Words Laura Silverman Photography Tom Behrens
The phrase “having it all,” thrust into the cultural canon as the title of Helen Gurley Brown’s 1982 best-seller, has by now been batted around, chewed up and spat out by multiple generations of feminists. Today, the notion of women being able to flourish simultaneously as lovers, homemakers, mothers and CEOs is likely to be met with great skepticism. Balance is purported to be a more realistic goal, though it seems suspiciously like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Anyone trying to achieve it knows it’s as elusive as any other brand of perfection. And then you meet Fredrika Stjärne, a multi-tasker of epic proportion, and the paradigm shifts.
Born in Sweden, Stjärne came to the States with her family as a very young child. Her father, a culture editor, and her mother, a non-fiction writer, were both politically engaged, supporters of Bobby Kennedy and fascinated by the American way of life. When Stjärne was 16, they came back to spend a pivotal year in Berkeley, California. “It was a different kind of world than Sweden,” she recalls, “and it changed all our lives.” They returned home but, within a couple of years, Stjärne was in New York City again, the time to attend the International Center of Photography. After earning her degree, she returned to Sweden for graduate studies, but quickly realized that her work, an experimental combination of painting and photography, “didn’t fit into the very brainy conceptual trend going on in Sweden.” She headed to New York once more, now accompanied by her baby daughter, Sasha, and enrolled in the masters program at the School of Visual Arts.
At SVA, Stjärne met Tom Behrens, the fellow artist she eventually married, and fell in love with the city, too. “The rhythm of New York appeals to me,” she says. “I like the speed of things here.” When it became clear that she needed a way to support a life with Sasha, Stjärne found a job at an advertising agency. Lacking neither curiosity nor energy, she quickly immersed herself in this new field and learned every aspect of the business. She went from being the art buyer to producing TV spots with significant budgets (Cybil Shepherd for Mercedes-Benz). “I was a bit surprised to discover that in addition to being creative, I have an aptitude for maintaining the core of a business,” says Stjärne. “It’s turned out to be very useful along the way.”
“I was a bit surprised to discover that in addition to being creative, I have an aptitude for maintaining the core of a business. It’s turned out to be very useful along the way.”
After a stint as photo editor at a shelter magazine, Stjärne transitioned to a similar position at the publication where she has worked since 1999, Food & Wine, and where she is now creative director. And this is where an interesting, if not unusual, story turns rather extraordinary. Because 1999 is also the year that Stjärne enrolled at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies and began the long journey to becoming a psychoanalyst, doing coursework in the evenings while working full-time and raising two children. She graduated in January of this year.
“I started out as an artist, fascinated with both the collective and individual unconscious,” Stjärne explains, “and my interest in psychoanalysis seemed like a natural extension of this desire to investigate the interlacing of the mystical and practical elements of the human experience.” She makes a compelling argument for the way in which being a photographer, creative director and analyst is all about people and the narratives that motivate and inspire them. “How people relate to food says a lot about how they relate to other basic needs, like pleasure.”
It was around this time that Stjärne was told she could no longer maintain the little garden she had been cultivating on the roof of her apartment building. By now, she and Behrens had a son, Max, and Stjärne felt an urgent need to give him the kind of childhood she had enjoyed in Sweden. “In the city, you have no relationship to nature and I wanted us to be able to roll around in the grass, take long walks and grow vegetables,” she says. After more than a year of searching—and asking photographer friends to recommend interesting areas to explore—they found a house from 1880 in the charming and sparsely populated town of Cochecton, New York. A rambling Victorian, it has a turret on top and an old shed out back that’s been converted into a studio. Beyond that is a big, open field that leads through a patch of woods to the Delaware River. “It’s magical the way a community forms around a river,” says Stjärne. “ There’s something about being so close to it that is just wonderful.”
“In the city, you have no relationship to nature and I wanted us to be able to roll around in the grass, take long walks and grow vegetables.”
The house and the upstate life that comes with it are the essential counterbalance to Stjärne’s full-to-bursting work schedule. “I do a million different things during the week but this is the calming place where I cook, where we hang out together.” Although they purposely bought a property that didn’t require extensive renovation, the kitchen and dining area have been remodeled—with typical Swedish floorboards pickled white (“I need to give these a thorough scrubbing like a good Swedish housewife!” Stjärne exclaims)—and a large screened-in porch with a fireplace added on.
On the living room wall hangs a large black-&-white photograph, a portrait of a South American artist taken by Stjärne for Food & Wine. At a time when the magazine needed digital content, she picked up a camera again and, after a 15-year hiatus she refers to somewhat paradoxically as a “creative block,” taught herself the new technology, started shooting food pictures and then took on larger stories covering culinary scenes from around the globe. Since then, she has also photographed a cookbook for Food & Wine and another one, “Bistronomy,” on the modern bistro movement in Paris. The images she creates are sensual and finely observed, grounded in an earthy realism.
Standing at her marble-topped kitchen island, a blue apron tied around her trim frame, Stjärne exudes warm domesticity as she puts the finishing touches on a batch of her Swedish grandmother’s traditional buns. At this moment, it’s a bit difficult to imagine her as the forbidding analyst, but she’s quick to point out that the modern psychoanalysis she studied is not typically Freudian and involves a great deal more emotional involvement. She plans to focus on her practice when she “retires,” a word whose meaning clearly eludes her. “I envision being up here more,” she muses, “dividing my time upstate and in the city according to a new ratio.”
Stjärne never mentions “having it all;” she simply embodies an ethos of “doing it all.” Asked to explain what drives her, she pauses to consider before replying, “You are given this one life and I believe you have to honor it, follow where your passions lead you and do as much as you can.” The tantalizing smell of cardamom and almond paste fills the kitchen and the back door opens as if on cue. Behrens is done stacking his artful assemblages of firewood and his wife rewards him with a freshly baked bun. A visiting reporter is offered another one and, in one delectable bite, confirms that Stjärne is, among a great many other things, a very accomplished cook.