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Deeper than the canvas
Suwannee River Studio Open House

Suwannee River Studio at ACV in Dowling Park held an open house last week. -SVT Photo by Tami Stevenson

Suwannee River Studio Director Je’ Czaja Mordon standing next to her painting, ‘Linus’. -SVT Photo by Tami Stevenson

By Tami Stevenson

An open house was held last week at the Suwannee River Studio, an art studio located in Advent Christian Village (ACV) in Dowling Park. Many artists and visitors filled the small studio and enjoyed a delectable array of hors d’oeuvres while admiring the many wonderful paintings and other art tastefully displayed. The artwork covered every inch of the walls and display boards in the studio.

Many of these artists had never tried their hand at art before the studio’s Director Je’ Czaja Mordon came to the Village and started the studio a year and a half ago. Readers may recognize her name as the author of a regular column the Suwannee Valley Times publishes called “Artbeats”.

When she first came to ACV about two years ago, she said to herself that she was not going to just sit on a bench and say, “Why doesn’t the Lord just take me?” Her life was not over. Her life still had meaning. God still had a purpose for her, along with everyone else in the Village.

“So I looked around and thought, there are 800 people here, and some of them are artists. Some of them have always been interested and had leaned toward art but they have just never been encouraged or never had time, but now they have time,” said Je’ Czaja. “Most of the people that are members started a year and a half ago and you see the work. They are doing great work,” she exclaimed. It’s like anything, you have to work at it. You have to hone it.

“It’s like playing the guitar, if you only work at it for a month, you’re not going to sound that great. If you work at it for five years (steadily), you’re going to start to sound pretty good. These artists put many hours a week in, and it shows.” A person may have a desire to make art, but they have to practice if they are going to do it well, even if they are gifted at it.

The first thing Je’ put up in the art studio, she said, was a sign that reads, “It’s not a screw-up, it’s a learning experience.”

After college, where she excelled in science and art, she worked as an adjunct professor for the University of Florida and North Florida College in Madison, and has been the CEO of several non-profit organizations like United Way and other organizations designed to help disadvantaged children in Valdosta and Madison for a number of years.

Je’ Czaja’s philosophy on life is uplifting, encouraging and contagious – find meaning for your life, a reason to live, something you are good at and that you enjoy, no matter your age. Pursue it, stay busy at it – and you will live a longer, healthier and happier life.

Je’ is the grand-daughter of a Polish serf (serf is another name for slave in the old country). Her grandfather realized this was no way to live, so he escaped and made it to America by the age of 19.

“He must have worked like a dog,” she commented, because by the time her father was born, (one of eight children) her grandfather had managed to purchase five acres of land. In Poland, if anyone owned five acres of land, they were nobility. Serfs were not allowed to own land.

Her father owned a farm and growing up Je’ worked alongside her parents, she knew the meaning, the satisfaction and self-worth that came from a good day’s hard work. “It made me feel important, because I helped,” she said. “Not abused, like some say today of farm life ‘back in the day.’” She loved it. “Working is not abusing.” It teaches self-worth and a good work ethic.

They had horses and Je’ began drawing them at the age of five. They were so poor, they could not afford paper and pencil. Her father worked in construction and the only pencil they had was his huge carpenter’s pencil. After work, he would take it out, sharpen it with his jack-knife for her and she would draw on discarded paper her father would collect from anyone he could that was throwing their paper out. “He was a very good dad,” she fondly recalled. “That was his encouragement, and I look back and say, ‘He was really cool!’ He didn’t know what else to do. Just that she likes to do it, let her do it.”

During her college years, at one point she decided to go to Ringling School of Art in Sarasota. She said the nice thing about the school back then, was they only hired professional artists as teachers for the students. It was not an accredited school at that time either.

One of the first things she learned, “I was a pretty good artist, best in my high school, but then you get together with 50 other kids who also were the best artist in their school – I learned a very good lesson about ego.” The teachers would say, it’s about work. She recalled Hallmark (the greeting card company) came to the college recruiting for artists and they would say, ‘We don’t know who everybody is, and we know there are some hot shots in here, but when we look to hire people we look at attendance and your grades.’ The grades say, yes, you did the assignments. You are no good to us if you don’t do the assignment we have. And if you don’t show up, you’re no good to us. So we don’t care how much of a hot shot you are, we are going to hire the people that are dependable. “And that was a good lesson for the hot shots,” she exclaimed.

In addition to being an adjunct professor and CEO of non-profit organizations, Je’ spent many years as a professional portrait artist in Ocala.

She has often been asked her secret for her particularly great health. She is only sick about twice per year and only for a few hours each time, she said she loses her energy, she takes a nap, basically, and then it is gone. She looks and acts about thirty years younger than she really is. Many ask about her eating habits, what is her secret? She says she doesn’t eat anything special or different than anyone else. She attributes it to having a reason to live, having a good outlook on life and helping others.

She highly recommends reading Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning” for anyone wanting to learn more. Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist during WWII in Nazi Germany and was in a concentration camp for two years. In a 1991 reader survey for the Library of Congress, “Man’s Search For Meaning” was one of the ten most influential books in America. Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. Frankl’s theory holds that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, as Sigmund Freud maintained, but the discovery and pursuit of what we personally find meaningful.

Her philosophy is something she learned in school as a teenager and added it is a wonderful thing for a young person to know. It is this: Everyone has a calling on their life. God has called you. There has never been anyone else like you, you are unique. There never has been and never will be anyone else just like you. You have strengths and weaknesses. What is your calling? What are you really good at? What are you really interested in? That would be where you would look. No one can tell you what it is, you have to figure that out for yourself. What do you really like? What do you love? What gets your heart pumping? That’s probably your calling and you’re gift from God. And your job, your gift back to God, is to develop that and use it as best you can to make the world a little better.

Suwannee River Studio members meet Friday afternoons. They talk about how they created their art for the week, for example, and she said she learns things from them, although they think they are learning from her, she says they teach here things everyday. “You can learn something from anybody and so we don’t put people down.”

Je’ is at the studio Wednesday and Friday mornings. She said anyone is welcome to stop by. She welcomes questions about art, art school or art in general, she is there to help. For more information call 229-375-9276.

One of the paintings on display by Ann Coppens.
-SVT Photo by Tami Stevenson

Gretchen Tanner, left, came along with friend and Artist Ann Coppens to the open house. -SVT Photo by Tami Stevenson

Some of the art on display for the Suwannee River Studio Open House at ACV in Dowling Park. -SVT Photo by Tami Stevenson