Mary Lou Bradley: Painting the Picture-Perfect Life

Mary Lou Bradley

Mary Lou Bradley worked for the man who created Three’s Company, a TV show those of us of a certain age will remember. She also worked for Bill DeBlasio before he was the mayor of New York City. She went to culinary school and learned to make pastries. And then, at age 55, she became an entrepreneur.

Sumeera Rasul: For the Love of Handmade

unnamed (4)Sumeera Rasul was raised with an appreciation for all things handmade. In her native Pakistan, her father made his living exporting handmade furniture and clothing, and her grandmother taught sewing, knitting, and embroidery to underprivileged girls.

“We grew up around that; it was part of our culture,” Rasul says. “We were always watching my grandmother and learning from her. We had respect for people who work with their hands, as well as for the quality of the things they made. I remember my grandmother looking at certain textiles and saying ‘No, I don’t want that, it’s machine-made.’ To her that meant it wasn’t of good quality. Something made by hand, even with imperfections, feels so much more valuable.”

Throughout the years, Rasul never lost that appreciation for handmade items or the people who make them. (more…)

Alice Shepherd: When the Need to Create Triumphs

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“When the horse dies, get off.” Strange as it seems, those six words may have changed the course of Alice Shepherd’s life.

At the tender age of 19, Shepherd began her career in bookkeeping in Nashville, TN, where she was born and raised. It wasn’t long before she had worked her way up to a position in public accounting and also became a certified QuickBooks Pro advisor, leading classes and instructing others in the use of the accounting software. When asked why she chose accounting, Shepherd replies in her lilting Southern accent, “I was good at accounting, plain and simple. It didn’t have much to do with liking it or not liking it; it served me well.” (more…)

Kathleen Marinaccio: The Art of the Matter

KathleenThe old saying goes, those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. But that’s not quite the way it worked out for Kathleen Marinaccio who had a full and prosperous career as a corporate creative director before eventually opening her own art school. Not only was she ready to be the boss, but she was also drawn to the idea of encouraging others to entertain the idea of a career in the arts.

But it didn’t always look that way for Marinaccio. For as long as she can remember, she wanted to be a nurse. “My father had MS and I thought if I was a nurse I could cure him,” she says. Marinaccio would watch the nurses taking care of him then she would paint pictures of herself as a nurse, also taking care of her dad. “I have tons of pictures of me in all different scenes, making my Dad better.”

But when she was 12, her father died, and with that so did her dream of a career in medicine. But her love of art didn’t, and Marinaccio continued to paint from 12 on, expanding beyond the nursing (4)

Her focus on art continued through high school, and when she was considering college, Marinaccio’s high school art teacher encouraged her to apply to the renowned Pratt Institute in New York City.  Knowing she would have to bear the financial weight of college on her own, she applied for the Pratt Scholarship. Although she didn’t win, she placed 13th, still quite a feat, and enough to push the college to entice her to come with other grants.

So in 1987, when she was 18, she packed her bags for Brooklyn. “At that time, Brooklyn wasn’t the best place but I loved it.  And I decided early on to become a graphic designer. I knew I couldn’t paint the rest of my life and needed to make money.”

Her senior year at Pratt, she did an internship for NBC studios, a stint where she was producing ads for Emmy-nominated shows and logos for sports events.” She loved every minute of it. From NBC she jumped to Harper Collins the book publisher as a graphic designer.

It was not the pay or the job description that sealed the deal for her: “The woman who was interviewing me couldn’t find a pen to write notes, so after looking all over, she picked up a purple crayon – which happened to be attached to my coloring book resume – and took notes with that. I just thought that was so awesome and funny, and clearly there was some sort of chemistry because at the end of the interview she said you’re hired!”

It wasn’t just interview chemistry. The woman became a mentor to Marinacco, and the two struck up a lifelong friendship as a result. “She always wanted me to strive for the best and always try to do as much with art as I could. It’s hard to believe an art director I met almost 23 years ago is now one of my closest and dearest friends.”

Marinaccio stayed at Harper Collins for a year and a half when she moved to take a position as a junior designer at The Lotus Group, a NYC design firm. “I was just 23 at the time and was supposed to be out partying and doing real life stuff, but yeah, I wasn’t doing that. I was working.” Six months into her job at Lotus, she moved into the senior designer position, and then a few months after that she heard from a Pratt friend who was working with Marvel Comics that they were looking for a freelance graphic designer. Marinaccio had the skillset and the work sounded interesting so she took the position … as a night job.

It was a grueling schedule but she loved it … working three jobs (oh, did we fail to mention the weekly bartending gig?), doing what she loved for great companies. “I didn’t sleep and I worked a ton. I don’t know how I did it all but I just kept working and banking the money.” But at 25, she needed a break, just a vacation really. After meeting someone in a bar who lived in LA and extended her an invitation to visit, Marinacco decided a vacation was long overdue. Her boss agreed and even said, “you need a break. Take the trip, and I’ll pay for it.”

After a week in California, Marinaccio knew she had to move there. She loved the weather and the beach and the laid back lifestyle after seven non-stop years in New York City. “When I got back my boss said, oh my God, did I just pay for you to realize you want to leave your job here?”

Marinacco never had trouble landing jobs. Her work ethic preceded her and when she put the word out that she wanted to move to California, her colleagues at Marvel connected her with people at New World Entertainment (of Wonder Years fame) who were looking for a creative director.

With $6000 in her bank account, the 26-year old headed West.  New World eventually got sold to Fox, a move that led Marinacco to take her design skills in-house … literally. “I realized I really wanted to work for myself and I opened my own design firm, Fishbrain Graphic Design, out of a third bedroom in my house. From 1998 until 2010, Marinaccio ran her business, with her now husband, another refugee from NYC.

In 2010, it had been 12 years since Marinacco had “worked for the man” and when Warner Bros. came calling with the chance to takeover their Media Research design department, she jumped.  But it was that move that really brought it home for Marinacco, “When executives were banging their hands on the table in frustration during meetings, I realized I had been in the game too long.”

photo 1 (3)Those art teachers who had guided Marinaccio long ago must have been speaking to her subliminally because, one day at Warner Bros., it hit her – she had to open an art school.  “I wanted to teach all forms of art to all people. I had had a career already. I wanted to teach other people who liked art how to do it, how to practice it, and to get them to the point where they could have a great career in art if they wanted to.”

At first Marinaccio, started out of her house again, in the evenings and on the weekends. First one student, then three, then four. All of her students were people who had other jobs but wanted to be graphic designers – a challenge Marinaccio was well prepared to teach.

“I couldn’t wait to get home and help the students. It was like THIS – all of this has been for this moment right here. I would go to meetings and I would sketch my students’ projects and try to find solutions for them.”

Even though the writing was on the wall so to speak, it took one of her students to hammer the point home. “She came up to me and said, ‘you need to do this for real.’”

The next day while driving to work, a phrase popped into her mind: Reimagine, Enjoy, Aspire, and Learn. After work she told her husband she had come up with the acronym for the school: REAL. “My husband, who thinks most ideas are dumb just said, ‘brilliant’, and then of course, I said, ‘Shit, I don’t know anything about opening a school.’”

Over the next couple of months, Marinaccio networked like crazy. She reached out to funders, community leaders, teachers and more. Before she knew it she had 15 teachers saying they were willing to teach a class or more if she needed it and a commercial real estate location. She was on her way to raising $30K in crowdfunding through MoolaHoop, a crowdfunding source by and for women. With some money in the bank and her former student and now partner, Tina Cho, on board they launched REAL on March 19, 2014.

“I knew that if I didn’t try it, I would always regret it.”

It wasn’t easy but she kept moving forward. Her motto when she hit stumbling blocks was simply, “I gotta do it.”

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REAL’s 4th of July parade float

Today, REAL Creative Space occupies 1250 square feet in Los Angeles’ Westchester Triangle near LAX. REAL offers workshops and camps for adults and kids ages 5-18, that combine people’s current interests with their desire to learn art. A recent summer camp, MineCraft –ing, which focused on the popular game but combined the artist styles of Mondrian and Picasso was hugely successful. Marinaccio still works at Warner Bros., teaches at Otis College of Art & Design, but now also co-manages REAL and teaches Freelance 101, the graphic design class that launched this amazing art school.

She draws adults to the school with monthly couple’s art nights the 4th Saturday of every month. And importantly, in addition to inspiring others to pursue art, she is committed to donating a portion of all proceeds to rejuvenate art programs at the local schools. Open just since March, she’s already raised $1500 for local schools.

“Its not about us. Its about helping people learn art. I went from corporate to listening to my community, and this is exactly where I’m meant to be.”

Tips from Marinaccio

  • Always be learning. There is never a point in life where we know all the answers, challenge yourself to learn something new every day.
  • Be honest but be nice in the process. The best thing you can do for people is to tell them the truth, but please give criticism without being negative or mean. It’s important to let people know that you care about them and that your notes are meant to be helpful.
  • It’s never too late to try new things or change your life. Over the past 10 years, my students have taught me that if you are not happy it’s OK to make a change. Thank you to all of them for having the courage to make a change and open my eyes so that I could make a change too.

Brenda Smith: Discovering the Gem Inside Herself

photoIf you were watching the Emmy Awards recently, you may have caught the sparkle dangling from House of Lies’ Bridgid Coulter’s ears as she sauntered down the red carpet or posed for pics with her costar Don Cheadle. Those weren’t just any earrings. Those were Brenda Smith’s design and you better believe she was as excited as you might imagine. And she should be. She’s worked hard to see this day arrive.

But never fear if you missed the Emmys you can also see Smith’s stunning Four Peaks Amethyst ring on display at the US Natural History Museum’s Gems and Minerals exhibit, not far from the remarkable Hope Diamond and the Carmen Lucia Ruby. “Oh yeah, I’m in The Smithsonian too. All joking aside, it’s quite an honor!”

Smith’s journey to having her creations showcased by Hollywood stars was neither short nor straightforward but rather fueled by hard work, determination, and the gut feeling that she hadn’t quite achieved what she knew she was capable of.

Smith grew up near Pittsburgh, PA, the eldest of ten kids. Neither of her parents attended university and the means to send Smith were limited. “I always had an eagerness to learn and grow and do something useful with my life, but I didn’t have the opportunity to go to college when I was fresh out of high school. It was always a dream of mine,” she recalls.

Married straight out of school, Smith had her first child at 19 and then attended cosmetology school. She became a hairdresser and found that she really enjoyed it although she always had the sense she wanted to do more.

Bridgid Coulter wearing Smith's Wright Hoops at the Emmy's
Bridgid Coulter wearing Smith’s Wright Hoops at the Emmys

It was 13 years later when Smith finally seized the chance and signed up for summer art classes at Kent State University. “I just loved it. I lived to go there. Growing up, I always had been creative, but it was always limited to drawing. I didn’t realize how much further I could take it.” Those summer classes appealed to her so much, she enrolled at Kent in the Fall. Working full-time as a hairdresser to pay the fees, Smith attended classes year round. It took her five years to graduate with a Bachelors in Fine and Professional Arts, specializing in graphic design.

With a husband in the commercial construction industry and three kids at home, Smith turned down graphic design and printing job offers in New York City and Atlanta. “It was heart wrenching to have to say no. It was flattering that they thought I was good enough, but honestly I think I used my family obligation as an excuse because I felt I wasn’t good enough.”

Instead she took a job teaching art classes at a private school. From there she moved to Hiram College, where she was responsible for all the publications for five years. “Anything that got printed at the college had to go through me, they had to hire two people to fill my position when I left.

In her early 40s, shortly after her divorce, Smith became creative director for Taylor-Hawkins Advertising, a small ad agency based in Akron, Ohio. “I loved that job but it was a tough time for me. The salary was not enough to support myself and the children [her ex was not paying child support] so I worked three jobs – hairdressing and freelance design at nights and weekends – to make ends meet and provide stability to the children. I had to put them through college after all.”

Not long after, she got lucky and nabbed a job selling printing to advertising agencies in Ohio. It paid better, plus she got an expense account and a car and could drop hairdressing from her repertoire. Smith continued in that line of work for several years with two different companies.

In her mid-to-late 40s, she married her current husband and followed him to Georgia where he established a chemical manufacturing business. It was “all hands on deck” so Smith went to Kennesaw State to get an MBA on weekends to help out with the fast growing business. “I was the Creative Director, but I did everything from human resources to marketing. I used all my training in design and was coordinating and managing multiple tasks simultaneously dealing with 23 markets. It was challenging but fun, plus my husband and I were together.”

After ten years, the company was sold and Smith, after being so productive and active for so long, found herself without a job. Moreover, the market crash – which came on the heels of the sale – meant that neither Smith nor her husband could retire long term.

RedYelDropsSMWhile cleaning out the basement shortly thereafter, Smith came upon boxes of old art supplies that hadn’t been touched since her days at Kent State. “My husband was surprised to see them. He didn’t even know that part of me.” With a yen for the old creative days, she decided to take up silver- and gold-smithing classes. She immediately loved it and started planning how she could take it to the next level when she was diagnosed with a 99%-blocked left carotid artery. Surgery followed two days later, with the anxiety of not knowing if she would wake up from the operation. On realizing the surgery was successful, she decided to move forward with her plans for a jewelry-making operation. “I did not want to go to my deathbed wishing I would have tried. It wasn’t the best time to start a jewelry business. But I was not going to wait.”

The turning point for Smith came about five years ago when she attended a Masters Symposium at the Revere Academy of Jewelry Art in San Francisco. “I learned techniques from the best. After leaving that course, I knew I had what it takes. I entered my pieces into design competitions and started winning. Now that I had proven myself, to myself and others, I had to get into the marketing. So I did some high end wholesale jewelry shows and got into a few select stores. I also do retail custom-made pieces.”

And the rest, as they say, is history. A silver-smithing teacher at the William Holland School of Lapidary Arts in Young Harris, Smith has won numerous accolades for her work. Last year, the Smithsonian approached her at the Tucson gem and jewelry show where she presented as part of the American Gem Trade Association. The Institute selected her unique setting of the Four Peaks Amethyst, mined from the 7657-foot Four Peaks range in Arizona, for its permanent gems and minerals collection. “It was a donation. I have to consider it as part of my advertising budget,” she explains with a smile.

The Smithsonian’s Four Peaks Amethyst

There’s no stopping the 65-year-old dynamic Smith who continues to do commissions, trade shows, and enter competitions, like the one that got her on Hollywood celebrity stylist Michael O’Conner’s supplier list of the Emmys. “I keep telling myself I should slow down but then the other part of me asks why. I simply just like being productive.”

Tips from Brenda Smith

  • Use quiet time to reflect on what really excites you. Ask yourself what work you could do without looking at the clock. Could you do “it” until the wee hours of the morning without regret? It will take a lot of work but if you enjoy it, it’s a clue that you are on the right track.

  • Work to get momentum moving. When doubts come, and they will, push them aside and press through the doubts. This is your dream.

  • When you are frustrated because you are not making a profit, continue to press on. You will break through. Creative satisfaction is as important as profit for self-satisfaction.

  • Life really is short. Have no regrets. Follow your dreams. Take the high road.

Angela Parker: From Sweater Sets to Signature Pieces

oliveyew3If the key to success in any task is practicing more than 10,000 hours, then it’s no wonder Angela Parker’s jewelry company Olive Yew has gone from a small hobby in her den to an international business in just three short years. The artist, who has a self-described minor case of OCD, attributes her success in selling her designs to 80 boutiques around the world to her obsessive pursuit of perfection in everything she does. It was the very same devotion to an unfulfilling corporate job, where she was paid to master the all-powerful search engine optimization (SEO), that partially paved the way for her accomplishments with Olive Yew.

Growing up outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, Angela always knew she wanted to work in a field where she could do something with her hands. She studied sculpture in college at Appalachian State University and then, after graduation, got a job illustrating children’s books at a local publisher.

Although she loved that job, as it fulfilled her need to create, after 15 years and a promotion to creative director, she saw the writing on the wall: the print industry was not doing well and a small publisher like HighReach Learning was unlikely to make it. She was right but fortunately she had lined up another job – this time as a graphic designer at a large company: “I moved on to web design but never really liked it. I didn’t enjoy coding and I didn’t like working in a cube. I knew I had to do something more creative.”

As she was considering what that creative pursuit would be, her to-remain-unnamed company enrolled her in a web design class and also paid for professionals to come in and teach the designers SEO. The year was 2009 and, although not “new”, SEO was still being discovered.

“Although a Fortune 100 company, it was awful – the room we worked in was above the servers which made it hot in the first place. But also, the air conditioning would go out frequently, and the roof was made of metal. It was sweltering and we had a lovely dress code that featured sweater sets. But the one good thing I can say is they spared no expense in hiring the best and brightest to train us in SEO. It was painful working there but I learned a lot more than in any other company.”

After 15 years of broken AC and other challenges, Angela finally decided to make a change. She left the company, but continued on as a contractor. With a little more time on her hands, she signed up for a local metal smithing class: “I didn’t have anything in mind other than the fact that I wanted to make something – I needed to make something – with my hands.”

The class was not the kind of place to inspire the launch of jewelry empire: “It was held in a place that was part pawn shop and part jewelry repair store. It was in sort of a rough part of town, and there were bars on the windows, but they taught me the basics of what I needed to know and I loved it.”

oliveyew4 It was April 2011, and Angela was still committed to her SEO contract, but in her spare time, she started buying equipment and set up a little studio in her house. Four months later, when Parker was 39, she quit contract work all together and with a small personal loan, and the money from sales that were already starting to come in, she started making jewelry fulltime. For Parker, “fulltime” meant sometimes staying up until 1 or 2 in the morning crafting delicate cursive and block letters and the bangles made of rose-gold-filled and sterling silver that would become her signature pieces.

“I’ve heard from a lot of people that these big changes come around the time when you’re turning 40 and for me it was definitely true. I had climbed the corporate ladder and gotten to the point I wanted to, and I didn’t like it. It wasn’t what I signed up for…it was meaningless to me. I had to do my own thing.”

Parker started slowly with a few styles. She could see the “internal eye roll” of her family and friends when she told people she was launching a jewelry business. “Everyone and their cousin seemed to be making jewelry,” Parker laughs. “So I just sort of trudged along and didn’t say much for a while.”

But Parker’s business training had taught her something critical. “You can make something all day long, but if it doesn’t sell, then it’s a hobby. If you think there’s a market for something, then there’s marketing for it that has to be done.” Fortunately, Parker found the marketing for her business just as much fun as the making of the jewelry. So during her days she spent hours crafting the metal, and then she spent just as many hours optimizing her site online, studying the analytics and figuring out how to improve them. “There were many 20-hour days. It was crazy and it was definitely hard on my family,” she remembers. “But it paid off.”

Parker, who had taken a personal loan from her husband to fund the initial start up costs, paid the entire loan off by December of the same year she launched. At first she was selling just on her website and in an Etsy boutique. But in December of 2011, a pair of her earrings was featured in a holiday gift guide in Self Magazine, and the rest is history: “Pretty soon I was up to five employees, and we expanded from the den to the dining room to the living room, and then my husband politely suggested that it might be time to look for a facility.”

The Self Magazine mention was indeed a boom for Parker’s “little jewelry business.” That article combined with a follow-up feature in Women’s Day “really started everything.”

Parker expanded her product line, and opened a facility to house her employees more comfortably. Despite the boom in sales, it wasn’t all easy: “Growing the business was a headache,” she says. “We had to go through several accountants, a few lawyers and others before we found the people that were right for us.”

Just eight months after first toliveyew2aking the metal smith class, Parker was able to replace her annual corporate salary. In two years, she quintupled her annual sales, and the next year she tripled them. Three years in, she is starting to breathe a little easier. For Parker, that means, only working 12 hours a day instead of 20. “I used to be a lot more of a workaholic than I am now. Today, I give myself the freedom to take mental health days just to do something else for a bit. But I do like to stay busy.”

Despite all her hard work, the rapid path to success in a creative venture that Parker adores surprised her but her staff even more. “It was funny to watch my accountant when I hired him. I could also feel him patting me on the head and saying, “Oh you and your cute little jewelry business.”

With three years of dramatic growth behind her, her accountant has taken notice. What’s next? “I have a number that I keep to myself where we’ll cap the growth. We’re close but we’re not there yet.”

Tips from Angela Parker

  • Look at your collective experience (jobs, school, hobbies) and how they can aid you in your new business. I majored in sculpture but wound up in marketing/design. Both help me daily in my current role.
  • Invest your time in marketing. You’ll be able to invest the dollars in it later, but at the beginning, you have to market your product to sell it. In this day and age, that means learning a little about SEO & SEM.
  • Follow the proper steps in setting up your business. If you have employees get a worker’s comp policy and all of the proper insurance & legal documents in place (business bank account, business license, etc.).
  • Finally, have a good lawyer & accountant to whom you can refer when questions arise.

Have a question or comment for Angela of Olive Yew? Post it here.

Brenda Berkman: From Pioneering Firefighter to Printmaker

IMG_2126Brenda Berkman is no shrinking violet but she didn’t set out to be the poster-child of women firefighters. She just wanted to do her job. At the same time, she wasn’t going to pretend gender discrimination in non-traditional employment didn’t exist and so she tried her best to make things better for those who would follow. For 25 years, Brenda fought fires and sexual inequality, rising to the rank of Captain in the New York City Fire Department (FDNY). Not one to recoil from challenges, in her fifty-fifth year, Brenda revisited her long-ago passion for art and is currently an established printmaker, chronicling important social and environmental issues and keeping the memory of 9/11 alive through her work.

With a (Summa Cum Laude) degree from St Olaf College, the native Minnesotan went on to grad school at Indiana University with the intention of teaching college-level history. While wrapping up her Masters, Berkman did a summer job at a law firm and was drawn to the idea of using her skills to achieve greater social justice. And so she left the PhD program and switched to a legal track at NYU Law School.

But she found the law to be socially conservative: “Just think about it. In order to win a legal case, you have to refer back to previous decisions. It’s very difficult to move the ball up the field in law in terms of social justice issues. It’s not that it can’t be done, a couple of legal decisions can flip the paradigm, but it’s difficult.”

This growing awareness, combined with her natural athleticism and active personality, made Berkman think twice about whether law, and spending time sitting at a desk, was actually right for her. Although she remained in law school, she started to look around for inspiration.

In the summer of 1977, she was amazed to see the FDNY was – for the first time – allowing women to take the test for firefighter. “Up until that point, it didn’t matter if you were an Olympic-caliber athlete or holder of the ‘Strongest Woman in the World’ title, if you were born a woman, the FDNY did not want you.” But in response to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Title VII legislation, the Department realized they had no choice but to make the change. But they weren’t going to make it easy so they changed the entry exam, making it more difficult for women to pass the physical portion.

Photo by Joyce Benna
Photo by Joyce Benna

“Although I was finishing up law school, I thought firefighting could be the perfect occupation for me. It combines my strong desire to help my community and other people. The fact that it was not a desk job really appealed to me. I figured the job would be physically and mentally challenging and I would have to learn new skills. You never know what you’ll be called on to do as a firefighter and I’d have to know a little about lots of different things.”

Berkman along with about 90 other women took the physical part of the firefighter exam. They all failed. “I believed at the time that the test was not related to the actual job of firefighting. The FDNY had put in a bunch of obstacles that did not adequately measure the ability of a firefighter to the job. So I fought back.”

Berkman was the sole named class plaintiff to challenge the test in federal court. The City argued that she was just trying to make a political point. “I had to testify under oath that if I won the case, I would quit practicing law and become a firefighter.”  And so, true to her word, when she won the decision five years later in 1982, that is exactly what she did. Even her own mother was amazed by Berkman’s decision: “She and everyone else wondered: ‘Why would a lawyer go through all this training, take a 50% cut in salary, and jump into the deep end of the pool?’ In all honesty, I had the luxury to do this because my then-husband was a lawyer and I could always return to law if it didn’t work out.”

Following Berkman’s example, many women came out of the woodwork to join the force. But their numbers were small and it was hard going.  With only one woman to a battalion [several firehouses], they were very isolated. And Berkman’s reputation of ‘Chief Troublemaker’ did not help. “The first ten years were extremely difficult. There was lots of harassment and retaliation, I wasn’t even sure some of the men ‘had my back’ during some calls. With male firefighters who refused to speak, train, or even eat with me plus anonymous death threats and pornographic harassment, it was hard to feel part of the “team”.  But I refused to quit something I loved because some men felt women shouldn’t be doing it … You know, I wasn’t a complete idiot. I wasn’t going to continue doing the job if I wasn’t up to it. This is serious business.  After all, we are in the life-saving business.”

Not only did she love her job, but she was good at it, and for the next 25 years served her adopted city with competence and pride.

Like many others, Brenda Berkman’s life was changed forever on 9/11. On that unforgettable day, the then New York City Lieutenant lost many colleagues and friends. After surviving 9/11, she spent the next months working at Ground Zero in recovery efforts until the site closed.

Five years after 9/11 and after 25 years on the force, it was time to retire from the FDNY and the fire service. “It got to the point it wasn’t fun anymore. I was getting older. I realized I wanted to do something else with my life. Partly this was timing, changing as a person, but post 9/11, I realized that continuing as a firefighter was not good for me. I needed to recalibrate.”

At the age of 55, Berkman handed in her “helmet and hose” and started to look anew for inspiration. Collecting a pension and without immediate financial worries, she didn’t have much in mind except that the next step should be something completely different and yet she wanted to retain the ability to help the community.

She started volunteering at church in social projects targeted at the elderly and homeless and worked closely with the 9/11 Families Association and the United Women Firefighters Association. “Believe me, I had lots of opportunities, once people hear you are retired, they think you have an infinite amount of time. You really must figure out what you most like and where you can make the greatest contribution.”

“9-11” (self-portrait), stone lithograph

Despite her busy schedule, Berkman felt a need to be more creative. As a child she had always been interested in art and music and throughout her career as a firefighter often received gifts of arts books, easels, and painting sets as friends knew of her interest. It took actual retirement to find the time to pursue her interest. She started taking print-making classes at the Art Students League. “Printmaking appealed to me because there is a certain amount of technology and process involved as well as creativity. Having been a firefighter and having to learn how to operate different kinds of tools, it seemed like a natural fit.”

At first she felt guilty. “I thought of art as being kind of selfish choice for me. I should be out saving the world but here I am drawing … but then I realized I was making something out of nothing. Being creative has become a huge thing for me. It has touched me in a very important way.”

Winter Walk on the Brooklyn Bridge, stone lithograph
Winter Walk on the Brooklyn Bridge, stone lithograph

Berkman donates a lot of her art to charitable causes and finds ways to use her work to help others. In anticipation of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, she worked with other artists to organize a collaborative project to deal with their responses to 9/11. Berkman worked on numerous rebuild projects after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. She also visited northeastern Japan after the 3/11/11 tsunami to talk to survivors and share her experiences as a New Yorker of how the City worked together to rebuild after 9/11. Some of her artwork was inspired by that trip. Other topics in her art deal with social issues such as oils spills in the Gulf and the 2008 financial collapse. Today she is working on a series of 36 views of the new One World Trade Center, a multi-year effort as the prints cannot be completed until the building is finished.

“All these different types of expressions turned out to really great for me personally but I hope that they are also helping others to move past their grief. Frankly I’m not so interested in making money although it would be nice to move some of my art out of my apartment! I’m more focused on just making and doing the art. In that sense, it has been very rewarding.”

Any regrets? “I don’t think anyone comes into this life with all the answers on how to make a successful career journey. I know I didn’t. When those women and I entered FDNY, we didn’t have anyone to turn to as an example or mentor. So looking back, I definitely wish I had understood the value of being able to talk about my story and make those outside firefighting – the ordinary citizen, the policy-maker – aware of the importance and benefits of having women firefighters. I wish we had spoken up more. It’s not that I wanted to be more high profile but I should have gotten the message out better. It’s a problem that still exists today. If you can convince people that women can be firefighters, you can convince people that women can be successful at anything. People need to understand how important it is to open jobs to women in the trades, the uniformed services, the military, and other non-traditional employment fields. These are careers women and girls should be considering but it’s still not happening.”

In fact today, there are fewer women firefighters in the FDNY than when Berkman joined the department in 1982.

Berkman may regret not having spoken her truth as a firefighter all the time, but she certainly pioneered the way for many women to follow and is recognized for all she did to improve the lot of others. (Berkman is the recipient of the National Organization for Women’s Susan B. Anthony Award and other accolades and has been the subject of numerous articles, books, TV shows, an off-Broadway play and the 2006 PBS documentary “Taking the Heat.) And now as an artist she is getting a second chance to break new ground.

You can view and purchase Berkman’s art on her website.

Tips from Brenda Berkman:

  • Don’t let stereotypes hold you back!
  • Even if you can’t earn income from your passion, work it into your life and with time you might be able to make the shift.
  • If you are not ready for the deep end, go in the wading section and transition to the deeper water when you are ready.
  • People don’t respect you if you don’t speak up for yourself. Speak your truth.




Karen Lehrer: From High Fashion to a Higher Plane

Karen Lehrer @ Career 2.0Karen Lehrer has always been a seeker. Throughout her life she has reached into her creative side to reinvent herself in new and inspiring ways. She attributes her soul-searching nature to her success and happiness today. “I don’t want to be there on the last day of my life saying to myself ‘Karen, you didn’t try hard enough. You didn’t stick your neck out.’ I don’t ever want any regrets, that’s why I listen to my heart and push through to new experiences.”

Although Lehrer struggled somewhat in her twenties selecting the right path for school and a career (she attended more than five years of undergrad studies, mostly in art, but never graduated), she eventually settled on fashion and enrolled in the LA Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. (more…)

Jo Braun: From Anthropologist to Artist

jo braunYou hear about people being born into politics or show business, but what’s the precipitating factor that stirs an interest in anthropology?  For Jo Braun, she believes the seed was sown for her first career at birth. Born into a fundamentalist Christian family, “the Jerry Falwell kind of fundamentalists,” Braun always felt like she was missing out on what was happening in the world beyond. “We were very isolated from the outside world; even for South Dakota, we were the conservative of the conservatives! We were taught to ‘be in the world but not of it.’ Anthropology gave me a model for understanding subcultures and enabled me to accept that I was from one.”

She precociously began to suspect something was “abnormal” about her church community at 10 or 11 years of age thanks in part to her frequent visits to the public library. Despite having no access to television, movies, secular music, or any popular culture, she was given carte blanche at the library. “When you’re raised without television but have free access to the library, you seek out the ‘dirty books’ at an early age. I was that kid who brought Judy Blume’s Forever to school. But even more subversive, I discovered scholarly theology that cast doubt on Christianity’s most basic tenets. By 12 or 13, I was pretty sure I didn’t believe in it.”

But Braun kept her secret discoveries and observations to herself. “I was very quiet about my questions with everyone except my brother. I was biding my time until I was old enough to go find the ‘normal’ people.”

But the rules loosened up a bit when Braun was approaching her teenage years. By the time she was ready to begin high school, she was able to convince her parents to send her to a new school, one that was less stringent, and more challenging academically than the non-accredited Christian schools she had attended up to then. The alternative? The local Catholic High School. “When my Catholic friends tell me they went to strict schools, I laugh! The nuns I encountered were into liberation theology and seemed so open minded to me.”

By the time she decided to go to The University of Minnesota, Braun was more certain than ever of her field of study. “In anthropology, I had a paradigm – there were other groups of people who isolated themselves from the outside world for various reasons; it made me understand that my religious upbringing fit into a larger pattern. We were unusual, perhaps, but not ‘abnormal’.”

Braun’s studies carried her through undergrad at the University of Minnesota and then on to the University of Iowa for a PhD. She was especially attracted to the cultures of the South Pacific and conducted research in both Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. In the former, she was surprised to discover fundamentalist Christians who believed in doctrines that were similar to those she was taught as a child. For her dissertation, she spent a year in the Solomon Islands comparing five Christian denominations. She assumed throughout that she would go the path of most anthropology majors and become a professor.

“I loved the experience. I had great professors and mentors. I was doing well and was treated like someone who was going to be successful.”

Despite loving her field, Braun never considered the practical side of becoming a professor – actually landing a job. “I didn’t really realize until I passed my comps that jobs were few and far between.”

In addition to that not-so-minor detail, Braun was growing uncomfortable with the political climate in anthropology, which was characterized by a culture of guilt. “Everyone agonized continuously over being a white Western scholar studying these so called ‘others’. Then by the 1990s, Pacific Islands scholars were getting social science and humanities PhDs and maintaining that they should study their own cultures instead of being objectified by others. I saw their point.”

Hearing rumors in anthropology circles that many big companies liked to have anthropologists on staff, Braun attended seminars on “how to use your anthropology degree outside of academia.” But Intel was the only example anyone ever cited. Or was that an urban legend? “No, it was true that Intel had an anthropologist on staff because I met her. What wasn’t true was that lots of companies were desperate to hire anthropologists.”

So, while she searched for that elusive corporate anthropology gig, she and her boyfriend moved to Seattle and got married. In early 2002 Braun found a job at Starbucks, but it was in a traditional marketing research department that employed anthropological methods only occasionally. One day, as she sat behind a one-way mirror listening to a focus group of women talk about their cravings for sweets, she could no longer deny that she was using her research skills in a way that conflicted with her values. “It felt slimy, working to leverage people’s desires for things that aren’t good for them. I knew I couldn’t stay there forever.”

At the same time and with her dissertation behind her, Braun felt she had endless amounts of free time, even while working a full-time job. So she started experimenting with art as a hobby in the evenings. Surrounded by empty walls in her new house, Braun decided she’d make a mosaic.

“I have no idea why I started with the mosaic medium,” said Braun. “I would have to explain it with something hokey like a past life; there’s no rational explanation. I had never been to Italy or even seen a classical mosaic in a museum.”  An inspired mystery…

Her first mosaic, Two Trees, was made from glass tile purchased from an art supplies store. The result was remarkable. “When I look at it, I can see that I intuitively used the rules of classical mosaic, the rules the Romans used, using quadrangular tesserae,” says Braun. With no formal training whatsoever, Braun realized she had a knack for the medium and she wanted to make more.

In January 2004, at age 32, she attended her first meeting of the Society of American Mosaic Artists (SAMA). It was her coming out.  She felt a sense of her true Self. “I came home and told my husband: ‘This is who I truly am. It’s why I’m here. I have to do this.’”

Together they agreed on a “five-year plan” where Braun could slowly build up a portfolio while still working at Starbucks and her husband developed his law career. That plan got a turbo injection 18 months later when Starbucks eliminated its entire marketing research department and Braun was laid off. At first, she didn’t know whether she was ready to take the leap. “But my husband said, ‘Jo. Do it,’” she recalls.

“When you get the layoff notice, people in the office avoid you. They treat you like you have a communicable disease, but I was happy because I knew I was going to become an artist, and I told everyone,” says Braun. One of Braun’s coworkers handed her a book called The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield. It turned out to be one of the most catalyzing forces of her new career, a manifesto for how to succeed in a creative field.

Braun initially considered taking a more gradual approach, perhaps finding a job at a tile store, but it turned out that she didn’t have to do that. She applied for a few small public commissions and landed her first within a year. It was a mosaic of a small creek for a transfer station near Seattle. Soon after, more sales and commissions started coming in until her schedule was full.

Today Braun works full time as an artist, working in her studio, giving lectures, and traveling to install her commissions. She recently installed artwork in a secure unit at a juvenile detention facility in Anchorage, AK. “It’s the most meaningful project I’ve completed to date,” she states, “because the people who will live with it are at such a critical juncture in their lives.” Does she carry anything from anthropology with her into her visual arts career? “I think so,” she answers. “I grew to appreciate humanity in a profound, big picture sense, with all our paradoxical craziness. Anthropology was the bridge I needed to go from religious-based cultural isolation, to being a creator of visual culture in my own right. I came to understand that human beings need beauty. We need the connection it fosters. That’s what I want to contribute.”

Jo Braun’s Tips for Success

  • If you’re laid off from your job, know that the severance package they’re offering you is hush money. They want you to take it in exchange for signing a contract promising you’ll go away quietly. Don’t be afraid that if you ask for more, that they’ll send you away with nothing. They won’t, because then you’ll be a loose cannon over which they have no legal leverage.
  • If you feel compelled to pursue a creative field but don’t know where to begin, start by maximizing the resources you already have, even if they’re just the corner of your garage and a leftover can of latex primer (or whatever). Use what you have to get a feel for your creative impetus, to see if it resonates on a cellular level. Just don’t invest any serious dough until you’ve read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.
  • Don’t expect your creative work to be fun. Creative work is work. It’s lonely, boring, exhausting, and thankless. If you find yourself doing it anyway because you’re inexplicably driven, you’ve nailed it. You’ll have a sense of satisfaction, even if you end your day with nothing but an overflowing trash can.


Have you ever had artist inklings that you considered testing out as a possible career?