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SUNDAY OCTOBER 21, 2018 10:48 AM

Musician-turned-nurse discovers a new passion: painting

For Jolene Windmiller, it's part of a never-ending quest to find her purpose in life.


An Artist in the Making

Sometimes, in order to see something as it really is, you need to take drastic measures - such as stand it on its head.

Jolene Windmiller, maker of things, learned that lesson early on in her midlife emergence as a painter.

It was February 2015, just two months after she had earned her bachelor's degree in nursing from Alvernia University. For graduation, her mother and sister gave her a gift certificate for Dan Gorman's oil painting class at the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts, 201 Washington St.

The class had an informal structure; Gorman let the students paint whatever they wanted.

Most stuck to the basics: skies, trees, that sort of thing. Not Jolene. She chose portraits.

"I figured, to me, that seems like the hardest thing to paint," she said, "and while I'm here in this class, I have this instructor to utilize and pick his brain. I'm going to do portraits while I'm here."

It was right around Presidents Day, so she opted to paint Abraham Lincoln because she loves his face, plus she happens to be a descendant on her mother's side.

After seeing her struggling to paint Lincoln's nose, Gorman offered a suggestion.

"You're envisioning the way your brain sees and knows," he told her, "but it's not always that way, so if you turn it upside down, you cut the brain off, and then you start painting what you see."

Jolene flipped her source material, flipped her canvas, painted what she saw, flipped it back and walked away.

"I left the room, and when I came back and saw my painting from across the room, I just was blown away," she said. "And I thought, 'Shoot, what the heck did I just do? I don't want to be a nurse practitioner anymore; I want to be an artist.' It just felt so good."

A familiar feeling

Jolene knew that feeling well; she just hadn't experienced it for a while.

From the mid-1990s to the mid-aughts, her right brain was fully engaged. She was a mainstay on the Berks County music scene, playing acoustic guitar and singing her own songs and others' several nights a week in coffee shops and bars to supplement her income as a hairdresser. She even cut an album in 2004 called, simply, "Jolene," and sold just about all of the 1,000 CDs she ordered.

But soon thereafter, suffering burnout while also going through some turmoil, and wanting the stability of a salary and benefits, she abandoned her music to focus on pursuing a more traditional career path. She enrolled in the nursing program at Reading Area Community College at age 37, earned an associate degree and became a registered nurse, working at WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital.

She proudly identifies herself as a nurse to this day, even though she left that profession after five years to indulge her creative interests.

She still grapples with that decision. It has unleashed a perpetual tug of war between her analytical and artistic sides, between black-and-white and shades of gray, between contributing to the betterment of society and what?

"I'm torn, because nursing seems like it has a purpose," she said. "I was there helping people and their families, and now I'm not. I paint, and I feel like that isn't helping anybody."

'The warm fuzzies'

Or is it?

As Jolene spoke, she was seated on a couch in the living room of her rented farmhouse on the fringe of Mastersonville, a one-horse town in northern Lancaster County. (She and her husband, Jay Nassar, have since moved to Mount Gretna, Lebanon County.) She was surrounded by art: her own and that of others.

On the wall to her right - the focal point of the room - was a recently acquired painting by outsider artist Dave "Big Dutch" Nally of Muhlenberg Township. When asked about it, Jolene sat up tall; her face lit up. She said she loves it because she can keep going back to it for new discoveries. It engages her. But that's not all.

"Many of his paintings are very political," she said of Nally, "and I'm not a political person. I like his art because it gives me the warm fuzzies, because I'm from Reading and he's all about Reading and Berks County. I like this one because it's more about the universe than politics."

Dominating the long wall in front of her was one of her first forays into abstraction. Going over to examine it, she said it's called "All I Want," then started singing the Joni Mitchell song by that name, about flawed lovers: "All I really, really want our love to do/Is to bring out the best in me and in you."

She explained that her abstracts are pour paintings done to music and named for the songs that inspired them. She said it takes her longer to mix the paint than to actually paint them, then confided that "All I Want" took her only 20 minutes, start to finish. She said she wouldn't really want people to know that, and deflected credit for how it turned out, saying she had no control over it.

"I feel like it's more the intelligence of the paint versus my skill," she said.

Asked if she has bounced this idea off other artists, she laughed and said, "No, I don't really know that many artists."

Still finding her way

As a newcomer to the local art scene, Jolene still is finding her way when it comes to staring down her fears.

One person squarely in her corner is Albert Ciervo, who invited her to participate in a pop-up show last March at the Loft at 505 in downtown Reading. It was just her second public exhibition, and her first time rubbing elbows with fellow artists.

Her first exhibition had been a solo Christmas-themed show in December 2016 at the former Max Crema's cafe, Alsace Township, where she sold every piece and then some. At the Loft at 505, she didn't fare quite as well.

That night, her insecurities, not to mention her self-consciousness, got the better of her. Instead of staying near her own works, she gravitated toward the other artists: Ciervo, Katie Trainer and Andrew Pochan. When she wasn't at their walls, she was sneaking outside for a cigarette, even though she doesn't smoke.

"It doesn't make sense," she said, "because I can stand up on a stage and play music and be, like, halfway charming. But I don't know, there's something empowering about having a microphone and a guitar to hide behind. If I didn't have my guitar on me, it would be different."

And so it was.

She's not alone

Ciervo can relate to her lack of confidence. He's been there, done that.

"That doesn't go away," he said, laughing.

It might have to do with the solitude of painting. Or the inner turmoil as ideas circulate, percolate and evolve or die. Or the risk of putting yourself out there to be judged. It makes cowards of most.

Ciervo said he recruited Jolene for the March exhibition because he wanted to showcase up-and-coming artists. He had seen Facebook posts of her work and was drawn to their serenity and symbolism and her obvious talent for painting faces and human figures.

Since then, he's gotten to know her a bit.

"I think if you listen to her, she is her paintings," he said. "I don't know what she thinks about sometimes, but to me she's very spiritual, and she has an inner peace about her that comes out in her paintings."

Now, the two support one another, sending photos of works in progress back and forth for feedback.

"It's good within the art community to have friends like that," Ciervo said.

A litany of what-ifs

Jolene and her daughter Kelsi are two of the 10 artists Ciervo has invited to exhibit at another pop-up happening Saturday, October 27, at the Loft at 505.

Of Kelsi, Jolene said, "She rarely paints, but when she does, it's amazing."

For this exhibition, Jolene has been working on a series of paintings depicting eyes - just eyes.

"I wanted to do something that was kind of creepy, because it's going to be a Halloween show," she said.

Some days go better than others. She's at her best when she blocks out the self-doubt and fear that can touch off a litany of what-ifs: What if she hates it? What if somebody else hates it? What if she wastes supplies? What if she embarrasses herself?

Her paintings tend to reflect her moods, and vice versa.

She recently got so angry over a finished painting that she slashed it a dozen times down the middle with a box cutter. Then she liked it.

The process, she finds, paraphrasing something she once read, can be like having someone hold a gun to your head and saying, "Win the lottery."

But when everything comes together and the work is good and she knows it, it's also a high like no other.

A bundle of creative energy

On the music front, Jolene has started playing out again, sometimes as a duo with her husband on bass. Years ago, Nassar worked as a sound engineer, including for his gold record-winning stepmother, Helen Schneider, before becoming an anesthesiologist, and Jolene says they make beautiful music together. She has dozens of unrecorded original songs, and has her sights set on releasing another CD down the road.

She's also a foodie and loves to cook. Seeking optimal health, she became a vegan in 2017, but has since added fish back into her otherwise plant-based diet.

To satisfy her desire to help others, she started a blog at jolenewindmiller.com to share recipes for the healthy foods she prepares, and posts beautiful photos of them - recently, curried butternut squash soup, jackfruit tacos and peach crumb muffins - on social media.

She believes in the healing power of food, and as a reiki practitioner, also believes in the healing power of life-force energy.

She's a fan of adventure travel, and even hiked to Mount Everest base camp with Nassar to exchange wedding vows in 2017.

In a nutshell, she's a bundle of creative energy constantly searching for her purpose in life.

Which leads back to the day in 2015 when she touched brush to canvas - a day when a graduation gift, ironically enough, flipped her future on its head.

"I felt like myself again," Jolene said. "Through all those seven years of intense studying and working in the hospital, I lost that part, so when I got it back, I felt like, 'Aaaaahhhh.' Like, this feels like my soul has just come back in."

Contact Don Botch: 610-371-5055 or dbotch@readingeagle.com.

Don Botch | Features writer

An Artist in the Making