The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Local business Atlas sells jewelry made with real insect parts

Flowers, butterflies, and moth wings are some of the parts used in Penelope Wilkins’ jewelry.
Shuntaro Kawasaki
Penelope Wilkins talks with a customer while hosting a booth at the Northside Night Market organized by IC Flea in the James Theater in Iowa City on Friday, September 1, 2023.

Iowa City artist Penelope Wilkins creates iridescent and life-like handmade jewelry, accessories, and household decor from ethically-sourced butterfly and moth wings. 

Through their small business, Atlas, a portion of every purchase is donated to organizations that support endangered species. 

“I’ve had a garden for about as long as I can remember. Growing flowers and working with plants has been one of the few things that has brought me peace since I was little,” Wilkins said. 

Wilkins, an Iowa City High School alum, started creating jewelry in the summer of 2020 through their first business, Floral Envy. 

“I started experimenting with how to preserve the flowers I grew so that I could keep a little piece of my garden with me throughout the winter,” Wilkins said. “I created my own process for preservation and taught myself how to turn the pieces into jewelry, which I then brought to a few markets here and there to sell.” 

Wilkins sells their jewelry at flea and farmer’s markets in Iowa City that feature local artists, creatives, and businesses from the area. 

Every second or third Sunday of the month, Iowa City Flea hosts a market on the lawn of Public Space One’s Close House, with additional market pop-ups throughout the month, including Heim’s Magical Market, which hosts over two dozen small businesses in each event.

Wilkins shared that they’ve had an incredible experience running a small business, especially in the tight-knit, artistic community of Iowa City. 

“Having a job where I get to talk to people all day about my special interests could not be more perfect for me. I’ve been lucky enough to meet thousands of the loveliest people that stop by at markets,” Wilkins said. “And I’m even luckier that so many of them have chosen to spend their money on my art. If I didn’t have their support, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

Wilkins has branched out into farmer’s markets, flea markets, and art shows. They have participated in over 15 markets and events since the beginning of June. 

However, as an LGBTQ+, neurodivergent artist, their experience as a small business owner isn’t without challenges. 

“Even after all this time, I still get extremely anxious before every event I do,” Wilkins said. “I feel much more comfortable at markets where I’m surrounded by other queer and neurodivergent artists that have a similar crowd, which is why events like [Heim’s Magical Market] are so special.”

Around the time their mother found out she had breast cancer, Wilkins received an autism diagnosis. 

“[The diagnosis] was a huge turning point for me. I realized that there wasn’t something inherently wrong with me, and there was a reason I struggled to manage ‘normal’ jobs.”

Wilkins is open about their autism diagnosis and about the role it has played in the creation of their business. Their small business became a way of supporting themself and their mother during a difficult time while redefining the relationship Wilkins had with work after years of trying to find a career they love. 

“I was so overwhelmed with my job and responsibilities that the solution seemed obvious: drop out, quit my job, and go back to working for myself,” Wilkins said. 

Since the start of 2023, they have gone full-time with their business, participating in several events every month in addition to operating their online storefront, but they are able to accommodate themselves and their needs accordingly.

The success of Atlas has been an inspiration to the Iowa City community, specifically LGBTQ+ and neurodivergent folks, who are often excluded from traditional employment opportunities on the basis of identity, but Wilkins shared that they have a home in Atlas.

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About the Contributors
Zhenya Loughney
Zhenya Loughney, Arts Reporter
Zhenya is a fourth year theatre design and journalism double major at UI. They are passionate about artistry and creativity. They are from Lebanon, KY.
Stella Shipman
Stella Shipman, Arts Editor
Stella Shipman is a junior undergraduate at the University of Iowa majoring in English and Creative Writing and minoring in Cinema. A former Arts Reporter, she loves reviewing shows and covering musical performances. She hopes to encourage more students to engage in the vibrant arts community of Iowa City. This is her second year working at The Daily Iowan.
Shuntaro Kawasaki
Shuntaro Kawasaki, Photojournalist
Shuntaro Kawasaki is a fourth-year student at the University of Iowa majoring in Neuroscience with a minor in Chemistry and Cinema. Outside of The Daily Iowan, Shuntaro has interned at the Carver College of Medicine, writing a research paper.