It started with a lengthy stay in early Brooklyn with her buddies, a degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology, and two adventurous creatives who proudly grew up on Long Island. Join me for a Q&A with my longtime buddy and local storyteller, Jeanine O’Grady.
Q: Jeanine, or Mrs. O, as the students call you, what made you decide to publish a children’s picture book?
A: It’s always been an item on my bucket list; I was always struggling with content. I knew if I did it, it had to be something with sea or coastal and benefit the environment. Most of my paintings are coastal content. After a lot — and I mean a lot — of bad ideas, I put the idea on hold.
Last summer I just started painting scenes from the bay and Fire Island with no book in mind and said to myself let’s just see where this goes. The Great South Bay has proven to be a huge inspiration for me as an artist.
Q: You currently live in Bayport, a hamlet on the South Shore with a rich history, but where did you grow up?
A: I grew up in Central Islip. It was a great experience to grow up in such a diverse community; it allowed me to become open minded. Looking back, I am incredibly thankful for that experience.
Growing up on Long Island is a special experience and we are truly fortunate to live here. Having spent my childhood summers on the bay I knew I would like to be back on the South Shore. I wanted my daughter to grow up close to the water were we could bike, paddleboard, fish — all within our community. After driving around stalking neighborhoods we fell in love with Bayport.
Q: So with the book, you’ve created a persona called South Shore Betty. Who is this Betty character and how is she connected?
A: South Shore Betty started as the name I gave my Mother’s Day gift from my husband: a sweet BOTE paddleboard. “Betty” equals surf slang for babe, or a woman with an incredible sense of self worth. Then it turned into a platform for my art.
After doing a series of paintings based on the Great South Bay I realized I had the makings of a book in front of me. South Shore Betty then kind of streamlined into my brand for self-publishing my book, It is always still used as my art brand.
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Q: You’ve been creating artwork all your life, and you’ve had a successful career. But you decided to take a different route professionally. What’s it like working as an elementary art school teacher?
A: After getting my degree in painting in 2003 from Fashion Institute of Technology my father said sarcastically “Great now you have a 20,000-dollar piece of paper that says you know how to paint.” So I knew I needed to pursue a more stable form for my creative endeavors.
Ten years in and I can’t imagine my life without teaching. I love the fact that I’m able to share my love of art with my students and help them grow as artists and creative thinkers. I am also fortunate enough to teach in the town I grew up in, so I can completely relate to the children.
Q: So you’re a published artist and now a published writer. Is there anything else you would like to add to your professional resume in the future?
A: I honestly can’t even think about the future or adding anything. I am just trying to currently ride this wave and see where it goes and taking everything one day at a time. To go from wife, mom, teacher to publisher-business owner author is daunting enough as it is. I have a couple projects in mind but I’m going to keep them at bay! You like what I did there?
Q: As an art teacher with a mission, is there a specific purpose for your book? How will it will benefit the children who open it?
A: It’s so important that children learn about the bay they live near, its resources and how to protect it for future generations. There is a certain renaissance happening on the South Shore we are so proud of what we have and we want to celebrate it and keep the momentum going there is a huge sense of local pride.
Oysters are starting to be seeded more and people are shopping locally on the main streets to support our small business and local economy. Not to mention our booming restaurant and dining scene. It’s is a great time to be alive to watch it all unfold.
Q: I know you are a local expert when it comes to places to eat. I’ve have solicited your knowledge on eateries for many special occasions. Where would you consider yourself a regular?
A: As a mom and full time professional, its super duper hard to be a regular anywhere with a 3-year-old. However, I must say Grey Horse Tavern in Bayport is hands down one of the best dining experiences you can have. The food is always top-notch so is service and they make the best Old Fashioned.
In my dreams I’d like to be a regular at Coastal in Bay Shore. I went there for my birthday and as a rum aficionado their drinks are on point. Last, but not least, hands-down thee best fish taco and rum punch can be found at Swell Taco.
Q: There is an element of community outreach to your endeavors working with Save the Great South Bay. Where can we go to find out more about the programs and how to get involved?
A: You should visit www.savethegreatsouthbay.com to check out their site. It’s full of information and the many things you can do to get involved. One program is the “I Love Long Island” campaign, which educates how reducing high-nitrogen lawn fertilizers and chemical pesticides can really help improve Long Island water and its quality.
Another is the Creek Defender program which calls upon people in every community on the South Shore to become good local stewards, healing our creeks as they help heal the bay.
Q: Who is one person you would like to give credit for supporting you. Besides me, Matthew Ambrosio, one of your oldest and closest buddies.
A: My husband TJ has been on board with this project from the beginning, it makes a world of difference when your family supports your wild ideas. Self-publishing a book is not cheap and it is very time consuming. My family has been very accommodating. Yes, you Matthew especially for being my beach buddy. We love a good beach!
Q: What are some other things you love to do and what is most important to you?
A: Reading, gardening, paddleboarding, sea glass hunting with my favorite buddy (you), taking the ferry to Fire Island for the day, you know all the normal things a mom living on the south shore enjoys. I am passionate about ending the use of plastics, plastic straws, forks and bottles. 90% of the junk I pick up on the beach is plastic.
I’m super stoked the Town of Islip jumped on board with the plastic bag ban; it’s a huge step toward being better stewards to our world. I am passionate about living a creative life and being a great role model for my daughter.
Q: I know you’re a busy lady with you’re new book, arranging local events, running 5k’s to support the Great South Bay and of course being a teacher or as I call them heroes but before you go where can we buy your book?
A: The book is now available on www.southshorebettyny.com along with some other killer merchandise and art prints. I’m also proud to say that my book is currently available at Bayport-Blue Point Public Library and is also registered with the Library of Congress in Washington DC. I am also working on expanding availability in other Long Island libraries. One more thing! Educators and military geta 20 percent discount!
Matthew: Thanks again for taking the time to share, Jeanine!