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How my quest for a birthday gift led me to artist Nina Bednarski

This adventure started innocently enough; I wanted to buy a birthday gift for my wife.

She is fond of these bird paintings we had seen at various maker’s markets around town, a colorful bird painted on glass, framed in a vintage frame, on a printed, patterned background. We own two, and on a trip with my daughter to Antique’s on Pierce saw a few more. We should have bought one on the spot but for some reason we didn’t; my daughter took a pic of them with her phone so we would remember to come back as it got closer to the birthday.

Nina Bednarski, photographer in her studio.

We went back, and the bird paintings were gone. I talked to one of the attendants, and she told me she would contact the artist and have her call me.

Two hours later I was talking to Nina Bednarski. The following Tuesday I was at her studio to buy a painting, and that snowballed into talking for two hours about art, her vision, her career, and her latest project, the farmhouse she just bought in South Milwaukee.

After talking to her, it hit me that Nina may be one of the most fiercely creative people I have ever met.

She is also one of the most diverse and versatile; her bird hero paintings, southwest landscapes painted on glass, and sculptures are simple -- yet she finds a way to keep her art fresh and exciting by finding a unique material or technique to infuse her vision. She has translated her skill as an artist into working on displays in New York City for such retailers as Armani and John Varvatos. And she has done photo styling for ShopBop.com, an Amazon company in Madison.

Nina's Bird Heroes paintings.

Speaking of craft, she explained to me the process of making her bird hero paintings: I paint backwards on the reverse side of the glass that you’re viewing. I do all the details first then a two day dry period between colors then I do the next layer of colors. I’m basically building it backwards which means I have to have a good plan and design on the front of the glass before I start."

"It’s like painting backwards on a panel of glass."

It’s safe to say if Nina sets out to do something, she does it. “I think it’s a matter of who you are motivated to become,” she says. Surprisingly, she does not have degree in art. Her degree is in geography. She explains, “I wanted to learn something I didn’t know enough about.”

Nina lives fiercely in the now. And, as of this moment, she’s doing something she hasn’t done in 20 years: stopped painting. “I’m in a place right now where I’m rethinking everything – no shows, I’m not curating anything and I have no residency’s lined up. All the things I’ve done and all these trade talents -- it’s interesting to not be working in any of it at all. I feel very hopeful, spring is here, the house is here, things are being rebuilt -- it’s a good thing.”

The house she is referencing – a cream city brick farmhouse built in 1862 that she recently purchased, marks a rebirth for her. As Nina says, “New land, new garden, settling in, not leaving Milwaukee … I like affordable living and having a beautiful studio looking over Lake Michigan.” Nina says the lake is one thing that keeps her here – “It’s a good view – it feels nurturing, feels safe.”

Nina showing me one of her southwestern landscapes.

Aside from her immense artistic talent, one thing that sets her apart is her business sense. The “bird heroes” series, for example, was a conscious attempt to make something that’s finely crafted but has an appeal that collector’s and enthusiasts are attracted to. The low price point doesn’t hurt either. “I got really lucky because I picked nature as my subject matter,” Nina says. “It’s clearly always coming from some form of natural element, but manipulated in a way that’s design based.”

Her keen business sense is in a large part derived from a negative experience during her job as a photo stylist in Madison. She was offered a show at a gallery in Manhattan and quit that job to work on the pieces for that show over the course of a year. The gallery got bought, and she was left with a pile of artwork, no job, no contract and a dead end. It was tough to bounce back.

She offers artists sage advice to get everything in writing -- and don’t settle on a handshake. “No one makes inventory and doesn’t get paid for it except artists – it’s insane to go down that road – you can fill an entire gallery with your work and it doesn’t mean that you are going to sell it. I don’t want to work for free anymore.”

While she continues working on the farmhouse, you get the sense that she’s going to jump back into painting – mostly because of the current political climate and her love of the environment, which comes through in her work. “I want to create a bright spot,” she says, “I wish and hope that the artwork can fuel more positivity otherwise, then, why do it?”

She even thinks her lifestyle in itself is a political statement: “Making the decision to not go to work the same way that we are expected to go to work – how you live, how you make money – when you go against the rational easy path, it’s kind a protest.”

Nina, wrapping my birthday gift.

I picked out a bird hero painting and she meticulously wraps it up for me. It is a nice addition to my wife’s collection. And because Nina isn’t painting any more birds, it’s a bit of a rarity. Once her farmhouse project is complete, you wonder what she’ll do next. The universe always pushes Nina in a direction.

“The next thing always comes in loud messages, the sign and the path lead the way, it’s a scary way to live and I would not recommend it to most people.”

“My art always takes me where I want to go.”


You can check out more work by Nina Bednarski here.

About the author

Co-founder, Editor-in-Chief, Commonstate.com

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