Jennifer Lleras is a local artist from Hampstead. “When I grew up, our family lived on an army base. I did not have a lot of toys. I sat for hours in my high chair and colored junk mail and papers my mother brought home from work. She had to buy me a new box of 12 colors every couple weeks,” Lleras said.
When she was 5 years old, Lleras cut up old magazines for collages. She used same color pieces to create gradients of color for art. “I also made paper dolls from women’s figures I cut from magazines, but I gave them different arms and legs and Frankensteined them together,” she remembered.
While attending Johnnycake Elementary School her art was in the Baltimore County free calendar. In middle school, Lleras applied to Carver Center for the Arts in Towson. Although she put together a great portfolio of digital art and collages, she was refused admission because she did not want to submit still-life drawings.
“It worked out well for me because instead of being an artist in a sea of other artists, I was the artist in my class at Hereford High School. I joined the National Art Honor Society.” Lleras won the school’s art scholarship when she graduated in 2000.
Lleras attended Towson University. Because she knew she would need to make a living right away when she graduated, her advisor told her to change from her fine arts major in sculpture to teaching or graphic design, which she chose.
“I enjoyed package design the most,” Lleras said. “It was fun to design an exciting label for something like a chocolate bar to get people to buy it. It has a lot to do with marketing. My favorite package was a promotional piece for a band: a photo book bound with guitar strings, featuring a slot for guitar picks.”
In 2005, as a graduating senior, Lleras prepared an art portfolio. Her supervisor told her without letterheads and corporate materials she would never find an exciting job in Maryland. She refused because it was not being true to herself as an artist.
Lleras was working at a local print shop running T-shirts when she got a graphic design position at Diamond Select Toys, an offshoot of Diamond Comics, the largest distributor of comic books in the world, based in Timonium and Baltimore.
Lleras designed action figures, packaging, and promotional material. “As a designer I started with a concept. ‘What is it going to be?’ I asked. We would choose a sculptor and then get pictures of the action figures in clay. I measured their proportions against a photo of the actor and sent feedback to the sculptor. Once the figure was completed, I took the product photography and positioned the figures in different poses and scenarios. From there the pictures got edited for ads.”
She also designed the packaging for the figures and catalog ads that were sent to possible purchasers. Some of her packaging received industry awards.
One of Lleras’ favorite projects was designing figures and packaging for Charm City Cakes and she got to meet Duff, the chef. She also got to meet other famous people such as George Takei, and Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) since they made Star Wars figures.
The internet was still in its infancy, with blogging became popular, so Lleras was asked to write articles on Star Wars figures for a company blog. She became celebrity, Star Wars Jen. Fans recognized her when she worked the Comic Con Convention circuit held in Baltimore, New York, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Chicago and Florida.
Lleras was laid off in 2009 during the economy downturn. She was hired shortly after by the Baltimore Ravens as a graphic designer specializing in women’s lines including the cheerleaders and purple ladies, which the male designers weren’t interested in.
She also designed for their non-profits and even players credentials. “When they hired a new player, he needed a lanyard right away, which is like a player driver’s license to go through security. I photoshopped the player into the Ravens uniforms,” she said. Then there was a player strike and she was laid off again.
“The world was hard for artists in 2010,” Lleras said. “The market became saturated with graphic artists.” So, she took a job as a financial advisor. “It was the darkest point in my artistic career,” she said. Luckily, she attended an in-house job fair and discovered they had an art department. She was loaned out to the art department until she could be assigned there permanently. But as the top-rated employee, the financial department wanted her back, so she left.
From 2012-2019, Lleras was self-employed doing freelance work. In 2019, she opened her own business called Hampstead Marketing and Design.
“My mission is focused on small local business. It brings me so much joy. Shiloh Pottery in Hampstead reached out to me when COVID-19 started last year. I told Shiloh Pottery that they needed a new website with ecommerce capabilities and social media venues. It has been a successful venture. “It affirms this is what I want to do. I help people create a space for their products and services online. Not a lot of artists are as lucky as I am to have the creative mind and also the analytical side. My marketing and digital experience help people make money and succeed. I find a lot of fulfillment in that,” Lleras said.
“I still sculpt and paint for my mental health. I like to make things with my hands. It keeps me sane,” she said. “I am an assemblage artist and make 80 percent of my art from upcycled materials, vintage items and bones,” she said.