The Journey That Got Me Here


This is it, a new chapter in my creative life. This has been a long time coming and I am thrilled to finally be sharing this work with you. You see, even though I have always known that I am supposed to be a fine artist—that creating artwork has always been the thing I want to do when I grow up—my brain got in the way and I talked myself out of it. My path has been a winding one and it is sometimes easy to feel frustrated with myself that I didn’t just listen to my heart 10 or even 20 years ago because I could be at much different place right now. I’m trying hard to believe that my journey is exactly as it was meant to be, that this has had to evolve exactly in this way.

In my childhood I spent a lot of time creating. We lived a fairly comfortable middle class life surrounded with a lot of love but we didn’t have a lot of toys and “things.” We played outside a lot and we were expected to spend most of our time figuring out our own ways of entertaining ourselves. When I think back to my childhood I remember coloring constantly, drawing a lot, playing teacher complete with making my own “ditto” worksheets, hours and hours of drawing up floor plans of my dream house. Those were the things I gravitated to when I wasn’t running around the neighborhood with friends.

It is in middle school art that I first recall believing that I actually might have some talent. I did a drawing of a dog (it still hangs in my parent’s house) that turned out pretty well and it earned a lot of praise from my teacher, friends and parents. I was hooked, I knew this was a strength and it gave me a tremendous sense of pride. From that point on if there was a painting class at the local community college I was taking it, I took art every semester of high school, was in the art club and did a lot of drawing outside of class assignments. I won a few awards for my drawings and paintings and art was the thing that gave me the greatest sense of pride.

I was a diligent student throughout high school with many interests but I knew I was going to pursue art in some form. I got accepted and decided to go to The University of Michigan School of Art. I went in thinking I wanted to pursue BioMedical Illustration which was not a clearly defined area of concentration there at the time. A combination of barely scraping my way through Bio and being too painfully shy to advocate for myself left me doubting my ability to forge a path to being a medical illustrator. Fortunately a new path was already being revealed to me. I loved my Freshman Foundation Design class and was introduced to the field of Graphic Design for the first time. Graphic Design was like the best of both worlds appealing to my left and right brain and, like medical illustration, seemed liked a practical, “employable” field. I knew I could graduate, get a job and avoid that mythical fine artist struggle.

Choosing a Graphic Design concentration allowed me to also simultaneously continue taking fine art classes. It was wonderful—all of my creative itches were being scratched. I graduated in 1995 and quickly found a design job with a large corporation in Metro Detroit. Things were going exactly as planned. I worked several design jobs in Detroit and in Chicago until 2002 where I had my first son.

I dove headfirst into motherhood, becoming the best full-time mommy I could possibly be. Once in awhile I would draw a picture or paint a painting but creating art was not a priority, nor did I think about it or miss it. I always felt it would be ready and waiting for me when I was ready. We were fortunate that we were able to live on my husband’s income and there was no urgency for me to go back to work. When my oldest was around 2 years old and I was pregnant with my second son, a very part-time, well paid, freelance graphic design job fell into my lap and suddenly I was back to contributing to the household and dipping my foot back into the working world. It was nice, and easy.

When we decided to move back to Michigan from Chicago, our oldest was starting Kindergarten and our youngest was 18 months old. When he started school I dove head-first into volunteering. Volunteering in the classroom, for the school, getting involved in the PTA. Between taking care of a toddler, a kindergartner, volunteering and being full-time homemaker, my time was consumed and I felt fulfilled. When conversations came up about going to work I figured that maybe I would start freelancing at some point but I knew I was not ready to go back into the working world full time. I found creative outlets through my volunteerism—designing the school’s newsletter every month, designing flyers and t-shirts for school events, making cool, intricate invitations for my kid’s birthdays and our holiday cards. It felt like enough.

Then both kids were in school and suddenly I had more time on my hands. I was still volunteering but Etsy was now on my radar. I started crafting and selling custom wooden art hangers and fabric bulletin boards along with designing and selling prints for children. I was starting to be creatively engaged again. I had a fairly steady stream of custom orders that consumed a lot of my time (but didn’t result in much profit). After awhile my heart just wasn’t into it so I eliminated the crafts and I pared it down to selling my prints but I did virtually nothing to market and promote my work.

Then I started getting connected to people needing some graphic design work and have built a fairly steady freelance client base. Work ebbs and flows; some weeks I work 10 hours, others 40. It is inconsistent and I have been OK with that but the conversation with my husband was increasingly that maybe it was time to go back to work. Life, after all, is expensive.

So I began applying for Graphic Design jobs that looked interesting. I would interview but nothing ever panned out. Was it my age or the fact that I’d been out of the working world for so long? After all, Freelancing had kept my skills current and I had a decent portfolio. Who knows? Maybe they could read my thoughts because the conversation that I was constantly having in my head was that I want to be a fine artist. I was afraid to say it out loud, afraid to pursue it. I wasn’t sure where to even begin.

Then, in 2015, my best friend of over 22 years died from breast cancer. We met as freshmen at U of M. We were both art majors, had a ton in common and we became sisters. She was insanely creative and through the years she was constantly nudging me and encouraging me to do creative things but there was never a sense of urgency. After all, art would be there waiting for me when I was ready for it. But when she passed away I was suddenly aware of my own mortality. It was time to really start examining what it is that I want to be doing—what I want to be when I grow up. My friend will never be able to live out her creative dreams or make art to fill the world with her beauty. But I am here. I can. I had a new awareness that I might be wasting something special.

Thus began an era of exploration. Over the past three+ years without her, I have explored art and creating a lot. I feel blessed to be able to do many things well—illustration, hand-lettering, surface pattern design, pen and ink drawings. I had my hands in a lot of pots with no singular focus and no idea how I was going to choose. I love it all, love making. But it has become clear to me this past year that if I want to be taken seriously as an artist and start making money as an artist then I need to narrow the focus. The things I have come back to time after time these past few years, the doing and making that has brought me the most joy has been painting and drawing. I enjoy all the other stuff but the making that truly brings me joy and a sense of accomplishment is drawing and painting. Period.

So here we are. “In Bloom” has been an exploration of a new painting style for me—oil paints mixed with cold wax medium. I’ve fallen in love with it after signing up at the last minute for an Abstract Oil and Cold Wax Medium Class last Spring. It has been a refreshing change. A way to loosen up, to paint a little more intuitively. My drawings tend to be tight, photo-realistic labors of love. This way I am working with oil and cold wax is quicker, less precise but allows me to work with color and light and line in a new way. The adding of layers of creamy, frosting-like paint and drawing into the layers with the tip of my palette knife incorporates the drawing that I love. It is the best of both worlds. I hope you love my paintings as much as I’ve loved creating them. I create in my friend’s honor, as an offering to all artists who can no longer create and in reverence to the practice of art. It is my hope that my gift to the world can be the beauty I put out into it through my art.

If you’ve read this entire thing I thank you and I applaud you. The journey has been long but necessary one. I am exactly where I am supposed to be right now making the exact work I am supposed to be making right now. Thank you for bearing witness to my journey. I feel your encouragement and with it, I am finally brave enough to call myself an artist and brave enough to let myself do the work necessary to be one. Like the dormant root of a peony that doesn’t bloom until the conditions are right, the artist inside me was dormant for far too long but now I am an artist In Bloom.

Jennifer Stefanek