Westfield resident Joanie Schwarz knew she was an artist from the time she was very young.
The photographer, who previously had a long career in illustration, currently has her work on view at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey. The exhibition showcases the digital media of the students of Peter Lester and can be seen through April 1.
The mother of two said she has always been a visual person, a trait she inherited from her own mother, who gave her her first job in the art of picture taking.
"My mom was a photographer so by the time I was 12, I was printing for her," Schwarz recalled. "We had a darkroom in our home. It was just always a part of my life. I knew that I was the person that people would go to if they wanted a drawing done or a picture taken. It was a natural thing for me."
While attending Syracuse University, Schwarz, torn between her love for drawing and photography, decided to pursue both.
Ahead of her time in the pre-digital age, the artist combined her skills and began painting on photographs.
"So, literally, you'd look at it and you'd be like, 'Is that a photograph or a painting?'" she said.
This type of art lent itself very naturally to the world of illustration where Schwarz spent two decades designing and creating book covers, including 60 in one year for the popular Nancy Drew series.
As much as she enjoyed the work, Schwarz said she wanted to spend more time with her own growing family and perhaps pursue another facet of her creative side.
"All of a sudden I was doing the same thing over and over and I realized I wanted to go into New York a little bit less and I thought, 'people have always been asking me take pictures of their kids,'" Schwarz explained. "I knew that was a very different skill set to what I was doing. What I was doing was solving an art director's problem. Doing portraiture was finding the child or finding the person. I knew I was good at it but I didn't want to be paid for it."
Schwarz decided to focus on her painting after leaving the world of illustration and spent six months working on her art for a solo show in Westfield.
"I knew that was too solitary," she said. "I realized, this has been fun but I'm not going to be a painter."
Always looking for new ways to express herself, Schwarz began crafting custom jean jackets complete with iron-on photographs and hand-sewn inspirational quotations.
"These things were crazy labor-intensive, very fun and fabric-oriented," she said. "Enough people were saying to me, 'I'd love to have jacket like that made but I don't have any pictures of my kids.' People would give me these photos and they were horrible photos."
Schwarz said people asking her to photograph their children became such an often-recurring request that she decided it was time to take the leap and switch the bulk of her business to portraiture.
"I'm supposed to take pictures of kids and that was that," she said.
Making it that much easier to start her new venture, Schwarz said cameras became more readily affordable. Another key investment the artist made in her career was to transform the third-floor of her home into an expansive light-filled studio.
"I like going to people's homes but it's nice to have my own space here," said Schwarz, who likened the location to her own "private treehouse." "I have such amazing light here. I have the seamless so I have a flat wall. I know how to use controlled lighting but if I don't have to, I'd so much rather be captured by the way the sun is streaming in through a window. I want to be inspired by whatever is happening."
Having just completed the busiest season of the year photographing families for holiday cards and portraits, Schwarz said she prefers to book only one shoot per day so that she can bring a fresh perspective to each.
"I want (in) every session to be thinking differently, thinking creatively," she said. "Sometimes it's as simple as if a child is super, super shy and I just have to work really hard to make that connection. Even that takes a lot of creative energy. I like to say that photography is 80 percent psychology and 20 percent photography, but the photography has to be spot on."
The mother of two sons also devotes her talent to helping others. For the past three years, Schwarz has volunteered for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a non-profit organization that offers free professional portraiture to parents and families suffering the loss of a baby.
The artist said she has been reluctant to make mention of the charity on her website because she recognizes that it is a very difficult thing for many people to even contemplate.
"I think people are so scared to hear about stillborns, but life throws us things that are really hard to deal with and to look at and I feel that art can heal," Schwarz said.
Even though it is extremely difficult, Schwarz said she recognized it was something she had the strength and conviction to pursue.
"I just knew that it was something that I'd be able to go in and do the work that needed to be done," she said. "I know how to be quiet. I know how to not speak and I wanted it to be the complete antithesis of what I do here.
"In my head, once you grow a child inside of you, you're a mother, whether that baby takes that first breath and they deserve to have images just like your or I would. Art can help heal because they'll have that as a memory. I have people who say, 'I wish I had that service.'"
Schwarz said she decided to add the link to the charity to her website in the hope that other photographers might also be willing to donate their time. She explained that often a photographer is not available to get there in time but if a nurse or a family member has photos, artists like Schwarz can retouch them so that they are easier for a family to look at later.
Seeking new forms of inspiration, the photographer has begun crafting photo charms by working with precious metal clay and firing it in a kiln. She is collaborating with friends from both Westfield and Montclair and looks forward to offering the charms, which can adorn bracelets or other accessories, through local merchants.
"I made the commitment a few years ago to take a personal projects class at the arts center in Summit," she said. "I'm surrounded by other artists and I'm working on my own projects."
Last year one of Schwarz's images, 'Girl on the Tracks,' was awarded Best in Show. The idea for the portrait, in which a young girl dons her mother's wedding gown, came about as the artist explored the transformation one undergoes when evolving from a young girl into a woman.
"It's a personal essay," Schwarz explained. "The images are a personal piece about that transformation. When do we become women? Growing up, as a little girl, kind of looking ahead, 'Am I going to get married? What will I become?' I'm fascinated with that transition."
Another transition Schwarz enjoys focusing on is the move into motherhood. During her newborn shoots, the photographer encourages new moms to get in front of the camera and be a part of the portrait. Schwarz said while many moms are reluctant, she tries to gently remind them that the portrait is really for their children and for the future.
"It's the connection between the mother and the child that is the most interesting photo," she said.
*Note: Schwarz said her favorite place to enjoy a cup of green tea is in front of Alan's Orchard on a Friday afternoon after collecting her Fresh Box. She also occasionally treats herself to an extra hot soy latte prepared by Jason at Starbucks.