+ By Desiree Smith-Daughety + Photos by Karen Davies
When entering Jen Sterling Art, one walks into an effusive eruption of color. Sterling’s artwork is characterized by a fearless use of bold paint, veering between a riot of fiery flashes and pulsing energy and more calming tones evoking sailboats on seas, rain-streaked windows, and breeze-whisper skies.
She loves to paint big canvases, and her art reflects her exuberant personality with an empath’s intuition for what appeals to clients. But her home didn’t offer a spare room large enough, and one of her former spaces required ancillary space at a storage facility—imagine: an idea comes, but you must drive to a storage unit to ferret out a certain-sized canvas. Such creativity interruptus led to her investing in a new gallery and art studio space located in a commercial park not far from the Annapolis Arts District.
Sterling’s creative brain shares space with a keen business mind—the underpinning of her success in getting her name and work out into the world. She employs the rigorous mindset that launched and grew three branding and marketing firms for almost three decades to grow the commercial side of her art, viewing her finished work from the perspective of a business owner first, then an artist.
The space she has made has allowed for an unleashing. Before then, Sterling felt that nothing around her was creative; now, she is inspired to go to work every day. “I love being here and even come on the weekend. I love this space, down to the dust bunnies. This space is where my creativity lives and I come to play with it,” Sterling says.
The front entrance area serves as her gallery. As with any gallery, the displayed art is rotated— while she loves representational art, she paints abstracts. Woody, a life-sized wooden manikin, greets guests. Plants breathe a different kind of life into the place, complementing the art to create a warm and inviting atmosphere.
Her office displays objects and items that intrigue her and make her happy. Walls are lined with her personal collection of local artists’ work, along with pieces from her own collection, such as a stool applied with her artwork, melding function with fancy. Scattered about are inspirational sayings, including one of her own—“Live life in full color!”—and “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” by Scott Adams. Remarking on the importance of the environment, she says, “You have to like the space you’re in to think freely and create.”
Sterling’s studio facilitates creativity. Supplies are organized and accessible, with one shelved wall lined with paint stock and other tools. “You can never have enough supplies!” she says. Now, when she has an idea, she doesn’t lose its energy by scrambling for the right canvas or the cadmium red dark or Prussian blue paint—all are available at the tip of an outstretched hand. Her easel is not the traditional kind that you might imagine artists poised before. Sterling analyzed her process and devised a method that complements it by transforming one wall—now her favorite part of the studio—into the painting wall. When she described to her carpenter what she wanted, his blunt response was that she was “freaking nuts.” She had requested drywall screws evenly spaced over several feet, making it easier to work on and shift multiple canvases at a time—one canvas dries or awaits a composition resolution while another is begun. Sterling doesn’t believe this is a sign of attention deficit disorder; she simply has a lot of ideas and doesn’t want to lose steam.
Tucked in a corner is the “misfit pile” to which she consigns works that must “go into time-out” because she’s not sure how to complete them. A back area serves as storage for her finished work—labeled, inventoried, and ready to show. If a client needs a piece that’s 60” x 72” with blues and yellows, then she can show what she has on hand immediately. “You have to be fast and on the ball—responsive—when you get a call,” says Sterling.
At times, she’s challenged in switching between her left and right brain. While painting, she feels guilty for having fun. While handling accounting or social marketing, she feels guilty for not creating. Loud music helps her transition into creative mode while quelling the businesswoman’s inner voice hollering about tasks. Her business and creative sides meld in getting her work before an audience, and that has led to unique offerings such as displaying her artwork on skateboards, journals, clothing, and boots.
Sterling treats her art as a full-time job. She’s not waiting for her muse to show up. She unlocks the studio door between 7 and 7:30 a.m. and remains there until at least 5 p.m. During that time, she must balance business needs—such as running to the frame store or delivering a piece to a gallery or client—with producing work. She encourages people to come by and see what’s hanging in the gallery or to discuss what they need for a space. Drop-ins are encouraged to call first, due to the scuttling about for deliveries.
Throughout her life, Sterling has always been artistic. She fondly recalls fresh boxes of crayons (the primo box, boasting 64 colorful opportunities for self-expression), cross-stitch kits, doodling, and photography. During college, she wanted to take art classes but was on a science track toward genetic engineering. A typography class (studying letter forms) had her go all in for design, spurred by the revelation that she could earn a living being creative. That led her into marketing and branding for companies and eventually into full-blown business owner mode. Once her business became a well-oiled machine, Sterling returned to art and started painting, hiring staff to handle the day-to-day work. A turning point occurred during a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico; blame it on the vistas, which enraptured her so much that she bought paint and brushes to put that feeling onto canvas. She currently uses a variety of tools in her work—a stick, a brush, a palette knife, even a shower squeegee.
A few years ago, she found that she was no longer happy doing marketing design, which had become more about statistical measurements of online engagement than creativity, so she sold her business. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the bank pulled the buyers’ funding. She smartly maneuvered around that roadblock, feeling so much better after leaving behind the corporate roller coaster. What she formerly tried to accomplish with words she now describes with color, making vibrant, impactful works on canvas. When she walks into her workspace, she feels the energy that and tells herself, “It’s gonna be a good day.”
With pandemic restrictions recently peeling back, she’s been planning future endeavors, including participating in the Maryland Federation of Arts first-ever art studio tour, along with showing her work at her gallery and at festivals. She also has commissions lined up, many of them for businesses. Recently, she completed a mural in Washington, DC’s, Chinatown as an installation in a gym space. The business side of art takes up most of her time, with painting constituting only 30 percent of it. But during that fraction of time, she infuses her paintings with raw emotion and energy to enliven interior spaces anywhere. █