Marci Oleszkiewicz | Portrait of a Young Artist

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Marci Oleszkiewicz, 30, remembers the early days of her fine-art career, when she was a student at the legendary Palette & Chisel Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago. There were times when she would stand in front of her easel, stare at a pristine landscape, and not feel 100 percent inspired. She kept wondering: Where are the people? “I would look at the scene and think it would be great if I had a model standing there with an umbrella in her hand or the wind blowing through her hair,” she says.

Eventually, Oleszkiewicz (pronounced o-la-skevitch) accepted the fact that she was a “people painter.” “I embraced that I was a figurative painter,” says the artist, “and my work has continued to take a good turn.”

Some might say that is a bit of an understatement. During the last year, Oleszkiewicz’s paintings were juried into nine shows, including prestigious events like the American Impressionist Society’s annual exhibition, which was held at Saks Galleries in Denver, CO, and the Great American Figurative Artists Exhibition at Waterhouse Gallery in Santa Barbara, CA, where her works hung alongside paintings by prominent artists such as Burton Silverman, C.W. Mundy, and Carolyn Anderson. Also, at a relatively young age she is already a member of the Oil Painters of America and the Society of Master Impressionists.

Raised in inner-city Chicago, Oleszkiewicz knew early on that when she grew up she wanted to be an artist. At first, she imagined life as a ballerina or classical pianist because she was a serious student of dance and music. But she also had a penchant for drawing, whether it was on a family Christmas card or in her private journal, where she often recorded scenes from ballet classes or outings with friends to local parks.

Oleszkiewicz had a non-traditional education in that her mother home-schooled her through high school. “My parents wanted more for their children than what the public schools had to offer, and the private schools were too expensive,” she explains.

In addition to her mother’s instruction in the basics—math, history, science, and English—Marci’s father instructed her and three other siblings in Bible studies and in his own trade, carpentry, showing the children how to build things and teaching them practical geometry. As Oleszkiewicz grew older, she had more and more unstructured time when she was allowed to pursue her own areas of interest. When parents of other home-schooled children offered classes in art, Oleszkiewicz readily signed up and was soon singled out for her talents.

Today, she sees an important link between her work ethic as a home-schooled student and a full-time artist. “Home schooling really taught me discipline. I realized early on that no one could do the work for me, and if I didn’t study, no one else would suffer but me. This is one of the valuable lessons I learned that I have applied to my art,” she explains. “There is no one making me punch in and out on a time clock. Either I sit down at my easel and get to work, or it doesn’t get done.”

These days Oleszkiewicz begins her workday by grabbing a cup of coffee and turning on the radio to a classical or Christian station. Or she may play music by what she calls “old timers” like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, or Billie Holiday. She has a small studio in Chicago but lately has been working in a studio at her home, located in a suburb southwest of the city. Oleszkiewicz says her first step each day is to re-evaluate the previous day’s work. She asks herself key questions such as: What is the main idea for the piece? Am I capturing it and staying on track with that idea?

She often tries to visualize what she wants to accomplish each day. “Studying for many hours in the open studio of the Palette & Chisel, I found that I work best when I know how much time I have and then mentally preparing for what I can get accomplished in that amount of time. Not every day goes smoothly, but it gives me a place to start and a goal to aim for,” she says.

While her paintings are inspired by many different elements—light and color, for example—much of her current inspiration springs from her subject matter, mainly children and old men. She is drawn to children as subjects because of their innocence and unbridled curiosity. She says she relishes watching them explore everything from a flower growing by a creek to what lies behind a closed door, as in her painting THE SECRET (at right).

Many of her child models she finds close to home. In ANTIQUE DRESS she portrays her niece Anya at a friend’s birthday party, which happened to have a theme based on the television show Little House on the Prairie. “This dress was passed down from my grandmother. She wore it and so did my aunt,” says the artist. (Oleszkiewicz is a fourth-generation American whose ancestors on both sides originally came from Poland.) “I saw Anya standing there against a dark background, and the contrast of light and shadow captured my eye.”

In another painting, Anya donned her grandfather’s hat and projected such an air of innocence combined with confidence that Oleszkiewicz felt compelled to paint her. “She made me think about how fragile that confidence really is. As Anya grows older, the world will impact her, and that confidence can be shaken,” says Oleszkiewicz.

Although still quite young herself, Oleszkiewicz often refers to herself an “old soul.” For example, she relishes painting old men, especially men with beards. “There is this aura about them, a sense of dignity and wisdom that seems to emanate from them when you listen to their stories of the way things were—the struggles and joys in life that made them who they are,” she says. “Their faces, with all their lines and creases, have a lot of character. And the edges of their beards are fun to paint. The edges blend into their shirts, and you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins.”

She also has a passion for bygone eras, especially the 1930s and ’40s. “I love that whole time period. Men wearing suits everyday, women wearing dresses,” she says. “I can imagine walking down the street then and just seeing paintings everywhere.”

Oleszkiewicz says that she has found her creative niche in painting people and that she’ll continue to follow her passion for figurative art. “We all have a story to tell. You can see it in a person’s eyes,” she says. “It is this aspect that most appeals to me, to capture an emotion. It is this narrative quality of figurative work that I feel speaks in ways that can touch the viewer’s heart. It certainly touches my heart.”

She does expect, however, to keep evolving in the genre. Lately she has been incorporating multiple figures into her works, such as in DRESS REHEARSAL, which shows a bevy of young girls in a dance class dressed in traditional Polish folk costumes. She is also gathering props from the ’30s and ’40s, such as women’s clothing and old pots and pans, in preparation for capturing the flavor and figures of her favorite era.

Oleszkiewicz has no regrets about not choosing a career as a ballerina or as a classical pianist because she still dabbles in these pursuits, and she translates some of their inherent grace and beauty into her paintings. “Once I saw it was possible to make a living as a painter, I never second-guessed that I would. I wouldn’t say that I have necessarily “made it,” but, praise God, I am walking the path.”

Waterhouse Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA; Gallery Russia, Scottsdale, AZ;

Solo show, Gallery Russia, March 18-April 18.

Featured in March 2010