Alumni Spotlight: Magda Franco-Banaszak, '95

Thursday, January 23, 2014 5:20:00 PM

Alumna overcomes obstacles by following her passions in art, creativity

Magda Franco Banaszak

“I don’t come to bow; I come to conquer."

This motto defines the life journey of alumna Magda Franco-Banaszak, ’95, from her roots as a young Mexican-American girl who grew up in rural Minnesota to a college-educated, highly respected independent artist and community activist

The first in her family to earn a college degree, Franco-Banaszak applied her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Stritch to work in real estate, interpretation services, case management, and as a pre-trial officer in the years that followed her graduation from Stritch. Yet, no matter what position she held, her art remained at the center of her life and brought her a sense of peace and equilibrium.

“For as far back as I can remember, I always drew," Franco-Banaszak said. “That was always a strength of mine and a natural part of who I was.”

Relocating their family from Mexico, Franco-Banaszak's parents worked as field laborers on farms throughout the United States. They expected their children to follow that same path of becoming hard workers and contributing to their family and society through physical labor.

“I loved the feeling of physical labor and the resiliency required to do it day after day,” said Franco-Banaszak. She grew to admire the work ethic her parents exhibited and was proud they expected it of their children as well. “But I also knew early on that I wanted something different for myself.”

Franco-Banaszak believed a college education would be the key to discovering what that "something different" might be. However, college was a difficult concept for her parents to grasp.

“As a first-generation Mexican-American, when I introduced the topic of college, my parents did not know how to make that happen,” Franco-Banaszak said. “My parents did not want their eldest daughter to leave the home; I was raised to be a worker and care taker of the family.”

In school, Franco-Banaszak explored the arts. She took advantage of opportunities to explore her musical and writing talent as well as her art. Following middle school, Franco-Banaszak enrolled at a newly founded (1989) art academy, the Minnesota Center for Arts Education located near Minneapolis, where she attended for two years. It wasn’t long before the faculty and Franco-Banaszak herself realized that she had incredible talent and needed to fine-tune that talent at a four-year college.

“William Slack, a mentor, professor and friend at the art school, took me under his wing and helped connect me with resources so that I could apply to other schools,” Franco-Banaszak said. “Most of all he helped me believe I could succeed.”

When looking at colleges, Franco-Banaszak knew she wanted to land somewhere that had a sense of community and deep faith.

“Faith was such a huge component of my art,” Franco-Banaszak said. “With spirituality as my medium, it was important that the school I attended helped me to further explore that aspect to my craft.”

Franco-Banaszak learned of Cardinal Stritch University and the Fredrick Layton Art Scholarship from the art school faculty. She applied and once invited to Milwaukee for the final round of scholarship interviews, a group of professors from the art school funded the trip and her chemistry professor, Eva Holt, provided the transportation, accompanying her as an added show of support.

“I was so nervous and excited at the same time,” said Franco-Banaszak who had never been to Milwaukee up until that point.

“All I knew was that I felt this insane hunger to be a visual artist and to just ‘create,’” Franco-Banaszak said.

Franco-Banaszak’s passion for the program and desire to have a true college experience away from home came through in her interview, and she was selected for the program on full scholarship. That fall, she made the move to Milwaukee and began Stritch’s B.F.A. program.

“I was so proud of being a college student,” Franco-Banaszak said.  

Once at Stritch, she realized it was going to be much more challenging than she had anticipated.

“I was immediately humbled in my very first design class,” Franco-Banaszak said. “I was given a B on a project I personally thought reflected advanced competency and mastery in design. I quickly learned in that moment that I had so much more to learn and technique to master. The lesson in humility, as well as the “B” was an added, yet necessary bonus. ”

What surprised Franco-Banaszak the most was that she never expected to excel academically to the same degree as she did artistically.

“It was professors like Paula Friedman who helped shape me into a strong academic student,” Franco-Banaszak said.

Much like her time at the art school, Franco-Banaszak formed close bonds with professors on campus, including an especially close friendship with Sister Mary Lea Schneider, OSF, Stritch’s president at the time.

“Sister Mary Lea empowered me and made me feel like I had something special the world needed to see,” Franco-Banaszak said. “My relationship with Sister Mary Lea changed me.”

Franco-Banaszak admired Sister Mary Lea’s ability to use the power of community to access resources for students and the University.

“The pure faith and strength of a woman is something that will always remain with me when I think of Sister Mary Lea and her leadership,” Franco-Banaszak said.

In the fall of junior year, family issues led to her decision to stay at Stritch during Thanksgiving break. As a means of processing the difficult situation, she poured herself into her art. During those four days, Franco-Banaszak stayed in the art studio creating eight to 10 pieces. When classes resumed the following week, Tim Abler, her most influential and admired art professors at Stritch, told her he wanted to buy one piece in particular. Franco-Banaszak told him she would love to sell it, but Sister Mary Lea had already taped a note to it saying it was hers! To this day that piece still hangs prominently next to the president’s office at the University.

Franco-Banaszak went on to sell most of her undergraduate portfolio, including a piece purchased by Maria Monreal-Cameron, president of Milwaukee’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce at the time.

“That was the first time I realized my art could also be a business,” Franco-Banaszak said.

And while her art could bring in some income, after graduating from Stritch Franco-Banaszak knew that she needed to pursue full-time work to enable her to do her art. While she envisioned working in a gallery, she had no official plan for her post-college life.

“What could I do work-wise that would allow me to create?” Franco-Banaszak said.

She took odd jobs that allowed her to work evenings and create in the day. In 1995, shortly after graduation, she met and later married her husband, Christopher Michelangelo Banaszak, who introduced her to an opportunity at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW), where she provided English-Spanish translation services. From there she went on to become a program manager at the MCW Teen and Young Adult Clinic and she remembers feeling unbelievably inspired by the at-risk youth she met.

“The drive to help my community became my focus,” said Franco-Banaszak who went on to work in the nonprofit sector for more than 15 years at organizations such as the United Community Center and Rosalie Manor Family Services.

“Due to my experience, I was able to access opportunities working hand in hand with the City’s most dedicated and talented social workers,” Franco-Banaszak said.

And while she found the work she was doing fulfilling and challenging, she felt there was always an inner-conflict. This was especially evident because she could see the passion her peers demonstrated doing what they loved.

“Those who work in the nonprofit sector had the same passion I had for art, for their craft,” Franco-Banaszak said. “I understood that no matter how fulfilling the work, something was missing and I had to return to who I was at my core, to what I was meant to do.”

She missed her art.

“A role in the nonprofit world was all consuming,” Franco-Banaszak said. “Empowering clients requires devotion, compassion, and perseverance to do it well, to do it right. At the end of the day, I found myself with no more emotion left to give to creating art.”

In conjunction with her career in the non-profit sector, she and her husband started both a real estate business and a family. Then in early 2013, Franco-Banaszak lost her job when her department lost funding at the end of the previous year. For the first time in her professional life, she had a blank slate and free time. 

“All I had known is ‘work' my entire life,” Franco-Banaszak said. “Having worked consistently since childhood, I couldn’t grasp the concept that I was unemployed.”

With her husband's encouragement, Franco-Banaszak knew this was the time to return to art. And, once again, that proved to be a humbling experience for Franco-Banaszak who quickly learned that she couldn’t just pick up where she had left off shortly after college.

“Art, like any other talent or skill, is a craft that requires devotion, discipline, nurturing and fine-tuning" Franco-Banaszak said. "I had stopped practicing for so long that I lost the courage it takes to create.”

But this time around, Franco-Banaszak possesses more "life experience" than she did as a young college student and now feels more grounded in her decision to pursue art full time.

“I have come to realize that this talent is an essential part of my purpose,” Franco-Banaszak said.

While she has many artistic talents, Franco-Banaszak is best known for her mandalas, which are spiritual and ritual symbols and designs that represent the Universe. Examples of such designs can be found in many cultures, spiritual practices, religious art, as well as in nature. 

“I discovered these while a student at the art school,” Franco-Banaszak said. “I love creating them for their spiritual representation and the ability for me to work with abstract design. My art is very spiritual.”

Doing art full time and still finding time to help her community through the pre-trial work she does at the Office of the State Pubic Defender, Franco-Banaszak feels she has finally refined her calling.

Now as a mom of two kids who will be looking at colleges in just a few short years, Franco-Banaszak is most proud of how she has been able to use her fine arts degree to enter so many different types of industries, and it all relates back to her four years at Stritch. 

“It was such a rich, empowering experience,” Franco-Banaszak said. “I gained so much more than just an education in art. My Stritch education helped develop Magda the person.”

Follow Franco-Banaszak and her art on her soon-to-come Facebook page:  Magda’s Ink,