Impact Makers

In Retirement, Art Feeds Sferra’s Creative Soul

By Jeremy Lydic

WARREN, Ohio — In the basement of the Trumbull Art Gallery downtown, six artists sit at long tables working on pottery and ceramics projects. Mugs, small bowls and windchimes are painted as the artists chat among themselves, surrounded by shelves full of finished projects, pottery supplies and an unpainted bust of Beaker from “The Muppet Show.”

Among them is Stephanie Sferra, who is working on a set of windchimes she plans to sell on consignment in the upstairs gift shop at the Trumbull Art Gallery, or TAG. Sferra has been participating in the Clay@TAG program for a year, much longer than originally planned.

When she retired last year after 40 years working professionally in marketing, 12 of which were spent as the executive director of the Trumbull County Tourism Bureau, Sferra was given a month’s worth of clay classes. She had planned to stop after that month, she says.

“It’s addicting and I got hooked and I’ve been here ever since,” she says.

Sferra spent the first month making Christmas tree ornaments, which she sold in the TAG gift shop. She made enough money to pay for three more months, she says. Along with wind chimes, she makes clocks, also to be sold in the gift shop.

While working in marketing provided Sferra with a career, “I never had time for my true love, which was art,” she says. Before earning her degree in marketing from Youngstown State University in 1976, she graduated from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh with an associate’s degree in visual communications, she says.

Stephanie Sferra paints and assembles windchimes to be sold in the TAG shop. 

Now that she’s retired, things have come full circle, she says, and she’s able to engage in more artistic pursuits.

“The one thing about clay and the one thing about art is that it’s therapeutic,” she says. “The benefits of art therapy are vast. I’m feeding my creative soul through my art. That’s what I’m doing.”

Along with taking classes, Sferra sits on the board of directors for TAG. In that position, she applies her marketing experience to promote the nonprofit’s programs to positively impact the community, she says. TAG’s outreach programs impact people of all ages and the organization takes art on the road and brings in different groups to expose them to art and its therapeutic benefits, she says.

“TAG believes in being a part of the community,” Sferra says. “TAG is aware and knows of the benefits of art therapy and we know that we could be the introduction of art to many people who may not necessarily have any dealings with art.”

Among the organizations served include area schools, the Veterans Administration, Earth Angel Farm, the Trumbull County Board of Developmental Disabilities and Basement Outreach Ministries, she says. Sferra writes grants to fund TAG programs that benefit these groups.

In 2018, she helped write the grants that paid for the installation of a lift system that can transport students with physical disabilities from the ground floor to the basement for clay classes as well as painting and the forthcoming black-and-white photography classes, she says.

“A lot of the programs that we’ll be offering are for physically challenged people who cannot maneuver the stairs,” she says. “So with the help of the lift, they’re going to be able to get down here. We are now accessible to all.”

The $45,000 lift system was entirely grant-funded and installed in early June, says Larry Cline, board member. It can accommodate three people, or two people and one person in a wheelchair, Cline says.

Through its partnership with Warren City Schools and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for Any Given Child program, TAG has hosted programs for area children, including its Summerfest program, where students come in and try different art mediums. This summer, pottery was “the big hit,” even among kindergarten students, Sferra says.

For some of the students, it was their first touch into the world of art, she adds. 

“Sure, they get art in classes,” she says. “But not in a setting like this. Not where you’ve got a vibe of a studio, or where you’ve got people, the socialization.”

That socialization is what keeps Sferra coming back for her own classes, she says. While people may have heard about TAG, “they really don’t know what it’s like until they walk through the doors,” whether it’s for a class or stopping in the gift shop, she says. And getting the word out is something Sferra takes very seriously.

“Once you come through the doors and you see what there is and what we have to offer, it’s such a benefit for the community,” she says. “We’re not known 100% like the Butler [Institute of American Art], but we’re getting there.”

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.