By Jeff Sherman Staff Writer Published Jan 05, 2010 at 11:07 AM

Hopefully your Christmas and holiday decorations are packed up and stored safely for next season. Thankfully, those ugly Christmas sweaters are gone, too.

Even though the "ugly Christmas sweater" parties have become a bit of a cliché, the East Side of Milwaukee put a new spin on an ugly tradition by holding its "Beauty of the Ugly Holiday Sweater Art Competition" in December.

More about a focus on young, emerging artists than the ugly sweater, the competition featured several student and recently graduated artists. It helped showcase Milwaukee's creative side and provide public art space for young artists.

I talked with the winner, Jennifer Halbman, whose winning work was cited by many of the judges cited for the way it incorporated texture onto such a non-traditional medium. Give me a bit of background on yourself. Where are you from?

Jennifer Halbman: I was born in Milwaukee and grew up in Waukesha. I went to Waukesha West High School and attended Lawrence University in Appleton for the past four years. I just graduated in June with a double major in art and art history, and since most of my family lives in southeast Wisconsin, I ended up moving back to the area this past summer. This year I'm working on starting up a mural painting business,  Not Your Ordinary Paint Crew, with my two younger sisters. We've painted a number of private homes so far, but our most exciting work was in the pool area at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel in Appleton. We're excited about taking on new projects around Milwaukee!

OM: What was your inspiration for your design?

JH: I was totally stumped when I received the photo of my ugly sweater for the design, but I wanted to come up with something cozy and friendly so that the finished painting might be friendly and funny for anyone who might see it. I kept coming back to the jokes my grandpa used to make about ugly sweaters at Christmas, even though somehow he'd always end up wearing one from Grandma. I was inspired by my grandparents' relationship with each other and the sweaters involved, and transferred that idea into Mrs. Claus knitting something for Santa. I like adding little surprises to my designs that most people might not notice at first glance. In this case, the tiny Santa up in his sleigh is wearing the sweater Mrs. Claus is making down below.

OMC: Be honest, do you own an ugly Christmas sweater?

JH: Unfortunately, I don't. But that's just because I haven't found a really fun one yet.

OMC: What's driving your passion as an artist? What inspired you the most to pursue art?

JH: I have always been fascinated by how art changes every-day people. I am particularly interested in murals and public art for this reason. I like art that gets to interact with people outside of the gallery space. Murals especially can change the whole nature of a room or a street or a building. Art in unexpected places encourages imagination and gets a more natural response than art that you might go to a gallery to see.

I also love being able to involve other people in my art making process, and murals are a great way to do this. You get so much feedback when you're painting someone's living room or working in a window at a bank, like I did during the mural competition.

OMC: Favorite thing about Milwaukee?

JH: I love the Calatrava expansion to the Milwaukee Art Museum and the area around it. But I also like always having Lake Michigan to refer to for directions. You don't get lost as easily!

OMC: Where do you see yourself in five years?

JH: I'd like to be a bit more established as a muralist in five years. I'd really love to complete a few public jobs in the next few years and continue building my painting portfolio. I'm sure I'll continue learning about art along the way, whether by returning to school for a master's or trying to work with a professional painting as an apprentice. Either way, I hope there are fewer boring white walls around here in five years because of me.

Jeff Sherman Staff Writer

A life-long and passionate community leader and Milwaukeean, Jeff Sherman is a co-founder of OnMilwaukee.

He grew up in Wauwatosa and graduated from Marquette University, as a Warrior. He holds an MBA from Cardinal Stritch University, and is the founding president of Young Professionals of Milwaukee (YPM)/Fuel Milwaukee.

Early in his career, Sherman was one of youngest members of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and currently is involved in numerous civic and community groups - including board positions at The Wisconsin Center District, Wisconsin Club and Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.  He's honored to have been named to The Business Journal's "30 under 30" and Milwaukee Magazine's "35 under 35" lists.  

He owns a condo in Downtown and lives in greater Milwaukee with his wife Stephanie, his son, Jake, and daughter Pierce. He's a political, music, sports and news junkie and thinks, for what it's worth, that all new movies should be released in theaters, on demand, online and on DVD simultaneously.

He also thinks you should read OnMilwaukee each and every day.