Saturday, November 17, 2012

That'sa My Story

Well, I am officially opening my store.  It's been a long and winding road.

Now people who love my artwork will be able to buy all kinds of things with my art on them. From posters to postcards, wrapped canvases to mugs and totes to hats and decks of cards to notebooks and puzzles.... ...this is so cool.

About ten years ago I was sitting with my kids, visiting with friends when an idea came to me.  Each of my oil paintings take about a year or more to complete.  Since my brain injury things take a lot longer to do.  Anyway, I was looking around me and noticing so many bright young faces.  Each one so talented in their own way.  And I thought I wonder if there is a way I can make posters of my artwork so more people could afford to buy it and enjoy it.  And if I could do this for me, maybe I could do this and include other people in this too.  I had no idea how to build a website or take pictures of artwork or sell things online.  All I thought was, maybe I could figure out a way to make a go of it so eventually, all of us out-in-the-country artists and musicians could have our work seen too. 

Before the brain injury I was a writer and artist and worked and was raising my kids and a house painter and I loved my life.  I had hope for the future and was physically fit and everything was possible.  Even when times were tough, that was my attitude. 

After the accident, for a long time, my thinking was all jumbled.  I couldn't have a complete thought.  I was lost and felt like a stranger in a strange land, in an even stranger body.  My rehab had lots of stages.  Within a couple of years I was painting and writing but things were different.  They were harder and every effort was riddled with excruciating pain.  My focus was seriously limited and well, for awhile I had lost hope.  The only thing that kept me going was the hope that when my children left for school, I would live long enough to see them again.

We were living on the farm and though painting was slow going and my work had changed, it had become my language.  I could only stands for maybe ten minutes at a time when I first got started.  But eventually, the time grew.  I can only work for about an hour and a half at a time now.  And then that is usually it for the day.  But some times, if I take a walk with my service dog Coco, I can work some more when I get back.  There are rare days when I can keep working for a few hours but then I am wiped out and usually have to take a nap.  So I have needed to learn to master how to pace myself so I can stay awake during the day and sleep at night.  Sounds a matter of fact thing when I write it down but this has been a major life skill I have needed to develop since the brain injury.

I rarely left the farm house and my circle of friends was mostly family so my work wasn't seen much.  I'd submit pictures and slides but couldn't afford the submission fees of most shows so I kept my focus on my work and gave up on the idea that anyone other than my family and friends would ever see it.  It had become a personal diary and I was glad to have it.  Oh I still hoped at some point I'd be able to sell my work but it was like that lottery ticket I never bought.... not much use when no-one knew about it.

Writing had become impossible.  I had been working on a book of interviews of WWII Vets and Holocaust survivors and was nearly finished when the crash happened.  I couldn't even get on my computer anymore.  I couldn't read.  All of the lines and letters were swimming on a page.  And I couldn't remember what I'd just read so the tremendous headache that was left whenever I tried seemed like a futile effort.  I sank further into a depression when I realized this was not getting any better and that I might never find my way back to my first love, language and writing. 

One day one of my kid's friends talked with me about the Internet.  He gave me a little laptop.  And he wrote down how to turn it on and how to get to a chat room.  He had asked me what I would like to read about and talk about and all I could think of was philosophy.  So he found a philosophy chat room and I was off to the races.  At first trying to read and scan information that was moving and the light from the screen was painful and impossible.  But I didn't give up.  Gradually, I could stay on a little longer and even read some of the writings.  And now and then I would write a reply.  Nothing fancy.  My words back then were mostly one syllable but people would respond to what I said and seemed to get it and that was encouraging.  Every now and then I'd mention I had a Traumatic Brain Injury and people would ask me questions.  And that was really how my first book, "Down the Road," was born.  I thought, I keep repeating my story.  Maybe I should write it down.  And then, feeling this sense that I was in so much pain I was going to day any day, I was motivated to write down everything I had learned and let my children know that if I did die, it wasn't because I wanted to.  I didn't want to leave them.  And so line by line, my story was told.

Having short term memory problems showed up in my work.  This is really funny.  My children and I sat around a table and we went through the pages and the children helped me group pages together by topic.  Something that was completely beyond me and still a challenge to do.  A friend showed me how to use the thesaurus and how to use word search.  This helped me to find the right words.  I could recognize them when I saw them and then I could click on them and find out what they meant and keep looking for the right word if I needed to or just choose the word I wanted and click, it was replaced with usually a three or four letter word.  This was how my vocabulary began to come back to me.  And the word search was incredibly helpful because you see, in the beginning of a chapter I wrote something I was feeling very strongly about.  And once I had explained... and written myself out about it... I wrote it again!  Almost word for word.  So each chapter was written twice in one chapter and I had no idea I was doing that.  Crazy huh.  So I edited the book.  I thought, if I finish it and if it is good enough, maybe I will be able to generate enough money to put my kids through college.

I had received so many rejection slips from art exhibits and publishers and when one was kind enough to call me, which only happened a couple of times, I found out that not having a college degree was standing in my way.  That artists and writers who didn't have a college degree weren't taken seriously.  Even though I had gone to college for three years, most of the time at Columbia College in Chicago, still, I didn't have that piece of paper, that degree and once again my hopes were dashed. 

I went back and forth through the years of having a glimmer of hope that things would change and having a sense of futility that the work I could do now, would never be good enough.  This left me feeling vulnerable on just about every level.

When the kids were grown and gone and none seemed interested in the farm I started thinking about a change.  I loved that farm but one day I had a small tumble while I was getting out some hay for my llamas and donkeys and I thought, if I fell down out in this barn nobody would know it.  I started to realize that the farm was too much for me to take care of on my own.  And at this point I talked with my sister and asked her to help me make this decision about selling the farm because I had been thinking about it for two years and still wasn't any closer to making a decision. 

Now I happen to be a very, very lucky person because I have a sister who is the type of person that thinks only of what is best for the people she loves.  This does not go through a filter of what is best for herself.  It is pure love that leads her to the core of every decision she makes.  She gave it some thought and said she thought it was best if I moved close to her.  This way, she could make sure I was getting good care and when all of our kids were grown and gone at least we would see them and they would have a chance of seeing each other if we stayed close together.  It made perfect sense and knowing that I would be able to see her and watch her young ones grow up gave me a sense of peace and purpose.  So I sold the farm and auctioned off most of my stuff and down sized to a nice little two bedroom and one bath home with a small but wonderfully adequate front and back yard.  It was on a quiet street and with its huge trees and tiger lilies, it felt like I was back home in Michigan.

After about a year I decided to see if I could go back to college and finish my degree.  I was able to read, though still challenged with short term memory and not being able to remember what I just wrote.  But not having that degree was stopping me from being taken seriously.  And if I went back to college maybe I could learn how to take good pictures of my artwork (a really hard thing to do with oil paintings because of the glare and texture of the paint) and I might be able to learn how to create a brochure or business card or maybe even format my pictures of my artwork into posters.  And that was something I might be able to sell in Chicago and that gave me a sense of hope again.  So I went back to Columbia and a couple of years later, I got my degree.  It was a lot of hard work and determination for sure.  I found ways to study that worked for me.  I read books and highlighted everything I thought was meaningful.  Then I typed out those lines on my computer and then I put the page numbers next to them.  When it came time to prepare for an essay or exam or project I'd do word searches.  I could find the pages that pertained to that idea and I would begin to build an idea that way.  And it worked.  My grades were good and I graduated on the Dean's List.

My work was being shown in Chicago and once again, things were looking up and then the Great Recession hit.  Bam!  The galleries I where I sold and showed my worked were closed down after three months.  Everyone was going to hope for better times but couldn't make the rent anymore.  No-one was buying art.

Two of my children were going to Columbia College and graduated from there and Steve learned about grants.  I remembered I had been a grant writer before the accident but I couldn't process the information for what the requirements were anymore.  So Steve and his friend Nicole helped me write grants.  Hope once again came into my heart.  My daughter Rebekah and her friend Ryan helped with a reception that was held and Steve and Nicole's and I had an art show.  And friends from Columbia College who were artists and their friends all donated work to be sold.  And from this money, I now had enough to self-publish, "Down the Road," on Amazon.  Nyq helped me with the formatting of the book and Jude and Steve and Nicole and Beks all helped me with the editing of the book.  It still needed some work.  Once we were all satisfied I designed the cover and I was off to the races again!

I sent out announcements and gave books away and posted the link to buy my book on my website but still didn't know how to get my book out there to the public.  For a year I spent a lot of time, with the help of my cousin Randy, and I sent the book out for reviews and tried to get speaking engagements but I never got one review back.

During this time I was struggling.  All of my life my purpose was in living a virtuous life, loving my family and friends and finding a sense of honor in doing quality work.  This was true whether I was waitressing when I was going to college the first time or much later, writing my book and creating artwork.  But there was often a slight beam of light that would always help me to the next step.  That sense that I didn't want to be dependent on anyone or on the government for my life.  I wanted to be self-sufficient.  And I wanted to help pay for the debt two of my children went into, so they could get their degrees.  And I wanted to be able to help my eldest son Matt achieve his goals too.  But with every turn I made, it was never enough.

Publishers weren't interested in publishing anyone unless they already had a following.  A book about poetry?  That told a story of about having a brain injury?  I'd have to sell ten thousand on the Internet before a publishing company would be interested in working with me.  And artwork and grants?  I started checking who won these grants and who was being shown and most of them were male.  Once again, even with working as hard as I had worked all of my life and getting my degree... the obstacles were still too great.

I kept working though.  I have three more books nearly ready and I keep painting.  Some one told me I needed to give my work away to fundraising events and that would generate interest and people would buy my work.  But the only thing that happened was people who could have afforded my artwork and who by the way, genuinely loved my worked, could get it at a bargain price and brag about that to their friends.  No, it took me too long to create a painting to give them away.

Instead, I decided to give my paintings to organizations that did good work.  That I admired.  And that way people would be able to enjoy them, not just one person.  And that felt... GREAT!!!!  I kept most of my work figuring, if it wasn't worth anything to anyone else, it was precious to my family and that was who was going to get my work for free.  And then I decided something really crazy.  I didn't want to sell my original pieces at all.  I didn't want any collectors to have them.  Instead, I wanted to take really good pictures of my work and create posters and things with my images on them and then people who couldn't afford much could enjoy my work too.  Maybe people would buy them, maybe they wouldn't.  But it would be available for them to choose.

It was about ten years after that first idea while visiting with friends back in Michigan before technology and business caught up with my dream.  See, I couldn't handle all of the printing and distribution and I couldn't afford to buy prints in bulk and I didn't have the room to store them if I could.  But I could sell my work online, my books and my artwork too.

Now this is the kick in the pants.  These past decades I have worked nearly everyday.  As much as I could.  Before and after the brain injury.  Some times with the hope that my work would sell and this would help my children and lots of times without that hope at all.  But I kept on working.  I did this because I wanted to set a good example about the importance of personal empowerment for my children, regardless of what circumstances lay ahead in life and because I chose to live purposefully everyday.  And whether that meant I was going to be poor or not it didn't matter.  I was already poor!  But my life, the way I chose to live it had value.  And that is what it has all boiled down to.  Appreciating the moment with all of its potential and sorrow.  And to keep on moving forward because that was the only way to go, frailties, flaws and vulnerabilities and all.  If my work ever has any relevance it will find its way because people will find it.  And they will share what they have found with some one else and the possibilities are now out there - on this world wide web.  The possibilities, its absolutely intoxicating.  I know!!  I have been the cat in Shroedinger's Box all along!!!  Yeah the possibilities are a hope.  A little light.  And whether or not I can ever earn a living from what I do has become secondary.  Because it doesn't matter.  I write a book. I can publish a book.  Maybe people will buy it?  Maybe they won't.  Maybe they will like it when they read it?  Maybe they won't.  That part is out of my hands.  I did what I was compelled to do and felt passionately about.  I painted today or I wrote something today and now it is out there....

I wonder where that is?  Where that will lead?

Now, for the first time, I am announcing something wonderful... my online store for merchandise that is sold with my artwork on it.  Everything from mugs to posters and wrapped canvas to puzzles and cards and hats and totes.  This doesn't have all of my artwork yet.  But it has a whole great big bunch of it.  I'm working on my art book.  I don't have a title for it yet.  But it tells the story of what was going on in my life when I was working on a certain piece of artwork.  And I write about how my technique and style developed and all of that.  And about what each painting means to me.  Again, whether anyone will buy it or not.... truly doesn't matter. 

I'm a writer.  I write books.  I print them and leave copies for free when I go places so regular everyday people can enjoy them.  And I am going to self-publish the rest of my books too.  And I am an artist.  I paint paintings and draw drawings.  And I am going to offer them to the public to buy, at all kinds of affordable prices. 

And I am going to keep on going and doing what I do.  Living each day the best way I can and feeling good about it.  And loving to pieces my amazing family and friends.

So here is the link to my art store:
Jenn Weinshenker's Art Store

And while I'm at it, this is the link to buy my book:
Amazon link to buy my book Down the Road

And here is my website:
Jenn Weinshenker Website

I know over twenty-two thousand people read my blog.  Nobody writes comments.  So its more like an online diary that people get to read and it keeps me writing, which is a good thing.  I know people in other countries are also buying my work.  So for those of you who do read my book or who do buy a piece of my artwork, I'd love it if you would leave a review on Amazon or at my art store.  That would be truly great.  It's like the other part of the conversation.  Now its your turn.  And I'm still alive and able to read it.  Pretty cool stuff.

Well, that'sa my story.  If you find it meaningful, feel free to pass it on.


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