Meet San Diego Artist, Entrepreneur, and Mom Stefanie Bales

We were recently fortunate to get a few minutes with one of our favorite San Diegans, artist Stefanie Bales, who is seemingly constantly on the run, as someone who wears a lot of hats:

Artist, founder of an award-winning gallery, entrepreneur, wife, and mother other of two young children (we thought we were busy!).

Part of our mission here at ThereSanDiego.com is to tell the stories of the innovative people that are making an impact on the things we eat, drink, see, and do here in San Diego – and Stefanie is a shining example!

The interview is shared with very little editing to keep the casual, conversational tone that we had.

Meet Artist and Entrepreneur Stefanie Bales

ThereSanDiego: So how long have you lived in San Diego?

Stefanie Bales: Since 2005. So, what is that –18 years about?

ThereSanDiego: Yeah. Cool. And what brought you to San Diego?

Stefanie Bales: Well, two things…

I basically high-tailed it out after I graduated from college. Skipped my college graduation and vowed to never shovel the driveway ever again. I mean, I graduated with an art degree. I was like, I don’t have a job lined up. You know, the world is my oyster and San Diego just felt like it was calling. I just picked up and moved.

ThereSanDiego: That’s awesome. No particular reason. You grew up where again?

Stefanie Bales: Outside of Philadelphia. Like, suburban Philadelphia.

ThereSanDiego: Very different. So you’ve fled the East coast living.

Stefanie Bales: Yeah. Don’t miss it at all.

ThereSanDiego: Yeah, I know. Isn’t it funny? I mean, so many east coasters come here and it’s one way or the other, right? Either they come here and they’re like, “I’ll never go back”. Or they come here and they go back like within a year. They’re like, “Nope! Can’t do this California thing.”

Stefanie Bales: It was easy when I was 21, to be like, “Ah, let’s figure it out.”

ThereSanDiego: Okay, so came out with your art degree and no job and no plan necessarily in San Diego…give me the cliff notes version of how you got from there to the professional artist and gallery owner that we now know.

Stefanie Bales: Oh man, I’m not good at cliff notes because brevity is not my strong suit, but, I basically was out here doing odd jobs for the first couple of months, nannying and working at a coffee shop, until I got a job working at an art deco company out of La Jolla. I did that for a year and then decided eventually I would go back to school to get my Masters in Education with the plan to be an art teacher. I ended up switching gears slightly and getting my degree in Educational Counseling- so, I’m technically certified to be, a school guidance counselor. Concurrent with starting my Masters’s program I was working with students with various neuropsychological deficits and really resonated with the psychology and remediation aspect of it, and started thinking about Art Therapy as a pursuit.

Still without any specific end in mind, I thought I’ll have this Art degree and a Counseling degree, and write my thesis on Art therapy practices with students on the Autism spectrum- so I’d be hitting all these different arenas to allows for more than one career option.  So my plan was to still maybe teach Art at a private school, or pursue the counseling, art therapy direction.

But while I was wrapping up my internship and my thesis, I got a job teaching a figure drawing class at Platt College.  That ended up turning into a full-time teaching career. I was there teaching various art and design theory classes for over a decade. During that time, that’s when I really worked on building out my own portfolio and brand. I started showing at galleries and just kind of, you know, built up my reputation as an artist that way. And I did that for a long time.

ThereSanDiego: So you weren’t a young starving artist?

No, I was never one who was, like, “I’m going to go be a painter and move to the big city and try to make it.” I was never one to sign up for or prescribe to that starving artist stereotype- having to put pressure on myself to make a career with my art because there is a certain integrity to creating art just for the art’s sake that I always wanted to maintain.

Like, you don’t go into the arts to make money.

Anyway, it got to a point where I was really building up enough of a portfolio and clientele and gallery work and stuff, that I wasn’t able to manage teaching and building my own personal career as an artist.

I had my first son at the time, he was, I think, three, so it was just too much and something had to go. So, you know, my kid’s not going anywhere. I’m definitely not giving up my own personal career. So, it was bittersweet, but I said goodbye to the professorship.

Literally within weeks of putting in my notice the opportunity to open up the gallery space that I have now came about. So I always really prescribe to that, like, making room in life for new things/manifesting – all of that. So I feel like I made space for something that I had always kind of held as a pipe dream- it felt perfectly timed in that way.

I opened up the gallery just over a month later. So then that was really when I just dove into doing the work full-time. The gallery was kind of the crux and the home base of my business. I started picking up some commission work and then kind of slowly started rolling out with some mural work, which for the past five years or so, has really become half of my business. When you’re painting for a living it’s nice to have multiple arms.

I also really focused on the idea of, not just being a painter, but thinking about building out a brand. You need a brand regardless of what you’re doing. Kind of switching my mindset around like, I’m making paintings and selling paintings to how I’m gonna build a brand and an actual business around the art that I’m doing. That kind of shift in paradigm was what really was necessary, I think, to move from being dependent on the teaching income to evolving into what I’m doing now.

ThereSanDiego: I did not realize that’s when you got your gallery space. That was right after you went out on your own, huh? I didn’t know that.

Stefanie Bales: Yeah. I think my last day was like the last week of June and then mid-July the opportunity for the gallery came about. 

I didn’t want to run an art gallery. You know, it was a lot to take on and to manage and who knows how it’s all gonna pan out, but it was like this tiny little, very special space that was right down the street from my condo in Little Italy that I walked by every day for years.Every time I walked by I would think how perfect of a space that would be for an Art Gallery.  I truly think that I manifested this being my space.

ThereSanDiego: That’s so cool.

Stefanie Bales: So, like weeks later it became available and I basically, didn’t sleep for, like, three weeks after that in hopes that was going to actually pan out…and it did. So, yeah, it was really great timing. Timing plays such a huge roll in all parts of life.

ThereSanDiego: And you put yourself in position for it to be possible, which is a huge part of the equation. All right, bouncing around here. What’s your favorite thing about living in San Diego?

Stefanie Bales: Man, I’m just so cliche to say the weather but, honestly, it’s not even as warm as I thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to be like summer all year round. But I really think just the general quality of life…the fact that it’s really hard to not be in a good mood in San Diego.

Everyone, I think, has a very similar essence or aura – the people who live here. I think it shines through. There’s just this really great community of people who are doing great things, but hustle culture isn’t necessarily the overarching reason for living. You have that really nice kind of mix between people who are really creative and wanting to kind of forward themselves, but also really value what life is outside of work.

At least, I’ve found that has been really helpful for me coming from the East Coast and being someone who could easily subscribe to that. I have to tell you, even now, even when I’m doing what I love, I’m like, I work way too much. I feel like if I weren’t in an environment that was so conducive to taking a step away from that, my life would look very different.

So whatever that is, there’s no word for it, I guess, but whatever that essence is, people just love life in San Diego, and I think it’s contagious.

ThereSanDiego: Actually, San Diego, whoever works for the city needs to come up with a word for that! We do need a word for the feeling – the essence of life in San Diego. That would be a great branding campaign!

So, we’re taking you out for a drink tonight. The tab is covered with your favorite place to go. What would your order?

Stefanie Bales: Well, my go-to spot is Kettner Exchange. I’m a sucker for a rooftop bar and love the dynamic menu, but if it was a hosted dinner, I’d absolutely get a reservation at Addison and go with the Chef’s choice, obviously.

ThereSanDiego: That’s good. Those are two very good spots.

In your very busy life that you have, when you do have time to relax? What would be your choice? How would you do it?

Stefanie Bales: To relax or to like, do something outside of work?

ThereSanDiego: Relax. Like, you get 24 hours, no kids, no responsibility, whatever.

Stefanie Bales: Anything in the sun. Lying in the sun, whatever that looks like. I would love to go staycation at a little, local resort. Lie by the pool with a book, just kind of shut down, I guess. But, yeah, being out in the sun, I know skin cancer aside, get me in the sun reclined position anywhere, and I’m good with that.

“To make living itself an art, that is the goal”

ThereSanDiego: That’s awesome. Do you have a motto that you live by?

Stefanie Bales: Well, I have sort of like a brand motto. It’s from a quote, “To make living itself an art, that is the goal.”

So I think, you know, being an artist, it’s not like a job. It is a career and it’s a job, but it’s who you are. So I try to think about that as all-encompassing in every aspect of my life. Not just the work that I’m doing, but how to make every single aspect of my life feel like art in the way that we think of it in the broader sense.

ThereSanDiego: Love that.

Stefanie Bales: I have two others, which may end up being able to answer a slide into other questions potentially. I also subscribe to two, I guess not methodologies, but way of working through life and things. One of them is kind of middle out, like doing versus saying this is my goal and this is my linear projection for how to get there.

I’m like, let me do this thing that I enjoy or that I’m interested in, and then see kind of what emerges from that. Then as I say, ride the wave. Kind of follow the direction or the place, follow whatever it is that does emerge from that place of exploration or questioning or. For example, when I was in school I would write my research papers and then at the end be like, “What did I just prove?”

Most of the time people are like, “This is what my thesis is. This is what I’m going to discover and prove.” But I’m like, “Let me just write everything I know about it and then see in the end what that looks like or turns into.”

I do the same thing with my art, and I would say, with my life. Ride the waves if something comes along and seems really easy and it’s like hard to say no to it, don’t say no to it. If something you really want just isn’t working very well or smoothly, don’t put focus on that right now. Wait until perhaps it feels like it’s a more apt time. So, if anything seems like it’s just not working, like you have to force it, I just let that go as best I can.

ThereSanDiego: When did you know that you were going to be an artist or that you were an artist?

Stefanie Bales: That’s such a hard question because I can’t remember ever not being an artist. My mom would tease that I was born with crayons in my hands. Like I came out holding them. So I’ve always said I am an artist. I don’t think I’ve ever had any qualms or any imposter syndrome. I’ve always been an artist.

I have my B.F.A., which is the equivalent of a degree you’d get from a fine art school.

In terms of the broader scope of being an artist as part of my identity, or  in terms of pursuing it as a career, it was actually something that I really fought for a long time. Growing up in the east coast, I was super studious. Like 4.0+ GPAs, the honors program, I got a merit scholarship to my college.

Literally all of my best friends were doctors, lawyers,  getting their PhDs. Like all of them. Everyone. And I was over here  like, “I’m going to paint paintings” you know?

It just felt so…I don’t know what the word is, but I guess back east and 20 years ago it was like, “Oh, well, what are you going to do with that?” Or, “What are you going to do for money?” Or, “But what are you going to do for your job?” Art as a career wasn’t really something that got any consideration and I received a lot of flack for it, if I’m being honest. No one thought it was impressive or cool. 

ThereSanDiego: Irresponsible?

Yeah. There was the assumption you must not be capable of doing anything else. If you’re going to be an artist, it must be your only skill. So, I really struggled with that because I’m a very proud person. I could have done a lot of other things, but it’s just always what I felt most drawn and inclined towards and most skilled at.

But I didn’t go to a Fine Art school. I went to a university that had a really good B.F.A program because I wanted my options to be open. After school I was never like, “I’m going to try to make it as an artist,” because it just didn’t seem practical. I really think it wasn’t until I started doing it and earning money from it that I was able to shake off the misconceptions I had grown up around.

Even when that was in my brain, I still feel like my timeline for doing what I am now was a lot farther out. So, I fought it personally for a long time, even though every single thing in my life was directing me towards, “You should be an artist. This is what you should do. Everything’s aligning this way.”

My parents were even really encouraging of it, which is like not always common, especially as they’re not creatives at all. So yeah, it took me a long time to be like, this is something that I can do and find success in and be proud of. 

Happy hours as a meal 🙂

Stefanie Bales: Meal? Definitely dinner. I like a French breakfast and I don’t really eat a big lunch either- I don’t often have time to sit and enjoy it, so I end up loving a big early bird dinner at like 5pm. If I can choose happy hour as a meal, I would say that would be my preference.

ThereSanDiego: That’s an awesome preference!

Is there a favorite local purchase person business, whatever, that you would like to call attention to? Just something that you feel, you know, this is one of those things that kind of stands out as a secret here in San Diego that I think everybody should know about or something like that. Could be a person, could be a purchase, could be anything.

Stefanie Bales: That’s hard! All of the “secret” things I can think of I’d prefer to stay secret so I don’t want to say!  But honestly, off the bat, I think all of the events put on by the San Diego Museum of Art are underrated- every single event they host is phenomenally curated, is a multi-sensory experience, and draws the best crowd!  Art Alive, The Bloom Bash, Culture & Cocktails, and the monthly Gallery Collective events are some of my favorite throughout the year. 

ThereSanDiego: Same here – love their events! What do you wish people knew about being an artist that they don’t know?

Oh man. Well, I think that if you’re not in the industry or one yourself, there’s just such a lack of education about all facets of it. Like what it looks like, the time it takes, the material costs, all the different parts of running an art business versus just being an artist. Art can be whatever you want it to be. Somehow that ends up translating into the value of art also being subjective. So, if someone hires me to do something, I encounter this all the time,  there’ll be a certain scope of project, a then, all of a sudden, midway through – we have a contract and there’s a price agreement and all the things – and they’re like, “We’re going to double the scope of the project. You are just going to do it, right?” Like, it won’t cost me any more.

I’m like, “Wait a minute, you’re not going to order an eight-ounce steak and then tell the waiter to bring you four more because you’re still hungry, but bring it on the house.”

That scenario happens all the time. I think a lot of it just comes down to lack of education or understanding or true value in what it looks like in terms of creating something, whether it be a fine art painting, a mural, a product, whatever. But I get emails and very serious inquiries from people who want to buy a painting for their wife, for her birthday or something. We go through this whole nine yards. I’ve learned now to ask this in the beginning, but back when I was first getting started, we’d finally come to the conversation around budget and I’ve literally gotten “a hundred dollars” and I’m like, “Sir, the canvas before I paint on, costs a hundred dollars.”

So there’s just this general lack of understanding around the cost of producing the work, the cost of all of the materials, the time that goes into it. There’s so much more involved than the finished product that you see at the end.

I think with the murals in particular, people just assume you just kind of show up and just paint it. But there’s often months of client calls and design back and forth and color iterations and sourcing materials and then site visit, and on and on. You can tell I’m very passionate about this- I’m dealing with this, literally, as we speak.

People walk into the gallery and ask how much something is, and they’ll be like, “Oh, I’ll just paint it.” Then I’m like, “Okay, you go ahead. Please be my guest.” You know? So, it’s just the appreciation, value and understanding around art and art making. You’re not going to go into Nordstrom and try to negotiate the cost of this shirt, but for some reason, art and something that is made by hand seems like it’s  negotiable in a way or less valuable in a way to people. It’s a really hard thing, becuase it’s not my job to teach you about that, but it does impact me in the end, almost on a daily basis. So, yeah, that’s a struggle.

ThereSanDiego: Yeah. I totally get it. I mean, just even like you said, the fact that the canvas costs, you know, a hundred dollars or whatever, I’m sure the far majority of people have no idea what a canvas costs, and that’s just getting started. Right?

Stefanie Bales: We haven’t done anything and that’s like the bare bones of the conversation.

ThereSanDiego: So, if you could go anywhere in the world right now, you’ve got tickets booked and paid for them, where would you go?

God, so hard, well, oh man, I’m sort of a creature of habit,  so, the Mediterranean, generally, is where my heart lies. I’ve been to the South of France, which is probably my favorite destination. Done Northern Italy, but in 2020 we got our South of Italy trip cancelled and have not been able to reschedule.

Hmmmm…

Yeah, I would just go to the Southern Mediterranean coast. You know, Italy, Greece, South of France. 

The power and value of art in our communities and personal lives

ThereSanDiego: That’s a hard one to beat. Why is art important and valuable?

Oh, my! Which hundreds of reasons do you want me to, I mean, there’s so many angles to answer that question.

What often sticks with me as much as anything, is this quote from of the most revered designers of all time, his name is Milton Glaser. He has this quote, in reference to something Lewis Hyde once said, that I was that always struck me. 

‘Art performs this pacifying function in culture… Its practitioners create commonalities… [Art]… is a device to prevent people from killing one another, because they all become part of a single experience. And this is what artists do in culture — artists provide that gift to the culture so that people have something in common. And I think that for all of us who identify with the role of artists in history have that intuition about things, and want our work to serve that purpose.

– Milton Glaser

So there’s this universal experience around Art that just kind of transcends most other tangible things in life. That always sits with me and I love that because it really shows the transcendental, the transformative, power that Art  can have.

On a much less philosophical level, I think, Art is one of the best and easiest ways to represent your personality and aesthetic and identity. It’s like the clothes you wear and the car you drive. I think that because art has this kind of way of speaking to you, if you really take it to heart and think about what it could bring to you and your life and your space and your surroundings, it can really have an impact on your every single day.

So often when someone spontaneously walks into the gallery and decides to buy a painting, they’re like, “I don’t know. It just speaks to me. I can’t explain it.” Art has the power to do that in a way that there are no words to describe. It just does something to you that changes you. The power in that I think is so potent. It’s just so big that I think if you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to miss. But when you really stop and you focus on what it could do and bring to your life, the opportunities are endless.

We can translate that to the value of public art. There are studies internationally across the board,  that repeatedly that prove the value of public art, especially in areas of underserved communities or in schools in how they’re transforming communities. Just by having a mural on the front face of a school, it gives value. It creates this sense of community and place and environment. It can totally transform neighborhoods just by having color on a wall and giving it an enriched sense of identity outside of everything else that it might be identified by.

I think artistic medium is a whole other conversation, but within your own personal home, in a larger scope of a community or a city center,  and then globally, art has so much potential. 

ThereSanDiego: That’s powerful.

ThereSanDiego: What are you hopeful about for the art scene in San Diego in the years ahead?

You know, it has changed so much since I first got here. I think even 10 years ago I had one “art friend” and she was a photographer. Now, there are so many more artists that I’m seeing and encountering. I think because of society just valuing it more, which we potentially owe to social media. It’s so accessible now.  I think that the city of San Diego is really starting to prove that they are devoted to having San Diego be more cultural and have more of this, kind of, creative footprint. It used to be like, you go to LA for anything cultural and you go to San Diego if you want to go to the beach or have good fish tacos.

ThereSanDiego: I think San Diego’s definitely coming around to that idea.

Right? Finally coming around to the value of what investing in Art could bring for the culture of the city; to the value of the city.

I know the downtown San Diego partnership is like really investing in their placemaking systems and programs. I just love to see this continuing and I really like the idea and hope that there’s more support for individual artists, vs just creative institutions. , 

So, I’m really excited to see more artists having opportunities in San Diego to create art, to have a place to showcase it. To create it, to do it, to have an audience for it.

We need people, the general public, who are going to be the kind of supporters of the arts and for San Diego to value it as much as the artists and the city itself. Does that makes sense?

ThereSanDiego: Yes, it definitely does. What can we look forward to from you and your business and your art here in the year ahead?

Oh, man, so many things. The first half or the first couple months of the year, I’ve got a couple of really big mural projects tin the works. One I’m working on right now is probably the largest one I’ve done to date. It’s about 2000 square foot, 45 foot tall building in Sorrento Valley at New Life Science center. So, that’s keeping me busy. Then I have others up in Carlsbad and in Point Loma after that.

At the gallery, I’m starting a new monthly event series intended to build community, bring people together in conversations around art, and to support and partner with other local small businesses. So, really excited to kick that off this month.

The second half of the year I’m focusing on creating a new body of work for my upcoming solo show that I have at Sparks Gallery, which is really kind a fun full circle because that’s the first gallery in San Diego I ever officially showed my work in nearly a decade ago.  That’ll be from October to December.  I have a lot of studio time ahead of me, which is really exciting. As much as you would think that I paint as a career painter, very little of my time is spent actually painting.

So yeah, a lot of new work. Probably a minimal amount of client projects this year because of that, but a lot of fun things happening at the gallery. So, definitely encourage everyone to check those out.

ThereSanDiego: Another big year ahead!

Ok, favorite staycation? Just someplace within, let’s call it like three, four hours or something like that of San Diego.

Stefanie Bales: Oh, so staycation meaning like hours. It doesn’t have to be San Diego. Hundred percent Palm Springs.

ThereSanDiego: Nice.

Absolutely. Palm Springs is one of my favorite places ever, anywhere actually. It’s a colorful, creative mecca. I love the heat. I love the desert, and there’s a fabulous Art scene.

There’s Desert X happening this year!

ThereSanDiego: What is Desert X?

Stefanie Bales: It’s an annual exhibition, but it’s in Palm Desert every other year. It’s a temporary exhibition where artists from across the world create these massive installations in various locations throughout Palm Springs and Palm Desert. It’s likely you’ve seen them published somewhere.

ThereSanDiego: Oh yeah, I have seen it. We have so many great options that are so close! Palm Springs is always a winner.

Stefanie, thank you so much for your time and for making San Diego a more beautiful place for all of us!

You can (try to) keep up with everything Stefanie is doing at her Instagram account and website!

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