A lot of us who have the impulse to make something with our hands for no purpose other than the sheer enjoyment of creating have a familiar memory: a well-meant warning about the challenges of being an “artist.” Maybe it has stuck with us and it’s the reason we didn’t pursue art. Or maybe, with a lot of effort, we kept going. Usually the cautionary word comes from someone who believes they have our best interests at heart. The myth of the starving artist, inserted at just the wrong moment can deter us from doing what we really want to do. And so we find creative adjacent activities. Jobs that have the flavor of our passion, but not the meat.
For Ophelia Staton, the good samaritan shielding her from the trials and tribulations of a life in the arts was Mrs. Potter, her third grade teacher. When Mrs. Potter asked Ophelia what she wanted to be when she grew up, she knew in her bones. “I want to be an artist!,” 8-year-old Ophelia said confidently. Mrs. Potter laughed and said, “Good luck selling peanuts at football games. You’ll never make any money as an artist!” Ophelia was stunned. But she was also clever and didn’t want to be poor, so she took the advice of someone much older and therefore as logic goes, wiser.
Growing up, she never took an art class. She studied Criminal Justice, began her career in Juvenile Probation, and later went into Education, teaching History. History is practical.
But the itch to create never left, and about ten years ago, Ophelia found herself quilting. Creative, but still practical. She gave quilts as gifts, and people thought they were adorable. Friends and family could understand the hours devoted to something that would keep them warm and remind them of a loved one.
But she began to find that following patterns became a bit boring. Why did she always have to follow instructions? The itch persisted, and so she began to make art quilts, pieces to hang on the wall, serving no function but expression. People were a bit confused, receiving these new gifts from her: What is it? What do I do with it? They asked. At the risk of spiraling back to the Mrs. Potter incident, Ophelia kept going. She got into dyeing fabrics for her quilts to create her own fabulous colors.
One day she needed more dye for her art quilts, and she walked into Jerry’s Artarama in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Rediscovering Her Creativity
She had never seen anything like it: it was like a candy store for artists. She’d gone in for one thing and walked through the aisles amazed at all the different things a person could use to create. Colored pencils, markers, acrylic paint, brushes. New neurological pathways began to crackle and buzz. She wanted to try everything.
Beyond a “regular,” Ophelia soon became a fixture at Jerry’s. She would visit three to four times a week, buying one or two things, pacing herself with a steady drip of new creative endeavors. Art supplies became her obsession.
While Ophelia may have pushed her artist self deep down for a long time, her personality is anything but subdued. She’s chatty, friendly, effusive. As her knowledge of art supplies grew, so did her animated conversations with fellow customers. She would share her experiences of particular materials with the person next to her who had been debating between two different kinds of colored pencils.
Her growing expertise and passion for the supplies did not go unnoticed. Store Manager Tom Dowd and the rest of the staff got to know her well. One day Tom flat out asked her to be the demo artist, and Ophelia was taken aback. “I have no training!” she gaped. He hadn’t even seen any of her artwork, pages and pages of art journals where she would pour her energy at home and then promptly close the book so that no one could see or judge. But he had heard her waxing poetic and bonding with people in the store over nearly any mixed media tool she could get her hands on for months. And he just had this feeling.
And so began a beautiful partnership.
Ophelia brought in her sense of wonder, her effusive energy, her fearlessness in trying out products and her homegrown expertise. The staff encouraged her, gave her canvas to create with. “Tom made me what I am today,” she tells me, point blank.
Then Tom told her, she needed to be an art teacher. What was she doing teaching history? “I don’t have any formal training!” Ophelia reiterated. “I’m not qualified in any way.” Despite hundreds of hours experimenting with product, painting and working with color, she still saw herself as less than an artist.
From Double Life to Taking the Leap
But a few years into being a demo artist for Jerry’s at night, Ophelia felt like she was living a double life. She would wake up at four in the morning to play in her studio, then put on “adult clothes,” go to her “podium” in the history class and essentially read her lines. She was always waiting until the bell would ring so she could return to her other life, her real life: her studio or Jerry’s to film a demo.
And so one day, she just went for it. She signed up to take the state certification test to become an art teacher and got to studying. She passed on her first go and then the stars aligned even more: there was an opening at her school for an art teacher.
Eight years ago when Ophelia first came into Jerry’s, they were preparing for a big event, The Art of The Carolinas, a large retail event with product demos, and classes. When she first visited Jerry’s, the staff told her to come by for the event.
She went out and bought a sketchbook especially for the event; she had never even owned one before. She used that sketchbook to write down everything that the demo artists would tell her about art-making. And when she went home that evening she wrote in her journal that one day she would want to become a demo artist for this event as well. Those artists simply inspired her, and she wanted to do the very same for others out there.
Today, Ophelia paints every morning, she is a proud art educator at the local high school, and she was just invited to be one of the demo artists at that very same art education conference that she attended so long ago with her blank sketchbook.
We sat down with Ophelia to learn more about her art-making process, what it’s like to do weekly videos for Jerry’s and what supplies she can’t get enough of.
What are your go-to materials?
“The supplies don’t create the magic, it’s the user. My best work comes when my supplies are just simple and at my fingertips, I just pull out what I think I may use instead of spending forty minutes looking for that one stencil. It’s here in my face, I use it and that’s that. Here and now, I’m in the zone and I get to create.
I’m mainly an abstract painter. I use loads of different things to make marks and unearth an abstract painting.”
- Acrylic paint
- Jerry’s Jumbo Black Black Pencil (“It’s an oil impregnated charcoal. It gives you the dark black mark without the shine of the pencil.”)
- Stabilo Woody 3 in 1
- Derwent Inktense & Graphitint
What do you love about your process and the work you make?
“The freedom. I love that other people get to interpret what they want from my artwork: the viewer gets to decide how it makes them feel, what they want it to say. I get to be completely intuitive when I paint. I’ll start with nothing in mind except for a pencil and scribble on canvas, and that will control the colors I reach for. I don’t usually start a painting and finish a painting on the same day. I get up at four in the morning, before I go off to work. I love to kind of get out of my headspace and just paint.”
Tell me about your 365 paintings in 2019!
“These are little tiny paintings I started on January 1st, 2019. I thought to myself, because I’m always striving to get better, if I could do something every single day, I have to get better at it. These are 3-½” x 2-½” Strathmore Mixed Media Papers. At that tiny size if I ruined it, no loss. Toss it in the garbage and move on. There was no attachment, it’s not precious. I posted them on Instagram for accountability. I learned so much about letting go and enjoying the process of creating through these tiny daily paintings.”
Tell me about your journey with video content, did it begin before, during or after teaching at Jerry’s?
“I’m on Jerry’s YouTube channel for Mixed Media Mondays. That’s a lot of journals and mixed media fun. I’m a nervous wreck behind the camera; they roll the cameras and I do it anyway. I might have an idea about what I want to talk to people about—letting go…collecting memories. I will have the gamut of supplies, I might use 3, I might use 20.
It’s a lot of work. On Thursdays I drag my bag of stuff to Jerry’s, film after school. Burning Oak Studios does their editing. There are days when I will almost let my fear get the best of me, and I want to just not do it. It totally helps me when someone says, ‘Thank you for being so real and so honest. I picked up my journal after years of having it in a drawer’, and with that, I carry on.
I tell my students all the time: beginning artists see these other artists with their Instagram feeds. You think, ‘Oh my god I could never do that…,’ but you don’t see any of the art in their paint-over pile! We let that totally block us from even starting. I like to help people work outside of that. The show is there to show you it’s okay to not make great paintings all the time. We are on our own journey.”
What role can art supply stores play in people’s creative journeys?
“10 years ago if you had said to me, I would be an art teacher, painting on canvas in my own studio, an educator for Derwent…I would say, you are crazy! I didn’t even know how to hold a pencil. Now, everyday I get to go to my dream job. Every person has a gift. My gift is to inspire others. I was always a creator, but I love the ability to teach other creators. Even with Jerry’s and when I demo products, I’m still teaching. As an educator with Derwent, I’m still teaching.
You never know who is gonna walk in the doors of your store. So when I’m at Jerry’s, I try to make it so that everybody walks out with the feeling, I can do this. That could have been me walking into the store. It could totally change someone’s life for the better.”