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Check Out Jana Wilson’s Story

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jana Wilson.

Hi Jana, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today?
I have always been creative, even as a child, with a fascination for gathering and collecting things that sparked my imagination. I put things together in unusual ways, whether it was jewelry, clothes, matchbox art, Barbie houses, etc. My mother used to say, “Jana loves jewelry, and she wears it all at once… every day!” I have always had the soul of a junk gypsy.

When I was young, I also drew pictures, sketched, and painted (t-shirts, objects, whatever I could get my hands on). As I grew into adulthood, it seemed like my artistic side was squelched, in favor of working “regular” jobs and paying bills. But I never stopped creating things in my free time, with whatever materials I had on hand.

At age 52, I was working a full-time job in marketing/PR while also running a side gig re-purposing furniture and vintage items. I set up twice yearly at Southern Junker’s markets and started noticing repeat customers who loved my quirky, vintage assemblages. One day, I wandered into an art reception at a local vintage shop, and the owner asked if I was an artist.

My reply? “No.”

She gave me a funny look and said, “Didn’t I buy some cute little cigarette box shrines from you a while back? Didn’t you make those? What do you call that?” I had to admit that those were some of my “art things.” She advised me that I was, indeed a real, live artist, and asked if I wanted to do a solo show at their shop…in two weeks.

That show, which I called “Vintagia”, was the beginning of my identity as an artist. I have been hustling to make up for lost time ever since. In the past 6 years, life circumstances have pushed me to explore my creative side and share it with others.

The most significant evolution has been my involvement with Arkwings Foundation, a non-profit organization in my Frayser neighborhood. I grew up in Frayser, left at 21 to live in California, Hawaii, and Minnesota, then returned to Memphis 25 years ago, buying mine forever home in my childhood community.

I became active in Frayser, participating in multiple grassroots organizations and not-so-quietly speaking my mind. 5 years ago, in the midst of a career change, I realized that I didn’t want to continue working full-time outside my community. I needed to focus on supporting positive change in Frayser and devote more time and energy to my artistic endeavors.

I became a “festival chick” and set up at artisan markets all year-round. It didn’t pay the bills, but it supported my habit! I also found an opportunity to take on the volunteer role of Executive Director at Arkwings, which was undergoing a leadership transition at the time. Arkwings, founded in 1992 by Dr. John McCall, promotes mind, body, and spirit wellness for individuals and the community.

In my four years with Arkwings, we have expanded our mission to include integrated art and nature programs. The 1930’s family home has been transformed into a vibrant art space, with outdoor activities on our 17 acres of green space. We seek out community members from Frayser, Raleigh, North Memphis, and other Memphis communities with little access to arts activities and safe outdoor space. We encourage EVERYONE to explore their creative side and find out what activities help them de-stress and find wellness.

We’ve found that there are TONS of artists, performers, wholistic practitioners, makers, and others who haven’t had opportunities or encouragement to develop their creativity. Given that it took me 52 years to identify as an “artist”, I am driven to support others in realizing their full potential. In turn, I am surrounded by brilliant, inspiring folks who contribute to the collaborative, creative energy at Arkwings.

Arkwings hosts the Frayser Local Arts Festival every October, as well as year-round nature+arts activities. Most of our programs are free to the public, as a way of generating true hands-on, participatory arts access. In addition, we give creative entrepreneurs opportunities to host paid events onsite, with a large majority of the proceeds going directly to the artist/facilitators.

While neither of my roles as an independent artist or non-profit leader has become financially viable for me (yet!), I am rewarded daily by the amazing people and experiences that come from opening up and truly sharing my creativity and community values. I am blessed to have a supportive husband and friends who encourage me to follow my heart and soul.

I can only hope to help others realize the same for themselves.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
Transitioning from decades of “real” jobs with real paychecks to being an artist and community advocate has been super difficult!

It is scary not knowing how you’ll pay the bills or whether you can live up to the commitments and self-imposed expectations. I wholeheartedly believe that you receive back whatever you give, so I will continue to give of my time, energy, and resources and trust that the future will be fine.

It is also hard to put myself out there as a “real artist”, especially since I work in a pretty unconventional style. It is common for people to ask me, “What do you paint?” Unless I show someone my work, they can’t really envision what I do, and sometimes they don’t consider my vintage and found objects as real art.

Perhaps I needed to be of a certain age to have the confidence to share my work, and this helps me encourage confidence in younger artists.

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know about your work?
I create assemblage art from old, broken, often vintage objects.

I find things on the ground, at yard sales, thrift stores, etc, and listen to the stories they tell me. I arrange them in interesting ways, sometimes decorative, other times deeply symbolic. My artwork evokes feelings of nostalgia and curiosity when people see it.

My style has become somewhat recognizable locally, especially my cigarette and cigar box mini-shrines and pieces created from vintage dolls.

Do you have any advice for those just starting out?
DO NOT put your creative inclinations aside! Society tells us that we need to grow up and focus on financial success, at the expense of the things that keep us healthy in mind, body, and spirit.

Humans NEED to express ourselves creatively… it is therapeutic and allows us to leave daily stresses behind for a while.

You do not need to make money on your art, you simply need to explore the things that make you feel happy and well, then nurture those parts of yourself.

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