Saturday, Sept. 13, 2008 | When Jane LaFazio was laid off from her marketing post at a local architecture firm, she had five weeks to go before her first solo art exhibition.

She knew she and her husband could make their mortgage payments for about six months, so she gave herself that time to try being a fulltime artist. Ten years later, LaFazio hasn’t gone back to the 9-to-5 world, where she previously held various gigs as a marketer, a graphic designer and a flight attendant.

And much like the mixed-media collage-style pieces she creates with fabric, paper and her own illustrations, LaFazio has pieced together a variety of diversions and media to make a living as an artist. With a grant, she teaches an after-school art program for kids from low-income households in Escondido.

She teaches art workshops for adults, in person and online. She has been featured in a couple of art and craft magazines, and recently filmed segments for a PBS program focused on her work. She sells some of her own art online and in shows. And she chronicles it all — including her sketches and watercolors from pieces of her everyday life — in her blog.

She says she’s made financial adjustments to make this life possible, like moving to a small house and cutting many expenses. “But it’s all ended up for the better,” she says.

LaFazio filled us in on her decision to pursue art, the impetus given by her husband’s brain injury in the early 1990s and why she cares to teach others to be creative.

What has captured your attention lately?

In my own work? For the last few years I’ve been working with organza, creating sheer, hand-sewn wall hangings. The first one I did was a “quilt” of 35-year-old love letters from an old boyfriend — the actual paper letters between two pieces of organza sewn up like a quilt, cleverly entitled “Ralph’s Letters.” Since then, I’ve been rusting, coffee staining, tearing, and sewing with organza and other sheer fabrics to create what I call my shroud series. I’ve also been collaging paper onto cloth and sewing on it.

As for my attention in San Diego, I’d say the Mingei Museum (Balboa Park and Escondido) is one of my favorite places to go for inspiration and just plain beauty. Not long ago, they had an exhibition of “everyday” goods, and the display of old handmade brooms made me cry, they were so beautiful! Right now there’s an awesome fiber show at the Balboa Park location. I go to a lot of art openings and art fairs, as an artist and an art collector.

Do you have a place where you like to work? Do you ever pack it up and take your work outside? If so, what do you take with you?

I mostly work in my studio at home. A messy place all my own. Sometimes, in the evening, I’ll stitch or sketch while watching TV with my husband.

As for going outside, one of my very favorite things to do is to go out with my sketch bag and draw and paint. I carry a Moleskine Watercolor Sketchbook, pencil, permanent ink pen, kneadable eraser, a small palette of watercolors and my Niji waterbrush (a paint brush that holds water inside its cartridge). I consider my sketch bag my entertainment center and I can go anywhere, be anywhere and thoroughly enjoy myself sketching and painting whatever catches my fancy. I try to draw and paint in my sketchbook a couple of times a week, whether at my house, or on location. My husband also sketches, and we’ll often go together and hang out somewhere for an hour or two and draw.

What roots you in San Diego? And in a broader sense, what of San Diego shows up in your art?

I’m originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, married at 26 and moved to Oregon, South Korea, L.A. and then to San Diego in 1989. I love San Diego and feel blessed to live here.

As for how it shows up in my art… There’s a definite Mexican influence in much of my art, from traveling in Mexico to seeing and appreciating the culture here in San Diego. The colors of San Diego are apparent in everything I do — bright, clear colors. Certainly my sketchbook is filled with drawings of San Diego “things” like succulents, palm trees, Spanish architecture, flowers, fruit, pomegranate martinis…

I don’t know how often this happens, but when you’re describing your work to someone who’s never seen it, how do you characterize your style? What’s your favorite medium?

When someone asks me to describe my work, I usually stumble and mumble!! I do so many different things and have so many interests! Lately, I’ve tried to be succinct and say “I’m a mixed media artist working in paper and cloth.” Years ago, someone walked in my booth (at an art show I was exhibiting at) and said “You must have a lot of friends.” I asked why did she say that, and she said “because your work is so happy and full of joy.” I LOVE that comment!

As for my favorite medium, that’s a difficult question. I suppose my “core” medium is watercolor and my sketchbook drawings. I love stitching, whether on paper or fabric, and I could spend hours and hours doing collage. So there, my top three favorite mediums!

It seems 1992 was a crucial year for you. Tell us about that period in your life and what has changed for you since then.

Whew. Yes, life-changing indeed. I’ll try to be brief. My husband, Don Strom, was 46 years old and suffered a brain aneurysm. He had brain surgery, and was hospitalized for a month. He went into the hospital an executive — a personal manager for Hewlett-Packard — and came out unable to talk, read, or write, barely walk or care for himself. He has a brain injury and aphasia (a communication disability). He had some seven years of language therapy and 16 years later remains permanently disabled. Now, he’s physically in great shape, plays golf, drives, is an active volunteer, communicates pretty darn well, and leads a happy, productive life. We have a great relationship, and live a wonderful life.

Of course, back in 1992 and the years after, I didn’t know what the future would bring for either of us. Let’s put it this way, from 1992 to 1995, I feel like I cried all the time.

BUT, it’s life-changing events like ours, I believe, that take you first to your core (thankfully, both Don and I are positive loving people at the core) and then if you’re strong enough, help you create a new life. CREATE a new life. And that’s what we’ve done. I’m the artist I was always meant to be — (due), in large part, to the life-changing events of 1992.

You’ve gotten some attention from a relatively new magazine — Cloth, Paper, Scissors. Into what genre does this kind of art fit, and what’s the main demographic of your peers who create it?

Its sister magazine, is Quilting Arts, were both created by the amazing Patricia Pocahontas Bolton. (Yes, her middle name is Pocahontas, and she goes by Pokey.) Pokey lives in Stow, Mass., and I met her when Lesley Riley (a very well-known respected mixed media artist) did a story on my “Ralph’s Letters” quilt for Quilting Arts magazine. Since then I’ve submitted articles and projects to Pokey and she has published many of them. Thankfully, she’s a big supporter of my work, and I recently flew to Cleveland to film two segments on the 3rd season of Quilting Arts TV, a PBS series. My segments will air early next year AND you’ll be able to buy the DVD set online.

Cloth Paper Scissors is geared to paper more than cloth and is an excellent publication. As for the demographics of both publications, I’d say women who love to work with their hands — quilters, mixed media artists and people who want to be. I was recently an ‘open studio’ artist for Cloth Paper Scissors at the International Quilt Convention in Long Beach and met many of the readers. I’d say most of them could be my friends and hang out makin’ stuff in my studio!

You got a grant from the Picerne Foundation for a program called Mundo Lindo. What is it and what sparked the idea to create the program?

The Kenneth A. Picerne Foundation put out a request for proposals in early 2007 that read, “Artists in North County, 55 and older, who want to teach their passion to an under-served population, please apply.” Hello! What an amazing offer! I think about a dozen people forwarded the email to me, since it fit me so well.

So, I created Mundo Lindo — beautiful world based on what I love to do — teach kids, specifically fourth- and fifth-graders — all kinds of art. The grant required I partner with a nonprofit, and I chose the Escondido Children’s Museum. The classes are held there, the kids are from all the Escondido elementary schools, and we have the best time! I teach two two-hour afterschool classes each week, with about 15 kids in each class. We draw, paint, papier mache, use clay, make books, paint kites, make puppets and do puppet shows, anything and everything. I love it, and I feel so honored and proud to bring art and the joy it gives to these kids. Picerne Foundation extended the grant for another year, so I’m funded through summer 2009.

Why do you teach art – to kids, to adults, in person, online? Wouldn’t it be enough to just create your own work?

In 1998, when I first became a fulltime artist, I thought I would create my art and sell it, and at the time, stated that I didn’t want to teach. (I’d never taught before.) Gradually, I spoke of an interest to teach kids. When I tried it, I really enjoyed and the kids loved me. (I later learned, kids always love the art teacher! No homework!)

In 2003, when I started making art quilts, my pal Helen Shafer Garcia suggested I teach a class in art quilts at the Oceanside Museum of Art. Now, the majority of my time and much of my energy is spent teaching and preparing artwork to teach. One reason is that teaching provides a steadier income than selling artwork. And, frankly, I’m good at teaching and I love sharing my enthusiasm for creating art. Teaching suits me. I love learning new techniques and materials and I pass that along to my students. And I have an outgoing personality, so being in a crowd is great fun.

How does technology intersect your art?

Scanning, blogging, teaching online, emailing, posting to different online groups — it’s international networking with like-minded people. As for technology in my art, I sometimes print out my drawings on different materials to use in my artwork. I don’t ever ‘design’ on the computer, I prefer working with my hands, but I love the outreach technology provides!

— Interview conducted via e-mail by KELLY BENNETT

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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