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Graduate is no starving artist; she finds work in varied mediums

By Nisha Ajmani Wade '02

For Shanna Duncan, art isn’t just a hobby. It’s a living. “People always picture the term starving artist, but it’s not true,” said Duncan ’00. “There’s always work.”

Duncan paints everything from menus to snowboards. She designs jewelry, paints murals in homes and restaurants and illustrates children’s books for two different presses. Her work ranges from dark images of skulls and hearts with wings to whimsical daffodils and “Alice in Wonderland” characters.

“People forget there’s design to everything,” Duncan said. “There are a lot of people who can draw, but they just look at it like a hobby.”

In her first year at PLU, Duncan, who transferred in as a junior, was offered a job drawing chalkboard menus at Northern Pacific Coffee Company, just down the road from the university. “I was flat broke and wrote a check hoping it wouldn’t bounce,” she said. “The owner liked my signature so much, he asked me if I wanted a job.”

Right now, characters from "Alice and Wonderland" intrigue Duncan. Photo by Andy Sprain '05.

And everything snowballed from there. After designing a tattoo for a waitress at From the Bayou, another local business, Duncan got a job painting menus and murals for the Cajun restaurant.

Duncan says most of her jobs come to her by chance. “Every job I’ve had has been that way,” she said. “It’s about being in the right place at the right time and being confident in your artwork.

After graduating with a bachelor of fine arts degree, Duncan took six months off to backpack through South America. She returned and worked as a graphics illustrator for a clothing retail distributor and then a graphic artist in international marketing for Labor Ready Corporation. In the meantime, she continued doing art for NPCC and From the Bayou.

It was then that the requests for her work started pouring in and Duncan left her job to concentrate on her art. Now, Duncan works at From the Bayou as both a server and an artist.

The restaurant’s walls and ceilings are covered with murals that give it a southern Louisiana feel, the menus are individually hand painted, and the tables and chairs are colorfully etched with designs and quotes. “It’s dark,” Duncan said. “But it has that playful element.” Much of the work in the original location is hers, and Duncan was hired to create the same feel at the second location in Puyallup.

Working there, she says, has opened the door to more opportunities. Customers inquire about paintings and she’s there to talk to them about it, which often results in another job.

“I always have an idea,” Duncan said. “Whether it’s from me or someone else there’s some way to cultivate it and get it down on canvas, a chair, or anything.”

Duncan’s murals attracted the attention of pro snowboarders Matt and Temple Cummins, and she became an artist designing snowboards for Lib Technologies. Starting with a basic idea of what the company wants, Duncan presents three or four sketches.

“A lot of the time, I just play off things in my head,” she said. After the company picks one, and she fine-tunes it, Duncan takes a large piece of sheet rock, stretches canvas over it and begins to paint. The manufacturer transfers her designs to the boards.

Duncan is already working on snowboard designs for next year. She also designed all of this season’s graphics – displayed on T-shirts, hats, stickers and packaging – for Matt Cummins’ One Ball Jay, a company that manufactures wax and other accessories for snowboards, skateboards and surfboards.

Switching styles is no problem for Duncan, whose house is filled with her own work. “You have to adapt to the needs of different clients,” she said.

All her artwork keeps her busy, but Duncan says she’ll keep doing it. “There are days when I’ll put in 16 hours on a painting,” she said. “It is a job, but it’s also a passion.”

Duncan, who can’t even remember when she first started painting, got her inspiration from her dad. “I remember learning to paint basic shapes,” she said. “It had to be perfect. He was really detail-oriented.”

Duncan says she was also inspired by her professors and graduating class at PLU. She started out in the basic class, more advanced than most students, and was allowed to develop her own schedule. Former art professor Lawry Gold was a big influence on her. “His willingness to let me paint, and not keep me on regimen, helped me develop quite a bit,” she said.

Duncan says she will always remember her senior art show because of the work and the people that were in it. “There were so many talented people in that group,” she said. “We all fed off each other.”

Grad works her way up to managing biggest news stories for CNN

By Katherine Hedland Hansen ’88

Heidi Berger has a hunger for news.“I think I crave it,” said Berger ’91. “When I go to pick up something to eat, I pick up a fresh newspaper. To me that’s like a candy bar.”

That love of current events, as well as her strong drive and talent, has landed Berger at CNN International in London, where she produces CNN Today, Business International and prepares specials on current events including the Russian school siege and the pope’s anniversary.

Berger said she likes the adrenaline, the fact that every day is different. There are days when things fall through, the video is bad, guests don’t show, and she has to keep the show from collapsing.

“You cannot have an off day – you have to come in ready to play,” she said. “This is where you can really shine.”

Berger has been shining since she was a student at PLU and heard a guest speaker talk about the importance of real-world experience. She didn’t have any.

Heidi Berger ’91 makes decisions about how to present some of the world’s biggest news stories as a producer at CNN International in London. Photo courtesy Heidi Berger.

“I remember thinking, ‘I’m 19 and I’m behind?’” Berger said.

She caught up.

“My best advice to students is to get those internships by the time they graduate,” Berger said. She found internships at TV stations in Seattle and Portland, Ore., and then became a news assistant at KIRO TV earning $5.50 per hour, working late nights during the first Gulf War. That paid off, and when a news assistant’s job opened up, KIRO hired her. She worked at KGW in Portland for three years as an assignment editor for a magazine show, booking guests and setting up stories, and then was a public affairs producer working on public service announcements.

“I always knew I wanted to get into the newsroom,” Berger said, but kept hitting brick walls. She was told she needed local newsroom experience, so she applied for jobs all over and ended up in Macon, Ga., producing the local news.

“Three months was all it took,” she said.

She returned to Seattle as a news writer at KIRO and within a few months was with KING TV, where she stayed for more than six years. She started as an overnight writer and moved up to producing the 10 p.m. weeknight news. Among her accomplishments, she coordinated coverage of the 9/11 attacks when she spent 10 days in Washington, D.C.

She loved KING, but wanted more responsibility, so she applied at stations in other major markets. She was offered a job by CNN International in Atlanta – a city not on her preferred list.

“I had to ask myself, do you stay near your family and house and comfort or do you take a risk?” Berger said. “I felt like I had another layer in me.”

She took the job. She was a producer when the Iraq War started until the declaration of the end of major combat, working 12-hour overnight shifts. She produced four hours of TV when the usual was one, gaining invaluable experience and showcasing her solid news judgment.

“I have no desire to be on the air. My talents are a real drive and thorough research. I’m always demanding – I want the best shots,” she said.

Berger was assigned to London for a four-week assignment and returned to Atlanta, working for CNN domestic, producing Wolf Blitzer’s weekday show.

Then she got the call from London: They wanted her back on a full-time basis, and she returned last summer.

In November, she traveled to Wales for “hostile environment” training, which she hopes will lead to working in the field.

Berger said her greatest challenge is studying up on international geography and politics – for the audience there. CNN International is not seen in the U.S., but in the rest of the world.

Berger has enjoyed traveling on the weekend and stays in touch with her friends from college. She’s not sure how long she’ll be overseas.

“I just want to keep going,” she said.

Though much of her college experience was off-campus, she said PLU laid a great foundation.

“It pushed me, it challenged me, and it made me think,” she said.


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© Scene 2004  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Winter 2004

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