Before officially becoming their patron, comedian Patton Oswalt helped Kaitlin Kerr, Emi Savacool, Maricha Genovese, and Mallory Weston graduate from the University of the Arts.
Oswalt's CDs, particularly Werewolves & Lollipops, kept the four students from New Jersey at least relatively sane during senior all-nighters in the studio at Broad and Pine in Philadelphia.
"We were obsessed with his stand-up routines," Kerr, 23, recalls, sitting in her South Philly living room with Savacool and Genovese.
"They were guaranteed to make us erupt, like the one where he does Alvin and the Chipmunks in slow motion," Savacool says. "We were so stressed out, and he brought lightness."
Two years later, the comedian, who may be best known for his role as Spence Olchin on King of Queens, has commissioned several pieces. This is a big boost for the four young artists, who now live in different cities and often use precious metals - in an economy where the price of raw materials has gone through the roof.
"Last spring, Patton sent us this superlong e-mail that started out, 'The time has come, angels.' Like on Charlie's Angels," says Savacool, 24, who lives and works in Hunterdon County.
Let's pause here to mention that before the e-mail came the first face-to-face meeting - in October 2009, after Oswalt's stand-up show at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank.
And before the meeting was the photo, shot by Savacool in that UArts studio. It shows Kerr, Genovese, and Weston striking a saucy pose in front of an anvil and wielding a replica of a famous sword from the Lord of the Rings (an Oswalt favorite).
The four fans approached Oswalt outside the stage door of the Count Basie. They handed him the photo, along with their business cards, and "we told him how he helped get us through senior year," says Genovese, 24, who hails from Flemington.
"Patton said, 'I'll call you,' " Savacool adds. "And we thought, 'Sure, whatever.' "
But Oswalt did follow up, visiting their websites, posting the anvil picture on his Facebook fan page, and keeping in touch via e-mail.
"They're awesome," the comedian says by phone. "They each have a personal flair. And I like to support crafts, which seem to be a dying thing."
Oswalt, who has also commissioned work by well-known artists such as Ivan Brunetti, Dan Clowes, and Bill Sienkienwicz, is impressed that the four young UArts grads have been able to execute his concepts.
The first was a birthday present for his wife, Michelle McNamara, a writer; Patton wanted a memory box that would contain individual compartments for mementos of their relationship.
"We had one month to do it," says Kerr, who grew up in Mullica Township, Atlantic County. "That kind of lit a fire under our butts."
Having never done a memory box before, they brainstormed for hours, finishing the job during an all-nighter in the studio to the sound of Oswalt CDs.
With the help of Philadelphia woodworker Matt Malesky, they fabricated the box out of cherry. It measures about 8x6x4 inches, and features handmade brass fittings, an intricate array of foldout compartments, and a drawing of the Oswalt home etched in brass on the cover.
"The work was pretty intense," Genovese says.
After it was delivered, Oswalt "sent us the sweetest e-mail," Savacool says. "He told us, 'I hope my daughter ends up being like you guys.' "
The comedian's next two commissions were equally challenging, and also intended as gifts: A biscuit tin for the science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison, and a ring for comedian Brian Posehn. The tin was inspired by packaging for Ritz crackers, and the ring featured a skull wearing nerdy glasses.
Other proposed commissions include a sword handle that can function as a glass for scotch, and life-size replicas of the weapons used in the board game Clue.
"Thoughtful, hilarious, and technically challenging" is how Weston, who's 23 and grew up in Hunterdon County, describes the commissions.
"The experience definitely presented a lot of challenges," the Brooklyn, N.Y., resident says via e-mail. "But the experience was very exciting, rewarding, and artistically stimulating."
The commissions "are an opportunity for us to work together," says Genovese, who is moving to San Francisco.
Oswalt also offers an opportunity to work, period.
Kerr notes that the four have been living the "patchwork" lives typical of recent college graduates, mixing part-time jobs and other activities, including postgraduate classes.
"Any time I think my life is hard, I remember, 'You are making pieces for Patton Oswalt," Savacool says. "How can your life be bad?' "
So, is this the beginning of a beautiful relationship?
Says Oswalt, "I hope so."