A Life of Art

Paula DeStefanis, founder of the Arts Mill in Grafton, never wavered in pursuing her vision and found it as an artist and gallery director
By 
MITCH MAERSCH
Ozaukee Press staff

Accomplished artist Paula DeStefanis starts many of her abstract pieces with a journal entry. Often, the painting’s theme follows her writing.

Only she knows the words.

DeStefanis writes her thoughts on the blank canvases in pencil, then paints over them. 

“No one sees it,” she said.

But DeStefanis remembers what she writes by what she paints.

The cofounder of the North Shore Academy of the Arts who opened the Arts Mill in Grafton often allows her mood and what’s happening in her life at a given time to influence her work.

It was during a dark time in her life that she developed an interest in abstract paintings, starting with blacks and browns and other dark colors.

Now, DeStefanis is in a happier place and employs brighter colors.

But paintings are far from her only medium. DeStefanis can do a variety of pieces from her extensive background in different types of art that includes professional training on the East Coast and trips to Europe.

DeStefanis is a first-generation American whose parents are from Italy.

Art and music were common in her home. Her mother was an opera singer and her father, who held a doctorate in political science from the University of Rome, co-owned a construction company.

She grew up on the east side of Milwaukee and attended Homestead High School, which had a strong ceramics program.

DeStefanis wanted to be an artist for as long as she can remember, and she never wavered.

“There’s been no other vision for me,” she said.

DeStefanis had a strong drawing and painting background, but she wanted to be a potter. At the time, however, the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design didn’t have a ceramics program, considering it just a craft.

DeStefanis majored in commercial illustration and graphic design with a focus on fine art — learning the old-fashioned paste-up technique. A computer was introduced into her curriculum in the final semester of college in 1985. The degree offered skills for a sustainable living after graduation, rather than becoming one of those proverbial starving artists.

She always wanted to study on the East Coast and earned a master’s degree in fine arts from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

She returned to Wisconsin to be near her family and “then I did every other kind of art job you could do,” she said.

DeStefanis did illustration and graphic design by hand, window displays, framing, gallery direction, silkscreen art that got put onto purses and created patterns for needlepoint designs.

“I think all of those things helped me become a good gallery director,” she said.

DeStefanis and Sheri Mabry founded the NSAA in 2000, which offers rental space and instruction for all kinds of art, including performance, literary, dance to all ages.

DeStefanis founded the Arts Mill in 2011, providing space for artists to work on the second floor and a gallery on the third. The first floor is a coffee shop and brewery, which DeStefanis said is ideal since it brings in people who may check out the art.

The Arts Mill draws artists from across Ozaukee County to as far as West Allis and Kewaskum.

The building’s high ceilings, natural light and calming sounds of the flow of the Milwaukee River make it attractive to the creative kind.

“It’s ideal,” DeStefanis said. “There’s a good vibe in here. Artists say you feel like making art when you’re in here.”

The artists occasionally get together to discuss each other’s work. They are required to spend 12 hours per week in their space and to discuss fellow artists’ pieces with customers if the artist isn’t there.

The goal, DeStefanis said, is to make sales for the artists, most of whom practice their craft for a living.

It’s also special, she said, for customers to watch artists create their pieces. Anyone may attend shows and see the end products, but most don’t get the chance to work being done live.

DeStefanis makes her magic in a corner that has a window, but that might not be her biggest contribution. She curates the exhibits on the third floor and gives private art lessons.

“I often say I’ve created more artists than I have art,” she said.

Two of those might be her sons. One is an art designer in Austin, Texas, and the other is studying design at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

But DeStefanis has created plenty of art pieces in different styles: figurative work, landscapes and still life. She turns bowls from Goodwill into unique pieces.

“I think that’s the intrigue of being an artist,” she said of trying new types. “You’re curious.”

Some of her acrylic paintings weave in geometric shapes — hints of her graphic design background — with texture influenced by European architecture.

The time each piece takes to make varies, and she works on multiple projects at a time. DeStefanis has one specific technique to perfect them.

“A big part of making art is looking at your artwork,” she said. “I sit with my art for a long time between layers.”

She knows when a piece is done.

“It’s definitely an emotional reaction,” she said. “You just know.”

She said she prefers to paint large pieces and, like any artist, finds the painting process therapeutic.

“I don’t need a therapist,” she joked.

While her focus now is abstract, DeStefanis will do any style for which she is commissioned. She is working on a piece for a local fire department that includes axes and the firehouse, and she worked with students on a mural at Woodview Elementary School in Grafton.

“I don’t have a problem working with a client to make them happy,” she said.

What makes her happy is creating art and traveling, especially to Europe.

“I don’t want to be an artist here,” she said. “I want to go where my art can take me.”

In 2012, it took her to a show in London. DeStefanis was disappointed she didn’t sell one piece, but she made up for it by meeting the man who would become her future husband, photographer Adrian Spinks.

As a result, DeStefanis lives part time in England and in Cedarburg.

She also runs her own Etsy shop that has wearable pieces. Between that, painting, teaching and running the nonprofit Arts Mill, including the accounting side of it, “I work all day long,” DeStefanis said.

She is grateful. The Arts Mill survived the pandemic — DeStefanis said she talked to multiple galleries that didn’t — and she continues to chase her international fantasy that has come true at least once.

When traveling through Cornwall, England, she sold a painting in Grafton to someone who lives in Virginia.

“I want to be anywhere in the world and sell a painting to anyone anywhere,” DeStefanis said.

For more information, visit www.theartsmill.org.

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