Villanova, PA – Susan Stefanski was a 47-year-old mother of three working as a secretary for Villanova University when she first applied a paint brush to a creative act. Now, 13 years later, hardly a day goes by when she isn't using one expressly for that purpose. A full-time, award-winning painter, Stefanski's work has been featured in scores of solo and group exhibits.
On April 26, Stefanski returns to Villanova with “Nature's Gifts”, a solo exhibit of large and medium-size landscapes and floral arrangements in oil. A reception to meet the Havertown, PA, artist will take place from 5 to 7 pm in the University's Art Gallery in the Connelly Center on campus. Refreshments will be served. The exhibit and reception are free and open to the public.
It was in an after-work class taught by Villanova art instructor Br. Jack Stagliano, O.S.A. (Order of St. Augustine) that Stefanski discovered her love of painting. She knew almost immediately that her life was taking a new turn:
“Working for Villanova offered me a wonderful opportunity to go back to school. I couldn't see myself doing term papers, so why not art, I thought. From the very beginning, I knew that painting would be something I would do for the rest of my life.”
Hundreds of hours of art instruction later, with her children grown, a sense of urgency growing within her, and her husband Jan's blessing, Stefanski left Villanova in 2006 with the goal of becoming a full-time artist. She says:
“I sensed God's hand in all of this. Painting was my opportunity to pay back, to make a difference with the gift of creativity I was given. I loved my job, I loved the people I worked with, but art was my calling.”
Her favorite painting venues include the nature preserves, public gardens, streams, woodlands and fields that are all short drives from home. “You don't have to go far from home to find God's beauty. It's everywhere. All you have to do is look and see.
I have experimented with many art forms, but I keep coming back to representational painting in oil, watercolor and pastels falling under the umbrella of God's gifts,” she says. She is also an iconographer and portraitist.
Stefanski is a frequent visitor to the fields and woodlands of the 180-acre Okehocking Preserve in nearby Willistown. She may also be found at easel at Chanticleer in neighboring Radnor, cited as one of the “most romantic, imaginative and exciting public gardens in America,” and at Radnor's Skunk Hollow Community Farm with its sustainable farming gardens.
Concerned about suburbia's vanishing open spaces, she is drawn to the farm fields, their grazing animals, and the 18th and 19th century stone barns and farmhouses that line Radnor-Goshen Road. Farther afield, the Jersey shore serves as setting for many of her serene, soft-hued canvasses of wetlands and seaside sunrises and sunsets.
Stefanski's engagement with nature is reverential: “Feeling the wind and watching the grass bend to it, seeing how the changing light plays on the landscape, the beautiful feeling of being outside: It's all so joyful.” A chair is not among the items she carries in her car for outdoor painting gigs. “I always paint standing up.” She does bring an umbrella to fend off sun and precipitation.
Being a 'plein air' painter has its hazards, which is why many artists choose to paint their landscapes indoors from photographs and recall. Rain has wetted more than one of Stefanski's canvasses, wind has toppled her easel and propelled flies and other debris into her wet paint. Cold has turned her oils to goo. A dog once landed on her palette. Small inconveniences: “Don't try to wipe whatever it is off. Let it dry on the canvas and then just brush it off,” the artist advises.
Stefanski doesn't mind people stopping to watch her at work at her easel. Young people are always welcome, the younger the better. Often, she will hand a child a brush with an invitation to help her with whatever she is painting. “I was 47 when I picked up my first paint brush. You never know when inspiration will strike.”
“I am not a 'statement artist',” says Stefanski, although she has one. Unlike the artistic credos that are most artist statements, hers is more a testament to faith and gratitude. It reads: “I . . . was thrilled to find this challenging, creative process trying to capture the beauty and serenity I experience in the world, much of which is in my own backyard. I am grateful for all God's gifts and love sharing this joy and passion with others . . .” Her sharing extends beyond that.
The artist's belief in giving back graces received extends to donating proceeds from the sale of her work to people in need. A portion of monies raised from her Villanova exhibit will go to the hunger awareness program Fiorenza's Food For Friends (F4). The Chester County-based not-for-profit organization gathers perishable and non-perishable foods donated by restaurants, universities and schools and delivers them to homeless shelters free of charge.
Stefanski's work has won the People's Choice Award at the Kutztown (PA) Plein Air Festival; the 2011 Grand Prize, Art of the Garden, at the 2011 Havertown Township Library Exhibit; and the 2010 Suzanne M. Kaminski Memorial Award. She is a member of the Delaware Valley Art League, the Wayne and Main Line Art Centers, the Media Arts Council, ARTsisters and the Havertown Chapter of the Pennsylvania Craftsmen's Guild. Her work is represented by Z Gallery in West Chester, PA, and North End Trilogy in Barnegat Light, NJ.
The Villanova University Art Gallery is open weekdays from 9 am into most evenings. For extended and weekend hours, and other information, telephone the Art Gallery at (610) 519-4612. The Exhibit continues to June 8.