Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By A. R. Vander Vegt
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

Out of decay, sculpting beauty


April 12, 2018

A. R. Vander Vegt

Jennifer Szczyrbak in her studio, Lake Place Gallery, where she sculpts and paints, scribbles and creates.

It started with a walk on Wisconsin Point between husband and wife. Down the shoreline, Jennifer Szczyrbak spied out a chunk of driftwood perfect for her garden back home in Moose Lake. Her husband lifted it to bring back to their car, and Jennifer waiting in the spot it was lifted from. His journey there and back from the car took longer than Jennifer anticipated, and as she waited, she started creating. As she looked over the pieces of driftwood around her, her imagination was at work. Antlers took form, and a long snout developed and she pieced them together. By the time her husband got back, she had made a moose. Ever the supporter, her husband, Kevin, encouraged Jennifer to bring the pieces back to their home for assembly and display. Jennifer's fun, personal challenge was unmistakably unique and worthy of sharing. When she brought it to one of her art shows, the piece drew attention and excitement.

Jennifer's artist bent stretches before that day on Wisconsin Point. She recounted as a young girl working with clay she found around her home. Clay islands took form in a creek near her house. Her parents, too, were artists in their own way, Jennifer said. Her mother has an eye for home decoration and a knack for composing tastefully in the kitchen. Her father painted homes and practiced creativity through landscape artistry.

As she grew up, clay was put aside for pencils and brushes. Jennifer took the art classes available at Moose Lake School as a junior and senior. It was in college she really was able to flex her creative chops as an art major.

Comfortable with drawing and painting, college pushed Jennifer to take up sculpting - an important development in Jennifer's journey. While her work with sculpture harkened back to childhood, it also became a prelude to her future work.

Life looked different after college, though. Jennifer and Kevin were married in college and their family started growing. "Art was on the back burner," Jennifer said, "but the burner was always on."

Even with young children and all the responsibilities that come with home and family, Jennifer found ways to incorporate her love for art in everyday life. When she operated a daycare out of their home, arts and crafts projects abounded. As her children grew, she conducted after school sessions for young students and led art camps during the summer months.

"I learned I loved working with kids," Jennifer said. They are creative and in that creativity, they are uninhibited. Self-consciousness in their art has no place at that age, she added.

That's part of why she loves working with the driftwood. "Driftwood, for some reason, makes me feel like a kid again." The unavoidable use of imagination, like a child, allows a person to interact with her driftwood pieces and enjoy their charm.

Lake Place Gallery, Jennifer's studio, is based out of her family's home in Moose Lake. It's been within the last year Jennifer's art has had room to grow and flourish. With Kevin's encouragement and her kids' support, Jennifer has been getting the word around about her art, mostly through social media. Her work is featured in several locales in the Moose Lake area. She currently has art pieces on display at the Red Mug in Superior until the end of April. At the end of March, her work is showing at the Dow Art Gallery in St. Paul and will be part of the St. Paul Art Crawl. Her work is also featured as part of The Waters of Superior Gallery in Duluth's Canal Park.

Her gallery has concrete flooring with paintings, photographs and sculpted pieces lining the walls. In a dozen or so black totes, driftwood is gathered. Normally, she admitted, the driftwood is all over the floor. She works best like that - amongst her medium.

She showed me an elongated piece, one with a slight bend at one end.

"What do you see when you look at this?"

Without a doubt, it was a giraffe. It didn't have all the pieces, but it was there.

Another piece she showed had the potential to be a horse galloping - its mane waving in the wind. She said someone else saw it potentially becoming a rabbit. Yet another piece looked like an alligator's tail.

All the driftwood has been collected on walks along Lake Superior. She takes netted bags on her walks, filling them to be absolutely packed. Walks with her along the beach are drawn out and winding as she hunts for driftwood pieces. It's when she's hunting inspiration strikes most often. Simply looking at a lonely bit of driftwood sets the wheels of her imagination turning.

Looking at the various pieces of driftwood around her studio, the ones that have yet to be put in a sculpture, is like looking at one of those eye-trick books. One person sees an old woman, someone else sees the young woman.

Jennifer does her absolute best to keep the driftwood in the condition it was found in. That means no sawing or painting. Sometimes she has to give in and alter a portion of the wood, whether it's shortening an offshoot or occasionally darkening the wood. As a rule, though, she tries not alter any piece. By not altering any piece too much, the viewer works to fill in the gaps of color and place. It also gives space to admire the natural look of the driftwood. Its texture and details only add to Jennifer's work as an artist.

It's those very details in the driftwood that kick off Jennifer's process. When she receives a commission or inspiration strikes, she will usually begin with the eyes. Pieces with knots are ideal for eyes, she said. Placing the driftwood on the floor in place, she arranges and rearranges, moving around the pieces, considering from different angles. When she's not in the studio working, she researches the animals she is attempting to sculpt.

Her family contributes as art critics as well, honestly revealing if something is not quite right on the animal. They help determine when a piece is truly done, heading off Jennifer's tendency to rework and rework needlessly. "It's a fun challenge for me to use the driftwood as is."

When Jennifer first left college, a professor told her to stay in touch and to not stop creating. She's recently reconnected with the college and was featured in the alumni magazine, and she did keep at art. "My journey has been slow moving, but it has been moving."

Her hope in sharing her art is to inspire others to create, in whatever capacity suits them. Just as her mother finds creativity in the kitchen and her father in landscapes, others have sundry ways to express imagination. If Jennifer can inspire others to pursue that and to enjoy their process, she feels she has done her work. She referenced Philippians 2:14-16 as her artist's intent: to do everything without grumbling and complaining, living pure and blamelessly.

A. R. Vander Vegt

Using driftwood collected from the shores of Lake Superior, Jennifer creates a thing of beauty from what was decaying; the result is something unique and engaging.

People have taken notice. Magazines have picked up on her journey, and Minnesota Bound hosted by Ron Schara came up to chat with Jennifer. That episode will premiere this spring.

It's been exciting for Jennifer and her family to see her efforts blossoming and growing. "This past year has pushed me," she said. From keeping up with commissions, fulfilling inspiration and maintaining her gallery's social media pages, opportunity is in no short supply.

Jennifer plans to keep growing, learning and trying new things with her art. Her pieces reflect the landscape around rural Minnesota especially, but the way in which her art engages the imagination, providing space for reflection and delight, transcend experience and age, stirring the viewer's memory of the beauty within everyday.

You can check out Jennifer's website at, find her on Facebook under Lake Place Gallery Creations or on Instagram @lakeplacegallerycreations.


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