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Voyage Denver Interview

Below is the interview published in Voyage Denver on May 17, 2022.

Today we’d like to introduce you to Maddie Stansell. 

Maddie, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
I am largely a byproduct of my strange upbringing. I was raised by two moms: my birth mom who desperately wanted kids until she had them and her wife, my “Mita” (little mom), who didn’t want kids until she got them– and then she wanted The Best Kids. I presume that’s not a terribly interesting dynamic in most families (having one parent push you hard and the other be totally disinterested), but what makes it an interesting dynamic in my case is that I wasn’t allowed to talk about the fact that my moms were my mom’s. Growing up in the Deep South in the 90s/early 2000s, I was forbidden from discussing our family dynamics for fear of my parents getting Hate Crimed or me losing out on an opportunity because of my mom’s being gay. It sounds silly to type today, but it really was a major issue! I remember I was 6 or 7 and I was excluded from a sleepover with all my friends, and eventually shunned by all of the kids’ families because the parents had discovered I had two moms and they were afraid I would somehow “turn” their daughters. That fear was then passed on to their kids and I lost all of my friends. We moved states and I never talked about my two moms again. This, of course, became an issue when I turned 15 and my moms went through a really bitter separation after 25 years together. Mita moved across the county to take a job in Arizona, and I was left with an abusive, neglectful mother who eventually after eight months packed up and moved to China, leaving me to pack up the family home and get myself to Arizona. I completely shut down. I didn’t know who I could talk to. I wouldn’t have even known what to say if I could. 

It took about two years, but I eventually sought out therapy in addition to starting college for studio art and getting my first job at the local NPR affiliate. These three things (especially happening in tandem) changed my life. My therapist helped me break out of my shell and work through my trauma through the lens of Greek Mythology. I wasn’t just some kid, I was Persephone. I was Apollo. It was Ophelia. And the pain and the sadness I felt wasn’t new, I was and am—at a soul level—connected to my fellow human through the ages. In conjunction, I discovered the world of nonprofits. I was getting involved with my local community, raising money, and seeing how more money yielded the ability for our reporters to seek out and tell important stories. Lastly, I was learning how to create art that transcended the spoken word into an entirely new language—the visual language—that took what I was feeling or the stories I was hearing and allowed me to put them on canvas. 

I moved to Denver and spent the next nearly 20 years working for various nonprofits in a consulting capacity and painting in my spare time. I had the opportunity to work with a multitude of clients: from tiny non-profits to international nonprofits, doing a multitude of projects. I’ve done board development and strategic planning sessions developed and implemented some amazing programs, run successful fundraising campaigns, created websites, gotten various nonprofits into various media, and even had the opportunity to be on the research and ghostwriting team for a couple of textbooks. I took (and still take) pride in being able to do whatever a client needed while also pursuing my own passions. 

Today, I split my time fairly evenly between being a professional artist and being the Executive Director for the Real Academy of Art Colorado—a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and teaching 19th-century art techniques and methods to any artist, regardless of their financial status. Real Academy combined all three things for me: my love of nonprofits, my love of painting, and my love of Mythology—because nobody painted myths like the 19th century Old Masters! Lastly, I developed an art game called “Art unblocks” to inspire others to create because I found myself having days where I had the time and inclination to draw or paint but had major art blocks. 

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
My journey has definitely not been smooth. I was really lucky to emerge from having an abusive parent to finding a purpose with nonprofits and art. Aside from all of the various little struggles that pop up in work life (tight deadlines, big projects, and small budgets) and art life (“Is this painting good? Am I telling the story I want to tell?”), the biggest struggle of all has really been, “Am I spreading myself too thin pursuing too many things instead of diving into one thing?” I often wish there were a roadmap to life because I never know if I’m doing it all “right” or not. However, I find a lot of joy in wearing different hats on different days and helping a wide range of people. My days are never boring and I think I’ve come as close as I can to pursuing a career that never feels like work, so in that regard, I must be doing something right! 

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
I’d say I’m known for being the person to go to when you need something done. Photography, videography, graphic design, proposal and grant writing, social media strategy, web design, product design and marketing, fundraising, board training, ghostwriting, logo design, and training others how to do all of the above. I take a lot of pride in my work and in coming through for others. Whether that’s painting a beautiful commission for someone or raising two years of a nonprofit’s operating expenses in 2 months, I want to make sure that I do everything to the best of my ability. 

If you had to, what characteristic of yours would you give the most credit to?
When I think about the characteristics that are important to my success, I think about my very first boss: a woman named Alice Ferris. Alice taught me so much about the importance of getting community support, fundraising, managing volunteers, and (one thing that has stuck with me all these years later) that no job is too “unimportant” for her to do. She was the second-highest-ranking employee at the organization and when the janitorial staff missed one of the days that we had important donors coming to visit, she rolled up her sleeves and cleaned the bathrooms. She is a jack of all trades and in turn, inspired me to be a jack of all trades. She trusted me as a young college student to handle large projects and it made such a huge impression on me and instilled in me a passion for working hard, managing with compassion, and making a big impact with organizations that need it. I also love to learn and love to help others. The pursuit of knowledge and understanding is why I became an artist and why I continue to study all facets of art. Helping others is why I pursued a tandem career with nonprofits. And I combined both those things to make an art game called Art unblocks to help artists get out of their own way and learn through play. 

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