I met Steven Leibensperger at an edgy little coffee house to give him a sell job. The executive director of the Lehigh Valley Arts Council and I, as president, were hoping we could convince him to join the board. He would be the only working artist and the youngest member by a lot. He gave us a “yes” and a lot more. Now I know why.
DL: Did you always want to be an artist?
SL: It’s hard to say. I just know that when I was a kid, I loved to draw. On every holiday, my relatives gave me crayons, markers, paints—all types of art supplies. Creating art was what I wanted to do. It’s the same today as it was then: Things I see, like something in nature, in a magazine, or out a window, inspire me to create something visual.
DL: How did your career get started?
SL: By high school, I’d decided that I wanted to pursue an arts career, initially as a fine artist. I was really lucky to have a high school teacher who became my mentor. He suggested that I think about taking graphic design in college since there would be more employment possibilities. That’s what I did, getting my B.A. from Kutztown University. The hard part was after that—getting a job.
DL: What did it take to get work in the arts that could support you?
SL: I didn’t wait until I graduated to find work. I always did freelance graphic artwork while I was in college, sold some of my fine art pieces, and even did paid photography work. I used both paid and unpaid work to build my portfolio and get client referrals which helped when I applied for employment.
After graduation, I was pretty much willing to do anything. My first job was working full-time for a printing house, doing print production set up, although I really wished I could have been designing. Still, I learned a lot about that part of the business.
Then I had a chance to work for an exhibit design company on a temporary contract basis, but the print company didn’t want me to leave. To make a long story short, I ended up working just about full time for both, covering two different shifts. That was pretty taxing, teaching me how to function with little sleep.
My next stop was a packing and product design company inPhiladelphia where I finally had real full-time employment as a graphic designer. It was great but I wanted to return to theLehighValley.
Then I applied for a job as graphic/exhibit designer at the Crayola Factory, where I’ve been for the past four years. It’s a great company, committed to arts activities, and an amazing job with so much variety. One minute I’ll be designing a magazine ad, then a T-shirt, an interactive exhibit, a postcard, and even a snow globe.
DL: It seems that you never stop “doing” art in some way.
SL: That’s true. There always seems to be something exciting to create. In 2006 I started Muero Apparo, a T-shirt and apparel design company. I love creating T-shirt designs and helping other artists get their designs on clothing. I sell shirts on Facebook, at concerts and other events.
Because it’s important to me to help other artists get visibility, a friend and I started the Lehigh Valley Art Wars, an arts contest, where artists create work live before observers for a cash prize. It was a big success.
DL: Why is it so important to you to help other artists?
SL: I know how hard it is to support yourself as an artist. I’m so grateful for all the people who helped me along the way, so now it’s my turn. Artists really benefit when they feel part of a community, and Arts Wars, for instance, was one way to start building that.
It’s great for me too. I’ve met so many amazing artists who are now part of my network.
DL: What is it about art that keeps you going?
SL: I know that making art makes me feel good. When you have people tell you that you’re good at what you do, you want to do more. It’s a rush to know that you do good work. Take that away and you can feel lost. I think that’s true for any passion that drives your career or your life.
DL: Sticking to what we know will make us happy in life is challenging for many of us. Thanks, Steven, for showcasing the courage it takes to pursue the career that’s truly “in” us.
Photos courtesy of Steven Leibensperger.