her great-nephew and grandson.

“It has a place on my mantel over my fireplace with my grandchildren’s pictures and art work,” she said. “Daniel is a really talented guy.”

Since graduating from Soups and Sweets, Epps now works at Medford Lakes Country Club two days a weeks. During his downtime, he naturally works on his creations.

Evelyn Epps, a computer programmer by trade, said Daniel’s prehistoric creatures have been on display at local libraries, along with toys, dolls, trains, action figures and other vintage items the family collects. They also sell them at weekend flea markets, where they are “show stoppers,” sometimes going for $60, she said.

If Epps does find success selling his dinosaurs, it wouldn’t be the first time an artist’s launch was associated with JFCS programs, said Special Needs Department Director Barbara Abrams. JFCS helped artist Ronaldo Byrd gain exposure several years back by featuring his work in the Katz JCC Appel Art gallery.

Byrd, a Burlington Township resident, now works fulltime on his paintings, which are in the folk tradition with a hip-hop vibe. 

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