What’s Mightier? The Pen or the Spatula?
 A Young Artist’s Struggle


Terry’s Coffee Shop, Union City, NJ

It is late September, but the outside air is hot, cloudy and smells of pork. The owner of Terry’s Coffee Shop in Union City is having his weekly outdoor shish kabob barbecue for his loyal and new customers. Inside the restaurant, the space is narrow but inviting; tiled walls, a long countertop to the left displays the newest baked goods, bagels and fresh coffees and teas while the wall to the right shows painted scenery of a Greek statue and ancient structure behind it. At one of the tables sits a young woman; just twenty years old and a dedicated arts & design student who has come to visit not just as a customer, but as the daughter of the coffee shop’s owner. Each visit she makes stands as a reminder of the decision she may one day have to make: Her art, or her father’s business?

Justine Tepale, a student of New Jersey City University, has worked at her father’s restaurant during the summer for just two years now but can already feel the pressure of what the next step may be when the opportunities seem to be expanding. Each day she works she feels the connection to the restaurant and staff growing but knows she must also stay focused in school and future goals.

During her regular school months, she takes courses in drawing, art composition, sculpture and design (both 2D and 3D) but she often wonders if her class schedules should include courses in business and management because of the possibility that her father’s restaurant might one day be in her care. Still, her main interests continue to lie in the arts and design yet she often forgets and tries to remember exactly when that attraction began. 

“I think it was in high school, because when we were in high school, we were introduced to a lot of more artists and styles so I enjoyed that and then I slowly realized that my art classes were the only ones I cared about,” said Justine.

“I mean every kid loves arts & crafts and we definitely had that in elementary school, but the teacher mostly did cute little kiddy crafts every year,” She added; sitting comfortably at her kitchen table with a small mug of coffee on the table and her newly adopted pet Chihuahua, Pepa, in her arms.

“After high school I began to really think ‘hmm maybe this is what I want to do’ but I still didn’t know what I really wanted to do with it.” Justine said.

In the beginning, some of her interests included design and possibly becoming an illustrator for biology and anatomy textbooks.

“I thought about that for maybe a brief moment, very brief,” Said Justine, laughing at the thought of it. “But when I realized what went into that, I was thinking “I’m not really into Biology; and you have to realize how the bones and muscles move when you’re standing, you’re leaning, all this stuff in anatomy and studying the body, so that was the end of that, but that was still a better idea than what I used to think I could do when I was little.”

Originally from Fairview, Justine was born June 9th, 1992 to a Mexican father, Gerardo Tepale, and an ethnically mixed mother, Linda Berg. Mrs. Berg’s nationalities include: German, Irish, Welsh, Portuguese and even Lenape Indian. Her parents married two years after she was born and then divorced when she was just six. After her grandparents (from her mother’s side) died in 2006, Justine moved into a two-family home in North Bergen which was shared with her mother’s cousin (Justine’s aunt) and her cousin.

In elementary school, Justine did enjoy and have small interests in crafts and art classes and she stated that most kids do have that interest, but when she was younger she had other hopes for her future.

“A welder; that’s what I wanted to be,” said Justine, trying not to laugh. “Because welder’s made money, that’s what I thought when I was younger.”

“I don’t think I was as into art as I am now when I was little; you don’t really know what you want to do.” She admitted, but her mother had a different view of Justine’s past. Standing beside Justine at the kitchen table, Linda Tepale began to recall the days when a young Justine sparked an interest for the arts.

“She was always into art; we always bought her things like the kids easel or the markers and colored pencil sets, she always wanted things like that; sometimes more than most kids,” Said Linda (Justine’s mother)

Linda remembers when Justine would give her personally drawn pieces of art that represent Justine’s preferred styles of illustration which include inking and basic composition. For instance, Justine gave Linda an inked drawing of the Elvis Presley personally drawn by Justine.

“I always preferred pen and I still do,” Said Justine. “I’m not afraid of using color, but I feel like pen is more expressive with the black and white; I don’t use pen in different colors either. Black and white is more aesthetically nice, I guess that’s what I’m saying.”

“I do get jealous of people that are awesome with color, but even black and white can be stronger because you’re kind of forced to focus on the line and the form of the art instead of just “oh pretty color” you see the black and white lines and you have to look past that to get the meaning.”

So, what does Justine do now with her talents and how have her plans matured? Well, instead of focusing on just one form of art, she has now turned to a possible career choice. Justine is focusing on illustrations and the many branches that stem from it which include comic illustration animation and even book illustration.

“I talked to my advisor of that because he’s the president of the Society of Illustrators,” explained Justine.

“For book illustrating it can go from anything from children’s books, magazines, newspapers, novels, you can do the cover art for that, picture books so I would love that because it’s something that can always be different for me; the opportunities and the options in style are always changing and I love to experiment.”

Does this love of experimentation stretch far beyond the arts? Justine’s answer was a quick yes and she admitted to being very interested in trying new things when it came to foods and even life choices; which is how the connection to her father’s restaurant could be found; but that does not exactly mean that she’s completely ready and willing to drop everything to become more involved in her family’s business.

“I’m still not that sure about it, I mean I would rather just help to do some major renovation in there but I cant do that while my father’s there. My father is pretty set in his ways.”

Justine began to feel distant from her father because of the divorce when she was younger and felt that distance become worse as the years progressed. Through elementary school and high school the same continued. It was not until 2010, when her mother mentioned that she should look for a small summer job; possibly Justine’s father’s own restaurant, that Justine began to become a little more closely acquainted with her father.

“My relationship with my father is still a bit tough,” said Justine.

Justine and her father, Gerard

“My father was never really that involved with my life, you know, he used to come around on the weekends, but, I mean you know, what kind of relationship is that? I guess you could say he doesn’t really know anything about me because sometimes we talk and he calls me on the phone, but those phone calls only last maybe, I don’t know, 30 seconds? But he’s getting a lot better now I guess since I started working in the restaurant I guess, he talks to me a lot more he wants to do things a lot more, but it still feels pretty awkward because he was never really there and sometimes I felt like he came around just because he had to not because he wanted to, but that’s just stuff you think about when you’re a kid.”

Justine’s father seemed to also notice the way their relationship had changed and admitted to feeling a little unsure when Justine had first planned to begin working with him.

“Justine started working a couple of years ago, when she started, her mother said that she wanted to work and asked if she had a chance to work here and I said I didn’t know about that because in the beginning I didn’t know if she was going to give me a hard time working here or if she was going to be able to help me work, or give me more work,” said Gerard.

Terry’s Coffee Shop has been under Gerard Tepale’s care since 1998 when the original owner, a Greek American, decided to sell the restaurant to Gerard so he could move on to newer business opportunities. Gerard had worked with the original owner for many years; first as a dishwasher, then a server behind the counter and he continued to slowly make his way up until he seemed responsible enough to take over the restaurant himself.

“The original owner, he was a Greek. He opened up the business, it’s still the same way; Greek American. It’s always been called “Terry’s Coffee Shop” and I didn’t change anything, as a matter of fact I added to the menu, added a few items…I kept everything the same, plus I add a few items more because I figured in the area, people need more variety.” So that would explain the large painting of the Greek stature on the wall.

After mentioning Justine’s personal feelings towards the restaurant and how she would like to change it, Gerard had his own comments and opinions when it came to the future of his restaurant, and of his relationship with his daughter.

“I do think she will be able to handle it,” said Gerard. “She has the brain for it; maybe she’s not as smart as I am, but I trust her.” He has mixed feelings about his daughters renovation ideas.

“I think it’s a good idea, I mean I don’t doubt that but its just you know I mean not only do I think its a good idea but I’d have to jump into see what she wants to do, I have to ask to see what she wants to do and then make a decision…it’s not just about making the change or painting or changing the menu, I’ve been here longer of course.” He said, that proves what Justine had said earlier was true, but Gerard added that it was mostly a matter of tradition and respect since the previous owner was Greek and opened this opportunity up to him.

“Now that I’m the boss, I really see it as a great thing, I think that God gave me this place in order for me to help my family. I don’t think that I did everything on my own, I think that without God we wouldn’t be this way. Because everything I do, I think it’s a risk, you know, in order to be successful and to help my family.”

He is also aware that Justine may want to pursue other opportunities. To him, it’s just a matter of time before she becomes set and tells him what exactly she wants to do with her talents. He has known this and doesn’t want to keep her from using her abilities in a way that she enjoys the most.

“My hopes are always for her to become a better person. The thing is every father and every mother they want their kids to become more successful and that’s why we work hard to give them what they need.”

Just like Gerard, Justine’s mother believes that Justine is free to choose her own path, but hopes that she won’t ignore her natural gifts that have allowed her to progress so much in her skills and confidence.

“I am always amazed and proud of her work and I only hope that whatever she chooses to do, she doesn’t ignore her talents,” said Linda. “If she wants to focus on her art, then I’ll let her, but I personally believe that she can do both; help run the restaurant and maybe art on the side or find some way to combine the two. With Justine, the possibilities are out there.”

Justine and her mother

To an artist, every part of their life is a chance to express themselves, all it takes it deciding which part they’ll choose to make that expression great. For Justine and her parents, the possibilities are, in a sense, endless and despite the worries or uncertainties that Justine may have as both an artist or a daughter her parents definitely don’t have any worries and her mother seems the most certain.


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