As an artist and store manager at Blick Art Materials for more than twenty-five years, Janet Stepura enjoys a unique perspective on the arts community. Executive Director Randall Forte spoke to her recently about her life in the arts in the Lehigh Valley.
I have been making art seriously for almost 30 years. For about 12 years I worked as a sculptor and sold my pieces through a gallery in the Northern Liberties area of Philadelphia. With changes in job responsibility and thus limited time available to make ceramic work I turned to making artist books.
I have always been more of a three dimensional thinker. About 6 years ago I had a show of my work at the Cedar Crest College library. My schooling was at Kutztown University in Ceramics and Fiber Arts.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on cut paper artist books. I am fascinated by late 19th century naturalists. This I explore with handmade boxes filled with ephemera similar to that found in Curiosity Cabinets. A recent piece is a hand cut paper landscape that rolls up into a test tube. When pulled from the tube the paper retains some of its curl to give the impression of a small mountain. I also make small editions of tunnel books with a similar naturalist theme.
Retail is demanding. Has it been challenging to carve out studio time for yourself with the requirements of retail management?
It’s been very difficult to manage both my retail responsibilities and still make time for my art. Fortunately, being surrounded by both art materials and artists all day helps to keep the ideas flowing. My job deals with helping the public so I tend to not to have a very social life outside of work. Choices must be made on a daily basis to find the time to make things; for instance I haven’t had cable television for over 23 years! When you love it, you make time for it.
Do you find inspiration from the local artists you meet on a daily basis?
It’s the best part of my job! Both well known artists and just the regular person who wants to get back to self expression can be so inspiring to speak with. Every day I’m asked questions about materials that I don’t know the answer to. The process of researching materials and problem solving with people prompts me to keep an open mind about the possibilities of materials and various forms of self expression. I am a firm believer that we do not pass judgment on how people choose to express themselves. I coach the associates at the store to treat everyone with the same amount of respect, whether they are just doodling in a sketchbook or creating a piece that will be sold for thousands of dollars. The desire to create something is an amazingly powerful gift and should be encouraged in everyone
From your viewpoint, has the arts community changed much in the past two decades?
The Lehigh Valley has gone through many changes over the past two decades, some of which follow the financial trends of the country. During difficult times people often return to art as a means of coping. On a weekly basis I hear the phrase, “I used to enjoy art when I was in school but I haven’t done anything in so long…” They always return to the simple acts that allow them to lose themselves for a few hours. The onset of computers changed the face of art all over the world. Still, those people often express the desire to “get their hands dirty” again and will wander the store to smell the paint or touch the papers. Life is about change so I try not to lament the past but it’s hard to hear that children in our schools may only have art for a very limited time each year. The art room was my refuge; now many children must find that excitement from a cart.
I am sure you have seen many artists mature in their work over time. Who stands out as exciting and up-and-coming?
Strangely enough I don’t often get to see the finished products of the people I help! We do try to encourage our customers to bring in their work and provide a free venue for exhibition in our store on a monthly rotation. Anyone who asks can have a show! That makes me very happy to be able to offer someone who may never have been considered for a show through the usual channels to put their work on display. We don’t take any commission on pieces they may sell. What a thrill it is to see someone sell their first piece. I have my own favorite local artists and am continually impressed by the range of talent we have in our local area. As far as who stands out as exciting it’s more the small groupings of artists who join together and work to keep the local art scene strong that impress me.
Over the years you have developed relationships with many local artists. Some have left the area. Do you keep in touch with a few?
Because of my longtime affiliation with the store, I have met many very talented people through the years. Some make it a point to stop by and say hello when they pass back through the area. Recently a gentleman popped into my office and said, “You may not remember me but you helped me get started with oil painting 20 years ago.” He proceeded to tell me of the various exhibitions he was participating in and the name of the gallery representing his work. Others have regrettably passed away and are sorely missed. I feel incredibly fortunate to have met so many wonderful people over the years; it’s why I’ve stayed at my job for so long. Many people may thank me for the help they receive while shopping at the store. I appreciate offering me a chance to say thank you to the local art community for making my life that much richer.