Making It: Her Husband's Illness Spurs an Artist to Live Her Dreams

Positively Artistic: Theresa Stifel's gallery is a dream come true for her and fellow artists.
Positively Artistic: Theresa Stifel's gallery is a dream come true for her and fellow artists. (Keith Barraclough)
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By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, December 14, 2008

Theresa Stifel calls herself "pathologically optimistic." That's why, after her husband suffered a serious illness, the mother and part-time artist opened an art gallery and named it Stifel and Capra (yes, as in movie director Frank, of "It's a Wonderful Life" fame).

Theresa, 47, moved to Columbia as a teen when her dad, who worked in the space program, was transferred to Goddard. She never finished college yet wound up working as a sales recruiter who "always advised people to go back to school." She met her husband, Bob, when, he says wryly, "the girl I was dating did not want to continue to date me but ... knew that Theresa and I would be perfect for each other." Theresa and Bob married and settled in the Falls Church area of Fairfax County and had two children, Olivia and George, now 12 and 9. A self-taught fabric artist who learned to sew out of necessity -- because she was so tall -- Theresa decided to stay home with the children and work on her art. Soon she realized that eight neighbors within two blocks also were artists. "I kept saying for years, 'I've got to make money off you people.' "

The catalyst for her to do so came in early 2007, when Bob fell ill with a severe case of strep that turned into a blood infection and wound up requiring the amputation of one of his legs. As she describes it in the intro to her Stifel-and-Capra-related blog: "After my husband's life threatening illness and rehab made our family recognize dreams shouldn't wait, I have put my money (and creativity and time and effort) where my mouth is to see if I can create an art, antique and ornament shop that will enable my artist friends to quit their day jobs and me to earn not just a living but a life." She found a space in the city of Falls Church and opened Stifel and Capra (slogan: "Art and Ornament for Your Wonderful Life") in the summer of 2007.

Theresa funded the $5,000 in start-up costs from her savings. In its first year, the gallery broke even. This calendar year, Theresa hopes to finish out with about $100,000 in sales and a profit of 10 percent in the bank. She's not paying herself a salary yet (Bob went back to his IT job several months after his surgery) but is happy to be making money in an economic downturn. "The business is above water, and so is Bob," she says.

On a recent Friday night, the five-room gallery was full. In addition to customers, Theresa's sister and her family were there, helping at the register. The rooms were chockablock with paintings, jewelry, vintage items and lots of ornaments, some hanging from a retro artificial pink Christmas tree. Theresa was introducing artists and putting customers together with items she thought they'd like.

Painter and neighbor Elizabeth Loftis describes herself as a "reluctant artist." But Theresa, Loftis continued, is "positive in everything she does. And she goes, 'Okay, we can sell this stuff,' and so she opens a shop and she puts my stuff on the wall and it sells!"

Customer Stephanie Keyser came in for her third or fourth visit. "I always find something special here," she said. "It has a lot of good stuff you can't find anywhere else."

Bob, who says his job is to help with the manual labor and voice opinions such as "that necklace was made for you," was wandering the gallery, searching for a wobbly Christmas tree he had been assigned to fix. "I knew she was talented, but I didn't realize how much so," he said of Theresa. But, he added, "the thing that I think is neatest is all these artists that didn't have an outlet for their craft that now do.

"I hate to say it; it sounds like a cliche -- but she's living a dream."

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