For women like us who have spent numerous years creating our identities around our work or our families, taking a step in a new direction can feel like a katydid molting its exoskeleton. It’s unsettling and liberating in equal measures, possibly painful–we can’t ask the katydid–and we suspect, itchy.
Here we share stories of women who have scratched a new itch. We hope these stories may provide the insight and encouragement for others to leave their old skin–familiar and easy as it is–and go into a new world a little naked and scared. But not alone.
Today, we’re happy to highlight the work of Joni VanGenderen of Scotia, NY.
What kind of work or passion are you pursuing now?
ART! Being a full time artist.
How old were you when you began in this new direction?
55 – when I retired from my career in education.
What did you do before you made this change?
I was a school-based speech pathologist for over 25 years. At age 50, I reinvented myself and became a school district administrator. This was a huge reinvention in and of itself. But the change I am writing about here is becoming a full-time artist at age 55.
What prompted you to make this change?
I was always a creative person. My career in education allowed me to be a mostly left-brained creative as I practiced the craft of teaching and later solving high-level school administration problems. However, as I became older, I started experiencing a great amount of stress. My need for creating morphed into a need to create art. I was tired (and frankly bored) of applying all of my energy to primarily left-brain pursuits and needed a change. Luckily, this desire coincided with a retirement from my career in education, giving me the freedom to follow my dream of becoming an artist.
What from your previous work or life situation helped you in your reinvention?
I became good at learning how to learn. Before my transition to being a full-time artist, I took some college-level art classes. I applied left-brained strategies as I learned art techniques, art-making “rules,” and meeting deadlines. Plus, the organizational skills that are necessary to be a competent educator allowed me to slowly make the transitional changes from being a school professional to fulfilling my art-based dreams.
What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome?
My biggest obstacle was thinking I was not a good enough artist. Learning the technical skills of drawing and understanding color was difficult. But there comes a point when you have to just jump, get started, and see where the cards land. For me, this meant making art and actually showing it to the world.
How are you overcoming them?
Along with many artists, I am always in the process of wondering if my art is good enough. Eventually, however, the joy of creating outweighs the self-doubt.
What fears did you have to face?
I was fortunate to not have to worry about an income as I am able to receive a pension, which pays the bills nicely. I suppose my biggest fear was actually showing my art work. There are so many fabulous artists who are more experienced than me, have art degrees, have lived life as artists since their 20’s, and have significantly better skills. I just have to accept myself where I’m at and be thankful that I enjoy making art as much as I do.
What kind of support did you receive in your reinvention?
Early on, I received a large grant to pursue an art project geared to help my community understand what human trafficking looks like. My years of experience in education gave me the skills to write a kick-ass grant proposal. The benefits of working on the project allowed me the opportunity to present myself as an “artist” as I interviewed various people to inform my art. I jumped into public showing of my art and had a huge exhibit. I still can’t believe I had the courage to do this and I often cringe when I think about being so public with my early works.
How have you grown or how has your life improved as a result of taking on this new pursuit?
I now identify myself as an artist. I absolutely love everything about this new identity, even the struggles and rejection letters saying my art didn’t make the cut for an exhibit. I am a more relaxed person in this new role as I can set my own pace and be my own boss, not to mention doing what I love. About a year ago I changed my first name from Joanne to Joni because I feel it represents who I am now more accurately. I have made a slew of new friends and experience many new opportunities in the art world and the world at large.
What advice would you give to other women at this age who are looking to reinvent themselves?
I think it is best to quietly start your reinvention while you still have your day job. Having an income sure helps reduce stress, which allows you to take steps toward your dream. As some point, you will have to take a leap (as I did with my early art show) that takes a huge amount of courage. But if you fully examine your options, don’t act impulsively, and then take the leap when you feel ready “enough” you are good to go.