Although she’s an exemplary artist in her own right, Deborah Stenberg’s deepest satisfaction is derived from passing on skills, techniques and knowledge about the business side of creativity to others who are just venturing into the art world.
Stenberg moved to Astoria in October. Since then, she has been teaching college courses, giving private lessons and creating artwork out of her new home.
“I love to see the excitement of students succeeding,” Stenberg said. “Sometimes I have to dig really deep to find it but I can always find that artistic gene in any person. And then the excitement when they discover, ‘Oh my gosh, I can do this.’”
An Arizona native, Stenberg’s introduction to art was provided by her mother, a registered nurse who wrote and illustrated several nursing handbooks. Stenberg’s mother would also regularly keep a piece of paper near the phone and absentmindedly doodle animations and landscapes when taking a call.
“I used to just sit there while she was talking on the phone and watch her go to town with these illustrations,” Stenberg said.
Growing up, Stenberg also regularly visited a cabin in northern Arizona with her mom, who would bring fresh art supplies and various projects for them to work on during their stay.
During high school, Stenberg took as many art courses as she could before heading to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. It was during her undergraduate education that Stenberg discovered her affinity and natural talent for portraiture, although she was initially intimidated by the art form.
As a college student, she was required to do an artist copy. Drawn to the old Dutch Masters, Stenberg selected a piece by Leonardo da Vinci for the assignment.
“I completely shocked myself and realized, ‘I can paint people and I’m sort of good at it,’” she said. “That just started this ball rolling and I was all into it.”
At Susan Thomas’ A Great Gallery in Gearhart, where Stenberg has started showing work, she is marketed as a portrait artist and still life painter, although her talents encompass a broader field of artforms. She embraces the “Jack of all trades, master of none” persona.
Most of Stenberg’s work is commissioned. She enjoys only showing at a couple galleries, she said, because there is less pressure to continually create new work and she can instead invest a majority of her time into her primary love, teaching.
Becoming a professor
After completing college and while raising her four children, Stenberg made a name for herself teaching private lessons and workshops. Her focus at the time was tole painting, the art of decorative painting on furniture, tins, wooden utensils and other objects. She wrote five instruction books about decorative paintings and taught at conventions throughout the U.S.
However, she continually found herself longing to teach college students.
“I really wanted to get those students who are seeking a career. They’re making life choices and deciding, ‘How am I going to make it in the art world?’” she said.
In the early 2000s, after earning a master’s in fine arts degree, Stenberg started teaching as an adjunct professor at the University of Alaska’s campus in Kodiak, where her husband Bill was stationed with the U.S. Coast Guard. She eventually became a full-time professor.
When it came time to move, Stenberg asked if she could continue teaching courses remotely. She felt confident that she could develop an online course for studio art. Although the administration was initially skeptical, they took a chance.
“It opened the door for being able to offer all these people in little remote Alaskan villages the ability to take a studio art class, whereas they never had that,” she said.
Ahead of the curve
Fast forward to 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic turned remote learning into the new normal, Stenberg felt comfortably ahead of the curve. She was teaching at Brookhaven College in Dallas, Texas, when the pandemic threw the university into a tailspin.
Stenberg underwent a quick, intense educational training to teach her fellow professors how to lead their studio art classes online and help them create their own course curriculum. Although remote courses are more time-consuming and less effectual than in-person classes, Stenberg believes there is value in continuing to provide opportunities of all kinds to students.
In Astoria, where Stenberg and her husband have settled into their “forever home,” she continues to teach seven courses between two universities in Alaska and Texas. She is also leading workshops and giving private lessons. Course subjects range from drawing to watercolor and oil painting to color theory and art appreciation.
She also likes instructing students in the business side of art. There are numerous steps a person must follow to become professional, self-supported artist: entering shows, being featured in publications, selling artwork, winning awards and getting into galleries.
“You can’t just go out there and expect to be discovered — it’s not going to happen,” she said. “It’s hard to stand out anymore.”
Stenberg helps her students explore viable options to make a living while building their portfolio and reputation. She also encourages them to explore and take classes from multiple people.
“I always emphasize, ‘You’re learning the Debbie Stenberg technique of art,’” she said. “My teaching philosophy is the more people you take lessons from, the better exposure you’re going to be getting to the art world.”