True Callings

The women in this story prove that the urge to create can strike at any age, under any circumstances.

Some people emerge into adulthood with that one true calling already tugging insistently at a shirtsleeve. Others begin making things out of practicality, only to find that months after all matters of pragmatism are out of the picture, they can’t stop. Still others are driven to create when the rug of life is yanked out from underneath them.

This is the story of three such women. Women of different backgrounds, different ages, and different motivations for creating the things they do. Yet they have one thing in common: Take away their creative process, and you take away a piece of them.
•••

Just more than 10 years ago, Karen Smith was entering mid-life as “a type A kind of person, a workaholic.” She spent the majority of her time taking care of her family — son Nathan, now 18, and husband Marvin — and was devoted to her job as a social worker.

Then came the curveball. In 1991, she was diagnosed with Lyme Disease, a debilitating illness that can cause, among other things, arthritis and neurological damage.

It would be five years before Smith’s life returned to any kind of normalcy. She had to leave her job and spend much of her energy just getting well.

“That set me on my ear emotionally as much as physically,” she says. “I had no choice but to read and contemplate. And part of that contemplating was, ‘OK, let’s look for the blessing here.’

“It sparked my need to have a stronger creative side, more of a regular creative outlet.”

Smith’s friend was a quilter, and she started working for her, helping out in the studio. That part-time gig turned into a 10-year-long “wonderful apprenticeship,” during which time Smith, who had sewn mostly for reasons of necessity her entire life, began quilting herself.

Then, in 1998, because she “wanted to try something different,” she tried her hand at an art quilt. She spent a few months piecing the 6-by-7-foot quilt together and named it “Navigating the Stars, Gathering Bliss.” The quilt’s pattern and its name reflected her own recent experience with hardship.

“It’s about trying to find your way through life, and how you sure better be paying attention to the blessings that happen,” she says.

When the piece was complete, she entered it into the Quilters Guild of Dallas’ annual show. It won first place. Then, with her friend’s encouragement, she responded to an invitation from the city of Fort Smith,
Ark. , for artists to submit their work for possible inclusion in the city’s new civic center.

“And they bought my quilt, for $3,600,” Smith says proudly. “I was off and running and amazed and thrilled. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I think I’ll do this.’”

These days, Smith has returned to part-time social work, but her real passion lays in setting up the life of an artist. She and husband Marvin, who is a potter, run BlissArt and Blue Wolf Studios from their home near
Casa Linda Plaza. She also teaches sewing and helps out with administrative duties at theLakewoodArtsAcademy.

Smith thinks she’s not the only one paying attention to the therapeutic qualities of art.

“There’s something going on. Having a place to be creative and to have some nurturing creativity going on is becoming more and more important to everybody,” Smith says.

“I see it everywhere I go. And it gives me hope.”

•••

Stephanie Bernal didn’t know if she needed any nurturing creativity. She just knew she needed some clothes for her first daughter, now 5.

“When it came to having Isabella, I didn’t even have a sewing machine. But I had these pillowcases, and I thought, ‘I could make these into dresses. I can just figure it out,’” she says.

But Bernal, who had barely sewn since her junior high home economics class, was a natural.

“People would stop Isabella and go, ‘Where did you get that dress? Would you make me one?’ And it just got bigger and bigger and bigger.”

Today, Bernal (who bought a 1919 Singer to make that first dress and has now graduated to a high-tech, fully loaded model) runs Spilt Milk, a company that creates clothing, mostly dresses, out of vintage fabrics. She makes about five to 10 pieces per week, she says.

Bernal, who is also a full-time grant writer for a non-profit company and has since had another daughter, Jacqueline, 2, and an infant son, Christian, credits her Iowa upbringing for her resourcefulness and her work ethic.

“I have a good friend who makes quilts, and she has a friend who is also from
Iowa. And she said to me, ‘That’s the fascinating thing about all these Midwesterners. They just have this tremendous work ethic.’ And I think it’s true,” Bernal says. “You have this idea that you can make anything. I mean, I think I could roof a building.”

She admits, however, that Spilt Milk has become much more than a hobby born of necessity. It’s become her passion.

“It’s a great creative outlet. It’s an art form for me.”

And this black-turtleneck-and-jeans-wearing mother with the quick sense of humor admits to living vicariously through her daughters and other youngsters who wear the clothes she makes.

“I’m just fascinated with what girls can wear; children don’t have any rules. If I put bells around something they just love it all the more,” she says. “This one woman gave me some old curtains, and I hung charms from the rings that held the curtain to the bar. It was fabulous. You can’t do that as an adult. You just don’t have any boundaries when you’re one or two or three years old.”

Bernal says the most difficult part of her work is finding vintage fabrics in good condition for a reasonable price. Though a few local dealers now call her when they get usable fabrics, some of her best resources have been family.

She says her mother can still find box-loads of fabric in
Iowa for $2, and her family recently unearthed an enormous collection of fabric that belonged to her grandmother.

And speaking of grandmothers … what does hers think about those dresses made from old dishtowels and bedspreads?

“I think she thinks I’m really creative,” Bernal says. “And she’s just amazed at what people will spend. She’ll see a dress I made and say ‘Oh that’s really pretty.’ And I’ll say, ‘I just sold one like it for $85.’ And she’ll look at me like, ‘You’re a genius!’

•••

Grab a cup of coffee with Steffani Marie Garner at the local Starbucks where she works the morning shift, and you’re bound to meet a bunch of new people.

Many of them she knows from taking their orders and slinging their lattes. But then there are the others … the women who exclaim, “Oh look! What do we have here?” with delighted eyes as they walk by the table filled with the bounty from Garner’s real passion: jewelry.

To say Garner is a jewelry designer, however, doesn’t tell the whole story. She’s actually a metalsmith and wants to be known as one, even if it doesn’t sound as sexy or hip as the other. And to see her work explains why.

Garner makes all kinds of jewelry, including bracelets and earrings, but most of the pieces in her latest line are long necklaces of copper interlaced with vintage glass beads and semi-precious stones. And she makes each link, each tiny clasp, herself.

“I have my oxy-acetylene torch,” she says proudly, referring to the blowtorch-like device she uses to solder the pieces together. “Metalsmithing is fun. It really gives me a sense of accomplishment every time I get a new piece started or finished.”

Though she attended the Parson’s School of Design in New York and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago to learn metalsmithing, her jewelry fascination started much earlier.

“I’ve been designing jewelry my entire life. Whatever was around, it ended up being jewelry. When I was really young, I would make obnoxious jewelry with paper, glitter, beads,” says Garner, who lives in our neighborhood with her dog, Star Puppy.

Today, her work is decidedly more sophisticated. She “scavenges” the country for vintage stones and beads and stays away from “outside influences” such as fashion magazines.

“Each piece is its own art,” she says. “I would describe them as timeless, classic, eclectic, intricate, encompassing and one-of-a-kind.”

Others agree. The Dallas Museum of Art recently contracted with Garner to feature some of her pieces in its store, and she’s working on a similar deal with the Art Institute of Chicago. She also hopes to diversify her work in the coming months by working with silver lockets and experimenting with other types of jewelry.

Whatever the future holds for her, she knows one thing for certain: She’ll always be a metalsmithing jewelry designer.

“This is just something I’ve loved doing my entire life,” Garner says. “There’s no way to pry me from doing this.”


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