Chris Rosenblum | Penn State freshman’s cassette tape creations get global attention? Believe it

Penn State student Casey Saline, who recently sold her third musician portrait made of unspooled cassette tape to Ripley’s Believe It or Not! pauses at the Patterson Building on Thursday, April 10, 2014.
Penn State student Casey Saline, who recently sold her third musician portrait made of unspooled cassette tape to Ripley’s Believe It or Not! pauses at the Patterson Building on Thursday, April 10, 2014. CDT photo

Casey Saline didn’t believe it.

Her portrait of Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta sold for $500, not too shabby for a high school junior.

Then again, art made with unspooled cassette tape is bound to attract attention — especially from the likes of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! folks.

After buying the piece, the franchise devoted to showcasing the odd and unusual sent it to its Ocean City, Md., museum.

By now, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! owns a small collection of the Penn State freshman’s cassette tape works.

It recently bought Saline’s three-dimensional rendering of Jimi Hendrix for $200, and is deciding where to display it. Her Whitney Houston portrait hangs in the company’s London museum.

All three reflect distinct preferences.

Saline, who plans to major in art education, likes working in a pop art style influenced by Andy Warhol.

She gravitates toward entertainers as subjects and recycled objects for material. To portray Alfalfa, of “Little Rascals” fame, she once used VHS tape.

And, believe it or not, she uses a single cassette for each of her tape masterpieces.

“You don’t realize how much of the ribbon is in one until you start doing it,” she said. “It’s amazing.”

So are the final results.

As with her previous Ripley’s pieces, Saline glued tape segments of various lengths to depict Hendrix. She also included the source cassette, a signature touch.

But Hendrix proved more complicated.

Instead of a flat portrait, as with her first two sold pieces, Saline attached tape strips to hanging threads in three layers. Up close or from the side, the arrangement resembles a strange bar code.

But a few yards back, Hendrix zooms into focus as sharply as a Stratocaster slamming a riff.

It’s a common effect with her art.

“Standing up close you see the material,” Saline said. “Standing far away you see the image.”

Each time Saline placed a strip, she had to step back 10 feet or so and assess her work’s evolution, a slow and laborious process. Hendrix took almost 20 hours to complete.

But when cassette tape is your medium, patience is as much a virtue as vision.

Warhol surely had his own technical problems, but trying to flatten and glue a curling piece of tape probably wasn’t one of them.

“You really have a fight with it,” Saline said. “Either you fight with it, or it does what it wants to. It’s very temperamental.”

At Cameron County Junior Senior High School in her hometown of Emporium, she started with mosaics of broken compact discs, inspired largely by her art teacher, Tashine Groeger, to experiment.

Soon afterward, she discovered the potential of an older technology.

She had a few tape pieces under her belt when she made a revelatory visit to a Ripley’s museum in New York with her family.

Saline saw a pamphlet photo of a cassette tape portrait elsewhere in the Ripley’s universe. She was stunned. Somebody else, somebody with a museum-worthy piece, thought like her.

Her gears started turning.

Back home, she emailed the Ripley’s organization and pitched her Newton-John work. Less than 12 hours later, to her surprise, the franchise got back to her with an offer.

Newspaper stories stoked her local fame, garnering her a show at her school and a spot in her town’s art festival.

She’s been busy ever since.

Out of cassette tape she has fashioned a Kiss portrait and a commissioned likeness of her school’s American Indian mascot, which now sits in a place of honor in her alma mater’s front hallway.

Back in Emporium, her preferred medium was so well known neighbors would bring her bags of old cassettes.

But her creativity isn’t limited to tape.

Her portfolio also includes a CD shard mosaic of Lady Gaga’s face, a picture of the singer Rihanna made with 3,000 holes punched in paper and charcoal, almost photographic renderings of Marilyn Monroe and Darth Vader.

There’s even an unfinished depiction of singer-songwriter Carly Rae Jepsen. But she ran out of old buttons before it could be completed.

You might say, when it comes to art, she’s drawn to the discarded. Unlistened tapes entertain once again.

“They’re not used any more, so you’re bringing them back to a new life that will be permanent,” she said.

Her love for art has been restorative in another way.

Last year, she started The Lilli Project, a foundation to give donated art supplies to hospitalized children.

Named after a high school friend and fellow cheerleader who underwent chemotherapy for cancer, the foundation already has given a bag of donations to a Pittsburgh hospital. Saline, the president of the Penn State chapter of the Pennsylvania Art Education Association, hopes to help more children in the fall.

She’s full of other plans as well.

Eventually, she hopes to earn a doctorate in art therapy and become an art therapist.

But for now, she’s looking forward to being a Penn State art camp counselor this summer and teaching children about Jackson Pollock by allowing them to squeeze ketchup, mustard and other condiments onto canvases.

She can’t wait to give her younger sister, a Batman fan, a birthday present made in class: a foam board sculpture of a deer dressed like the Caped Crusader and titled “Batbuck.”

“It’s probably the weirdest thing I’ve done in my life,” she said.

That’s saying something from an artist who envisions a life-sized portrait of Charlie Chaplin made from a vintage film reel.

In the meantime, she’s eager to learn which Ripley’s museum will house her unique Hendrix tribute.

“I’d love to have another one out of the country,” she said. “It would give me incentive to travel and visit it.”