Fast-talking and fun-loving, Stephanie Cortes has made it her mission to make people smile through her passion for nerdy crafting.
The 29-year-old San Francisco native is the “geek mastermind” behind nerd JERK, an Etsy shop featuring handmade plushies, cross-stitched art, comics and more. The journey to designing her own geeky brand all started with a boy and a plush penguin.
“It was 2005 and I was dating this guy (who attended SF) State,” Cortes said. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to impress him. He’s a geek, how do I do this?’”
Her answer was to stay up all night crocheting a penguin for him. She met him for a date the next day, sleep deprived and uncertain of how he’d react to her quirky gift.
“He said, ‘It’s the cutest thing ever. I’m going to call it Penguin Seymour Hoffman,’” she recalled.
From there, Cortes realized that she had the skill to make better quality plushies than the ones she and her friends had seen for sale online. She began crocheting Bob-ombs, characters from Super Mario and tapped into a market that she personally enjoyed serving.
“I kind of used it as an in with cute geek guys,” she admitted.
Soon though, Cortes’ crafting came to a halt. She dropped out of college when her grandfather became severely ill so she could be his full-time caretaker. After his death, it took two years for her to begin crocheting again.
A conversation she had with her grandfather inspired her to honor him by working hard and proving herself as an artist.
“He asked me — in grumbly, angry Spanish — ‘Are you going to make any money with this? Are you doing this for a reason? Are you actually having fun?’” she said.
To the first question, Cortes can now say yes; she is making money through her shop. She had one answer for his other two questions.
“Duh, I love it,” she said.
Crafting is truly Cortes’ passion. She now lives with and cares for her grandmother while running nerd JERK. She has learned through conversations with her grandmother that creativity has run in her family for generations, from her carpenter grandfather to her sketch artist mother.
Her grandmother has taken to comparing her to her eldest sister, Hilda, whose attitude, talents and even stature are reflected in Cortes.
“Hilda decided she wasn’t going to take crap from anyone, and she would crochet all the things and sew all the things,” Cortes said.
Indeed, Cortes seems to be doing “all the things” as well. On top of promoting her shop at conventions and fairs, and teaching the crafting community as a certified Etsy educator, Cortes has recruited intern Christel Macabeo to help with everything from crocheting to promoting.
“I was at J-POP SUMMIT last year and I saw her stuff was like, ‘Oh, that’s what I do!’” Macabeo said. “So we started talking and we were like, ‘Oh, we have the same nerd personality!’ And we just clicked.”
And if Cortes’ many endeavors don’t keep her busy enough, she got married Oct. 13 at the Alternative Press Expo.
“I was telling my friend I want to get married somewhere cool, but that didn’t cost a lot of money, and he said, ‘Why don’t you get married at APE?’” she said. “At first, I laughed — a lot.”
But Cortes realized it was actually a good idea. She and Roger L. Moore, an OkCupid success story, were wed by Cody Vrosh of Binary Winter Press among friends, family, fellow APE vendors and attendees.
“I’ve been working alongside Steph for many years; we exhibit at a lot of the same shows,” Vrosh said. “She said they were getting married at APE, and I said ‘Oh, that’s awesome.’ And she said they still need to find some sort of reverend or officiant, and I said, ‘well hell, I can get ordained for that.'”
The couple’s wedding was a success, thanks to the support of APE and fellow artists. Cortes even had her dress specially made by independent designer Rebecca Saylor.
“The fact that there’s a wedding (at APE) is really appropriate, because this place is kind of about love,” Vrosh said. “So them showing their love here is not only appropriate, but will be accepted very much.”
Next Cortes is planning an entire rebranding of nerd JERK. As of next year, she will no longer crochet Nintendo-themed plushies, and will instead debut a new line of creations.
“It involves a long-standing tradition of wrestling,” she teased cryptically. “It also involves hot sauce, and it involves the Genius Bar at the Apple store.”
Cortes is set to do a sneak preview of her new creations at the Renegade Craft Fair in Los Angeles this December. She is also looking to local galleries to display her work closer to home.
Along with her shop rebrand, Cortes is planning to write a book. Having overcome many obstacles to get to where she is as a person — an artist and a businesswoman — she wants to share her experiences with those who might relate.
“I had a lot of rapid growth and I decided it needed to be shared because vulnerability and tactful honesty speak a lot to people that need inspiration,” she said. “I’ve gone through a lot. But just because you fail, doesn’t mean you can’t do awesome things.”