When judges of a children’s art contest in the northeast Poland town of Grajewo saw Edyta Szlezak’s colorful rendition of the fantastical village in her favorite cartoon, The Smurfs, they had a hard time believing that a fifth grader could create such a complex work without the help of an adult.
So they disqualified it.
“I made a scene of the Smurf village that put the characters in a magic, invisible bubble because I was always upset with the evil wizard, Gargamel, trying to get them,” recalls Szlezak, who now lives in North Barrington with husband, Mario, and teen daughters Lexi and Nicole. “They said this is a kids’ contest and this was not done by a kid, so they told me I could not submit this piece. I tried to explain that this was my work and they still didn’t believe me.”
This memory has stayed with her, and in many ways, has informed that path she would take after immigrating to America.
“I remember it specifically because it really hurt me, in a way. I was very sad about it,” she says. “But what I tell my kids is that sometimes in life you may end up having a situation like this, but you should never get discouraged. I kept trying, and never gave up.”
Flash forward to November 2019 and Szlezak, now an accomplished interior designer and fine artist, was ready to lease a property at the intersection of Main Street and Route 59 in downtown Barrington that she’d had her eye on for some time. With 2,000 square feet of open space and a basement, it was the perfect location for something she’d been dreaming of for years—a retail studio that could double as her interior design office and art gallery.
“As I was walking around, I was envisioning this place and what I’d do with it,” says Szlezak, explaining that in her mind, she knew there needed to be a cozy spot for clients to sit, a fireplace as a focal point, cabinets, a work space with desks, and comfy chairs for gathering and design consultations. “Then when I saw the spacious basement, I got so excited because I saw the potential of turning it into a work space to create my art work.”
By the time 2020 started, work on her dream studio—Edyta Fine Art and Design—was well underway. Everything was going exactly as planned. Then came March, and an obstacle no one could have predicted.
“All of a sudden, we’re on lockdown,” she recalls, joking. “What a great time to build a business.”
However, the same spirit of resilience that pushed her through back in Poland kept her focused on overcoming all the hurdles the global pandemic was sending her way.
“I kept busy, and even though I couldn’t open the studio, I kept working,” Szlezak explains. “It was quite a challenge in the beginning. I like to meet with people face to face. But having the studio space to work on my art during this time was a dream come true.”
With her daughters doing school online, and everyone stuck indoors, her usual routine of creating art pieces in the family kitchen just wasn’t going to work. “I have to wear a respirator a lot of times when I’m using resin,” she says. “The counter is pretty spacious but by the time kids come back from school, I have to wrap everything up and put it away. At the new basement studio, I can just spread out and leave when I’m done.”
As the “stay at home” order was lifted and people tiptoed back into downtown shops again, Szlezak began to welcome long-time
clients and new customers into the new gallery and showroom.
“Because of the pandemic, foot traffic is not at peak yet but most of my business continues to be referrals and repeat clients,” she says. “People are shopping differently right now. I might get a recommendation from a friend of a friend, but mostly it’s word of mouth. As for new clients who popped into my gallery, all I hear is a lot of ‘wow’.”
Early feedback is that downtown Barrington needed a space just like this, a sleek, carefully curated showroom not only for those seeking interior design services but also a gallery where Szlezak’s contemporary art pieces can be showcased for buyers and collectors.
“Before, if you wanted a piece like this, you’d need to drive to downtown Chicago,” she says. ”And I feel that when you have a local business, it helps to improve the community as a result. I’m happy to be a part of that—especially during these times.”
One unexpected benefit of the pandemic has been a shift in how Barrington area residents are thinking about their homes, and the expert interior design services they are seeking. “People are spending more time at home so they have shifted their focus on nesting and creating spaces that are a lot more functional,” she adds.
As for how her original art work complements her interior design, Szlezak refers to it as “the icing on the cake.”
“When I meet with my clients, I get to know them, and I know exactly what they like and exactly what we’ve done,” she explains. “When it comes time to put in window treatments and art work, people struggle finding a piece that they can appreciate.”
In addition to her original pieces, Szlezak specializes in creating custom mixed media creations to match any décor.
“Some people like glitter; some people like more masculine pieces,” she says, adding that she likes to incorporate metals and even her own handmade crystals into her work. “Sometimes I also do oversized pieces on canvas and that’s what helps me build this relationship with my clients—helping them find that dream piece they can’t find anywhere else.”
With the year ahead looking brighter, Szlezak looks forward to welcoming more customers into her new gallery and to continuing the work she has loved since a child—imagining three-dimensional worlds and creating art that’s all her own.
“I wake up earlier and work longer hours now, but it gives me pleasure because I have built something for myself,” she says, adding that her husband has given her unwavering and unconditional support throughout this journey. “I do what I love and my kids see me happy; there’s nothing better than that.”
Edyta Fine Art and Design is located at 107 E. Main Street in Barrington. For hours and/or to make an appointment, call 847-208-6914 or visit edytaszlezak.com.