ESCANABA - We've all heard the expression "Starving Artists" in terms of what career opportunities await those who make art a profession. Penny Jussila of Escanaba was well aware of those cold hard facts, but despite the realities, she has set aside the odds and set her eyes on a goal that has totally redirected her life.
In fact, Penny has pulled herself up from the ranks of "homeless" to "business owner." She now owns and operates Earthy Creations Studio in Escanaba and is offering art classes in many mediums, including pastel, pen and ink, colored pencil, graphite pencil and water color. Anyone - whether skilled or a beginner - can advance their artistic skills.
Born and raised in Kenosha, Wis., Penny graduated from Escanaba High School in 1981. She married and raised two children - a daughter Angel-Ann Ross DuRoy and son, Cory Ross. Divorced for 22 years, she learned to support her family on a fixed income.
"I attended Bay College when the children were small, with full-time credit hours and two part-time jobs," she said. "The best part was I had art and business classes. I learned many important skills. This allowed me the courage to put on a one-man art show at a local supper club."
Penny earned 12 commissions and sold many pieces of art. But she learned quickly that experience and talent do not always translate into a career that provides enough revenue to pay the rent and keep food on the table.
In 1995, Penny was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, a condition characterized by long-term, body-wide pain and tender points in joints, muscles, tendons and other soft tissues. She had been working in her home as a family daycare provider for eight years.
"At this point, I could not keep my job any longer," she said. "As I was having more pain with not much relief, I decided to do more art to get my mind off the pain."
She began taking art classes at the Bonifas Art Center and going to many workshops locally and out of state. It was only a matter of time she realized her earnings were not enough to support herself and three years ago, she moved in with her mother for about three months.
"The Fibromyalgia really set me back, but now I'm on a new medication and I'm feeling 100 percent better," she said. "By then I decided to put on my 'big-girl panties' and move on."
Remembering her dream of someday having an art studio, she put her plan into action and, with the help of her family and friends, found a small back-alley store space near downtown Escanaba.
Penny has worn many hats for the past two and a half years. She supported herself with limited hours as a fashion sales associate and an activities assistant at a local nursing home; she has also scheduled workshops, art classes and held art birthday parties at the studio.
Penny charges a mere $10 for sessions that can last from one and a half to two hours in length.
"I made it that way," she explained. "I want it to be affordable. I'm not selling a product. I'm teaching a skill and there's a big difference."
In addition to children's parties, Penny offers her studio to other groups as well.
"Groups of secretaries in an office may want to get together and have some fun and learn a craft at the same time," she said. The artist also has aspirations to bring her tools and talent to area nursing and adult foster care homes to give the residents an opportunity to express themselves in creative ways.
Penny especially enjoys working with senior citizens.
"Some may have tried it before but never really pursued it and never realized how good they really are," she said. "Not that they are no longer working, they have lots of time to practice. I'm also aware that seniors are generally people on fixed income and can't afford art supplies and lessons."
One such senior is Robbie Thompson, who has been taking classes at Penny's studio for about a year.
"All through the years, I bought dime-store color pallets and tried it at different times. I'd make sketches, but then I'd always get discouraged and put it all away," Robbie explained. "I had the desire but I never thought I could actually put something together. But when I decided to come here, I found out that I could actually do something that looks good."
Robbie said she began her art work with colored pencils but has since put them aside and taken up pastels almost exclusively. In addition, she is currently attempting to take a small picture she created and make it larger.
"It's a challenge, but I think I'm coming along," she said with a smile.
Penny has also had the opportunity to work with individuals on the other end of the age spectrum. She showed off a collection of roses that a 2-year-old girl made using bread dough. In addition, she once hosted a birthday party for 16 six-year-olds.
"That was quite a challenge because some of them wanted to work on different projects. But I think that turned out to be a good thing," she said.
Penny has a unique philosophy when it comes to working with the disabled, seniors and challenged individuals.
"We're all different and we're all disabled with it comes to something," she said. "But at the same time, we all have different abilities as well and we have to work from there. That's what it's all about. All we need is the inspiration. But passion is the biggest thing. I love working with people and helping them. I've never been happier."