The ART of her life

After Gina Studelska retired from teaching art, her career making art bloomed in an array of eclectic mediums
Ozaukee Press staff

It’s not that retired teacher Gina Studelska is going back to art school, but she found a pretty close replica in a little corner of the Arts Mill in Grafton.

She has created fiber art there for about eight years and is part of the alumni exhibit on display through Oct. 29.

It was when she was forced to stay at her home during the pandemic that she found one of her new passions.

Studelska was one of three award winners at Arts Mill show, and the winners’ prize was their own show the following year.

That was when the lock-downs hit.

During a discussion online, the other winners said it was difficult to focus on creating big pieces for the show. Someone suggested focusing on little pieces.

Studelska stared out her window at the small Tibetan prayer flags she had hung on a string.

By the time the show was held, she made 125 6-by-9-inch flags. Some had peace signs, crosses, Native American imagery or Buddha-related images.

Fabric came from scraps Studelska had lying around, recycled material, thrift stores, a bedspread and a friend’s tattered quilt from her car.

“I even cut up some clothing,” Studelska said.

The project served as an outlet for Studelska that she welcomed while being stuck at home.

“It was so therapeutic to hand stitch,” she said.

But it wasn’t enough for her to create art for her exhibit. She told her husband she wanted to give back.

Arts Mill Director Paula DeStefanis developed a way that a portion of every flag’s sale would be donated to the Casa Maria Hospitality House in Milwaukee that takes in single mothers and their children who need housing.

About 75 flags were sold online, and Studelska donated $1,200 to the shelter.

“It just felt so good to give that energy back to people during the pandemic,” she said.

In spring, Studelska did a similar fundraiser and donated $250 to the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort.

Art was always an interest of Studelska’s as she grew up above a cheese factory in London, Wis., an unincorporated town just north of Cambridge.

Her mother and grandmother often knitted and stitched. Her mother made most of Studelska’s clothes.

Her father owned the London Cheese Cellar one floor below. Studelska’s parents helped nurture her interest in art, signing her up for private lessons.

“We didn’t have a ton of money but my mom knew I loved it,” Studelska said.

Studelska was inspired by her elementary school and high school art teacher.

“He really encouraged it. He saw some creativity,” she said.

“Hopefully, I’ve done that for a lot of Grafton students.”

Studelska taught for 34 years in Grafton. It was her first job after earning art and education degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and she never left until retiring in 2011.

“I wanted to share my love for art with people,” she said. “I really admired my art teacher and what he did.”

In a volunteer role after retirement, Studelska said her students taught her just as much as she taught them when she led art classes for six years through the Ozaukee County Jail Literacy Program.

“I learned how valuable self-expression was to some of them. Where they were from and what they had done. Not to judge until you’ve been in somebody else’s shoes,” she said.

Studelska loved watching students who otherwise never would have talked to one another sit around a table giving encouragement during a group project.

“One even said, ‘When we get out of here we’ve got to do this again with our kids,” she said.

After retiring, Studelska wanted to get back to creating more art. She barely had time while teaching, raising two children, being a Girl Scout leader and involved in her church.

She got herself a new Mac computer and Photoshop. She had taught photography — film and digital — and wanted to work on her own photos.

Her plan didn’t last long.

“After a couple of months I could not stand being home alone. It was a huge change,” Studelska said.

She attended an event at the Arts Mill — it’s within walking distance of her house — and instantly knew she had to get involved. She and a fellow Grafton art teacher rented a space, and today Studelska handles the venue’s Instagram posts.

“I told my husband this is what I need,” she said. “It was the closest thing to being back in art school.”

The space allowed Studelska to try a new medium. She had done some weaving in college and became interested in fiber arts.

“I love the way it feels. There’s something about the tactile,” she said. “I love the colors. You can do so much. You can even paint on it.”

Studelska utilizes a technique called eco printing.

She collects leaves and plants and either tightly bundles them and a piece of silk, paper or another material around a tube or clumps them between floor tiles. The leaves and plants make an imprint on the fabric.

Some of the final products are scarves in high demand by tourists who want to buy souvenirs made with local items, as well as large-scale quilts, hanging pieces and even decorated bowls made of paper.

Leaves come from a variety of unique sources. Studelska takes morning walks to Lime Kiln Park to collect her gems or around her neighborhood after a storm. A friend once called and said her husband had just cut down a smokebush tree. Studelska rushed over with a bag and collected leaves. Studelska is excited for fall, for it is a different type of harvest time for her, but she has learned that “not every leaf works.”

Maple, oak and sumac are wonderful varieties to use in her art, she said, and invasive plants such as grapevine are good.

Studelska also does cyanotype art, a process in which photos are superimposed onto paper and fabrics with a blueprint-like look.

She continues to teach on a limited basis. Studelska has two workshops scheduled for next year at the Wisconsin Museum of Quilts and Fiber Arts in Cedarburg.

She has passed on some of her passion to her children. Her son just set up a darkroom in his house and her daughter paints.

Studelska, one of the founding members of the Cedarburg Arts Guild, still does some of her art at home but comes to the Arts Mill once or twice per week.

“Every day I’m grateful I’m in this spot,” she said. “I thank the Lord I have the health and opportunity to do this.”

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