We all have our stories from 2020, of how we managed to move through a year of heartache and change, one day at a time. Many of these stories we share with the world, our country, our community, and some are our own personal journey. Under cover of a pandemic, I’ve taken the better part of the last year to stay off the radar. Call it social distancing or just an introvert’s indulgence in obscurity after one helluva year. No two people have handled this past year in the same way, or HAD the same year, and that’s ok…
A year ago, April 2020, I was in Asheville, NC enjoying a winter break from my business and home of Minneapolis, and I was looking forward to an amazing year! My book Landscapes in Wool, the Art of Needle Felting was intended for release in the summer, I had organized a Needle Felting Retreat in Tuscany for the Fall, I had art fairs and workshops planned all over the country to talk up both and it was going to be great!
Of course, we all know what was coming next. The dawn of the pandemic was a surreal and frightening time. As the confusion and concern took root, I cut my time in Asheville short to make the 2-day drive on empty freeways in a homemade mask, stopping only for gas and one nervous night in a hotel armed with a couple rolls of toilet paper and whatever disinfectants I could scrounge. Just before I left North Carolina I’d seen a little house for sale in the treetops of Marshall, a small river town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and despite my worries I was wondering about the possibilities. I’d been born and raised and spent much of my life in Minneapolis, loving the scale and humanity of that midwestern city, but it was changing. To be fair, so was I.
20 years ago, I bought and began renovating a cute old house in South Minneapolis. A few years back, having done what I could with that place, I decided to rent it out and move into a duplex in Uptown with my parents, just blocks from my childhood home. I thought this was a lovely idea (for some reason). Having settled again, I began to realize that the Minneapolis I loved seemed to be buckling under the growing influences of urban density, income inequality and bad decisions by the city council. I was increasingly frustrated, and my frustration turned to anger when a huge development proposal of high-end apartments was given the green light right next door. This massive project would now surround us, one of only 5 houses left on the block. I thought I could ride it out, but for over two years the entire house, my home and studio, literally shook with the construction, dust, and chaos of a 7 story, 350-unit complex rising around us. I was losing my mind to the constant intrusion. And so, I would escape to North Carolina in the winter, to bask in the peace and wilderness of it all where I could hear myself think and wonder about the possibility of living differently. I held on to that possibility when I returned to Minneapolis, I decided to try to sell my bungalow, pandemic or no pandemic. It was a huge leap into the unknown for me, but we were alreadyliving in the unknown! At this point my entire livelihood was on “pause”, so I put all of my time and energy into getting that cute little house ready for market!
Rejoice! Within days of hitting the market multiple offers rolled in and the dream of my little mountain sanctuary got a little closer. Closing was set for a month away, so I found a realtor to help me work on the house in NC, gave my notice and started packing up my life in Minnesota.
I thought I’d seen as much chaos as the 2020 could throw at me until the gut-wrenching death of George Floyd happened in South Minneapolis. Dumbstruck with the horror of it all, I joined the subdued and socially distant protest the next day on the corner of 38th and Chicago. We were within a few miles of my entire family. I had learned to weld at the Chicago Ave Fire Arts Center next door to the Cup Foods where it all went down and had loved the mix of people in these Minneapolis neighborhoods. I felt sad and outraged and helpless that racism had spread so thoroughly under my nose. It was an awakening for many of us, informed and with good intentions yet coasting on a cushion oblivious to our privilege. We saw it in each other’s eyes over our masks as that peaceful protest began to march toward the 3rd Precinct Station. With a flat tire on my bike, I pulled away from the group and headed for home. I wasn’t there when the group arrived at the precinct station, or as night fell and the protest was joined by instigators of violence who unleashed a new level of horror on the city.
We all scrambled for news as the area around the precinct gave way to destruction. Under my incredulity that this was really happening was the fact that my little house was within a block of that station and an 8-story building burning to the ground. The house stood empty and vulnerable in the face of problems so much bigger than my own, but I drove in past the gawkers and protesters, through the chains my neighbors were patrolling across our alley, to get the garden hoses poised and ready on a block trying its best to defend itself. I could see flames from my backyard. Acrid smoke and smoldering tear gas from the station rolled through while a line of ominous looking figures blocked the end of my street. Police, National Guard, Proud Boys, you couldn’t tell who was beneath all that unmarked military gear, defending the already destroyed that was once the commercial heart of the neighborhood.
I would go home to the duplex in Uptown to shower and sleep in the middle of my half-packed home and studio; my world disassembled. The closing on my house was in doubt, of course, but far heavier concerns outweighed that stumbling block. Over the next days the looting and destruction spread down Lake Street into Uptown until I was surrounded by the threat of fires and violence there too. I sent my parents out of town while I stayed put to see through the (maybe) closing on my house, taking it moment-to-moment while we all reeled with the shared trauma of everything. Only a handful of us stayed in our houses on the block, but we texted and looked after each other as best we could in a neighborhood abandoned by police with no answer to 911. Slowly and painfully, we emerged to a city that will never go back. Lake Street in Minneapolis was a lifeline of small, often immigrant owned shops and restaurants that became burned out shells. Historic businesses and buildings became smashed glass and boarded windows, many of which have stayed boarded to this day. The combined forces of Covid and a city, a people, on fire have wreaked havoc in every community there.
As the city continued to smolder, the people in my small world stayed healthy and safe and the sale of my house miraculously went through. So, I put all my things in storage while I escaped to a cabin up North to wait for the next steps.
Buying a run-down house 1000 miles away was not, as you can imagine, an entirely smooth process. Throw a truly awful political climate at a world already churning with pandemic and racial reckoning, and I can’t say I didn’t have some mortifying meltdowns. But I did as well as I could, one foot in front of the other until I finally landed. So here I was at last, in a dingy, vacant house in the mountains. I was a thousand miles from “home”, surrounded by piles of boxes and huge bugs I didn’t even recognize in the thick of a North Carolina summer. It felt like heaven. I got power and Wi-Fi, threw some a/c in the window, and probably spent more time staring dumbly at Netflix than I did unpacking boxes for a few months. With the world still shut down, I could indulge in countless days of puttering (and Netflix). My book launch was delayed, my retreat in Italy was cancelled, all workshops and art fairs on indefinite “nope”, and somehow, I could not have been more relieved. I feel guilty even writing that. It goes against my whole mid-western work ethic, and there is important work to be done, but there you go. Eventually my puttering got serious, and I painted every surface of this house to exorcise the decades of Newports. I built out a studio space the way I’d always wanted, but never had time to do. I took out whole walls and the entire kitchen. I imagined the space it could become with views into the treetops and a dog door for Lucy. This construction therapy has worked magic for me as I wake up and go to sleep surrounded by birds and trees and a vision of what this house can be.
It has been a year now since I dropped the reins to my 6-horse team of making art, doing art fairs, planning workshops and retreats, writing a book and preparing for its release. Now I am vaccinated (woot woot), like more and more of us every day, but it has been difficult to get that team back in harness, and not just because it takes a good year of advance planning to schedule these things and motivate myself into productivity. While I do not miss the stresses of travel and weather, I do miss the face-to-face interactions. The feedback from art fair patrons and workshop participants seems so effortless compared to the challenges of rereading my own emails before I hit send or editing video of myself to post online. I am making slow but steady progress toward my goal of online tutorials. After setting up my digital film studio I’ve been teaching myself to edit my own video. Having become somewhat proficient, my trusty old laptop finally heaved a sigh and surrendered. (Have you heard of the computer chip shortage?) So, as I wait a month for a new and improved PC, I have to remind myself daily to proud of what I’ve done and accepting of what I have not.
If you’re reading all the way to the end here, you are surely interested in needle felting, so I hope you will get yourself a copy of my book. I am really proud of it, and for a chronically self-critical person that is saying something. It’s a great foundation for future projects. I’ve begun posting videos to my YouTube Channel which coordinate with the kits of wool I sell on my website Next up will be a full Introductory Tutorial Online Course which is an expanded version of my in person Intro workshop and the first tutorial in my book. I have scheduled a show in Louisville this fall and finally, when I can comfortably teach without a mask and the world really opens up, I will start offering workshops in person again. I have exciting ideas for new work of my own, which have been taking form in my mind while I install a dishwasher and plant some shrubs, and I am once again, finally, feeling hopeful and excited for things to come.
This past year has brought home to me that the things that matter most do not comes easily; caring for the people we love and advocating for equitable opportunity and justice until we are all able to pursue our dreams and curiosity. I hope you are in a place to pursue yours, and that maybe we can help each other along the way.
With love, Jaana