Angels, it seems, have been watching over SJ Shaffer all her life. “One must understand,” she says, “I was a beach kid from San Diego, California, a poor kid who slept under boats and enjoyed the stars and water.” As the only child of a struggling single mother, Schaffer was befriended by those from the lower echelons of her world — homeless vets, Hell’s Angels — who watched over her and made sure she found her footing in the world. “They would gift me with art supplies and ride me to school on a Harley Davidson.” This was a blessing that sent her to a new benefactor.
At school, her diligence and determination caught the eye of an art teacher, who knew of her home life and the challenges she faced. Under his tutelage she mastered the colored pencil, a skill that still serves her in her work to this day. Eventually she began winning awards. This caring teacher, unbeknownst to Shaffer, also secretly photographed her work throughout her school years and ensured her application to the prestigious Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, where she was accepted. There, Shaffer obtained a BFA in illustration and set off on her career. Here was another blessing, one that set her life’s path.
With her fine arts degree in hand, Shaffer went on to work as an illustrator, with clients such as Universal Studios, Sam’s Club, and the City of Los Angeles. At the age of twenty-nine she won a prestigious Maggie Award, honoring excellence in media. She also did a stint teaching illustration at the California State University, Los Angeles. There she was able to give back to her community, teaching drawing to less fortunate high school students in a special college-level program.
Shaffer began to feel stirrings of discontent with city life and with regimented sketch work. “There’s something comforting about getting the paycheck, but if one wants to express one’s self, one has to step out,” she says. And so, she did. She decided to take her training and experience and pursue a fine art approach to illustration. She developed and mastered an artistic style as an illustrator, but Shaffer remained disappointed that her work was usually seen printed in advertisements and magazines. She wanted to provide unique artistic creations that could be treasured and showcased in private homes.
Determined to follow her dream, she left Los Angeles and its big city ways and headed for the red-rock landscape of Sedona. She established a studio there and for a time owned a gallery. Her work has been showcased in galleries throughout the Southwest. She is a member of Women Artists of the West and has exhibited in many of their invitational shows. Shaffer says, “I have been very blessed to hang with the matriarchs of the fine art industry, but must say my beautiful creations do stand out.”
Shaffer typically works in acrylic on wood or in colored pencil and acrylic on panel. She portrays a romantic Spanish Southwest, depicting wanderers, riders, nuns, abuelas, mariachis, burros and saguaros. Her work displays a subtle and sophisticated sense of color. In keeping with her deep sense of gratitude, Shaffer personally blesses her art pieces every time she comes back to them. Each stage of the work’s creation, she says, is an evolution that “further leads me to my heart.”
Shaffer’s devotion to her art has been a journey. “It’s something I did not realize its importance as an artist till a decade ago. I was awakened to the fact that all my artistic trials, illustration jobs, gallery shows, museum shows, mentors, students, collectors, led me to me, but especially [to] my art.”
There are many things for which Shaffer feels gratitude: “quality, that the crooked roads found a straighter path, that the artist lows found friendship with the highs, that the invisible hands from the other side of the veil grabbed mine, that love and encouragement from others flooded over me, and that I continued [to have] the strength to believe. I am so grateful.”
Kevin Paul is a multimedia artist with a penchant for running trails. He is a long-time resident of Albuquerque’s South Valley, where he and his wife, Kayla, watch migrating birds and tend their garden and orchard. He has spent many years in and around the Santa Fe art scene.