OUR HISTORY, OUR VOICES PROJECT

The Ashley Garner Exhibit

About Her Exhibit…

My submission was inspired by all the many ways over time I, like all women, just had to figure it out. As a result of figuring it out, I have built a successful custom painting and furniture restoration business (Nest) as well as a writing career, writing for The Dollywood Company, Knoxville Mom’s, Her View From Home, and Today.com.

I live in South Knoxville, TN with my three boys and three dogs and surround myself with a community of other amazing women I’m so lucky to call friends and collaborators.

Women Figure It Out

An essay by Ashley Garner

Women, it seems, have an uncanny ability to figure it out, no matter what the “it” is. Somewhere, in the genetic make up of a woman, something must have imprinted or maybe it was already there from the start; after all, Eve was sent to make sure Adam could figure out how to manage being a human, well, the human, on Earth. The other stuff she did… well… you know…

In war time, it was the women who stayed behind and learned to figure it out. Women who worked in factories and who made the best out of what rations they were given. It was women during the Depression who began making clothes from flour sacks with such regularity that the flour companies started printing the insides of the bags with floral prints to be cut and sewn into various patterns. Looking back, all of that seems incredibly romantic and storied, but what happens when you as a modern day woman have to figure it out?

Three years ago in the spring of 2018, my marriage ended abruptly. A marriage rife with abuse and tension, a marriage I quite literally fled from, packing small items away hastily while the moving company carried the big things onto a truck. All the while watching the clock and even telling the movers, “we have to go faster; if he catches me leaving he will kill me,” a fear my attorney drilled into me over and over in secret meetings while we discussed how exactly this divorce would have to go.

“Women, it seems, have an uncanny ability to figure it out, no matter what the ‘it’ is.”

In war time, it was the women who stayed behind and learned to figure it out. Women who worked in factories and who made the best out of what rations they were given. It was women during the Depression who began making clothes from flour sacks with such regularity that the flour companies started printing the insides of the bags with floral prints to be cut and sewn into various patterns. Looking back, all of that seems incredibly romantic and storied, but what happens when you as a modern day woman have to figure it out?

Three years ago in the spring of 2018, my marriage ended abruptly. A marriage rife with abuse and tension, a marriage I quite literally fled from, packing small items away hastily while the moving company carried the big things onto a truck. All the while watching the clock and even telling the movers, “we have to go faster; if he catches me leaving he will kill me,” a fear my attorney drilled into me over and over in secret meetings while we discussed how exactly this divorce would have to go.

“In the spring of 2018, my marriage ended abruptly. A marriage rife with abuse and tension, a marriage I quite literally fled from…”

I begged, borrowed, cashed in favors, and likely would have stolen had it come to that but somehow, one snowy April day (yes a freak snowstorm in April) I walked out of my dream house. The house I had sold my soul for, with its huge porch and built ins and wood burning fireplace; a real Sears Craftsman Valencia floorplan brought to Knoxville by railcar in 1920 and purchased then in pieces for $2500. I was in pieces too.

Being a single mom didn’t scare me, it wasn’t that. And leaving my marriage didn’t either, although no one takes vows with the intention to break them. What scared me was what I kept telling everyone when they asked me what I was going to do; how was I going to be the primary caregiver for three boys then 8, 6, and 14 months but also hold down a job? “I’ll figure it out,” I’d say over and over again. Unsure if I was telling them or myself.

“What scared me was what I kept telling everyone when they asked me what I was going to do… ‘I’ll figure it out,’ I’d say over and over again. Unsure if I was telling them or myself.”

When I was still married, I had started flipping furniture. Small items here and there, structurally sound but cosmetically ugly for “fun money.” “Fun money” is a word a lot of stay at home moms use, turns out, to explain the need to earn something of their own. Something to squirrel back and to have on hand for little things, things you want to do but your husband won’t allow. Things like Sonic Happy Hour drinks and new tops, and ice cream from the ice cream truck on a hot summer day. This small endeavor was all I had to make money from, on that snowy April day in 2018, so, I figured it out.

I worked hard and I worked a lot. I did things for free, for “exposure”, even if deep down I thought that word was insulting and usually only lobbed at creative people by someone in a corporate setting. I worked two, sometimes three jobs at a time. I thought about giving up. About getting a desk job somewhere. Sure it would suck out my entire soul, but I would know every Friday at 4pm that my agreed upon salary would be coming my way. Every time I would start throwing a resume together, I’d talk myself out of it. I wanted a business. I wanted success on my terms. I’d have to work harder, dig deeper, suffer through, and figure it out.

“I worked hard and I worked a lot. I did things for free, for ‘exposure’… I wanted a business. I wanted success on my terms. I’d have to work harder, dig deeper, suffer through, and figure it out.”

By January of 2020, I had partnered with a few great organizations in Knoxville like Knox Heritage. I had been on the news a few times and as a result my business continued to grow. Still though, I was working two jobs; picking up cleaning work from a friend who was kind enough to supplement my income via her company. Randomly, I was asked to paint someone’s kitchen cabinets, something I had done a handful of times but not with any regularity, and people started asking me about maybe painting theirs. Work begets work. And then, we all stopped working.

Like every other business owner in the world, I panicked during quarantine. The kids and I stayed home, leaving the house for strolls through the neighborhood like Victorian era aristocracy and driving around just because it was something to do. All the while, I knew I was going to have to figure it out. And soon. Visions of utter destitution danced through my head while I faced the fact that when the world opened up again, services like mine would be the very definition of non essential. With people literally starving and millions on unemployment, no one was going to care if their dining room table had a fresh farmhouse look or not.

“Like every other business owner in the world, I panicked during quarantine. …services like mine would be the very definition of non essential. With people literally starving and millions on unemployment, no one was going to care if their dining room table had a fresh farmhouse look or not.”

At the end of April, I finished a job that I had started before the pandemic began. People started asking me to paint their cabinets after seeing the ones I had completed months earlier. To my shock, the more people stayed at home staring at their stuff, the more essential I became. No one wanted to throw anything out and start over it seemed, just tweak what they had. I worked a lot. Thriving during a pandemic came with nearly overwhelming survivors guilt at times; I was afloat and so many weren’t. My non essential business was essential to so many people being happy in the place they were being told to spend exponentially more time. I quit cleaning houses. Years of figuring it out, of work and luck, of struggle and darkness; I was finally successful on my own terms. I was (and remain) so unbelievably grateful. Sometimes I still cannot believe that I’ve done it. That in a little less than three years I built a business from literally nothing, with no one but myself at the helm while raising three boys. Three boys who see a strong, loud, wild, woman, and who hopefully one day will realize that it takes an incredibly strong man to love someone like their mama, but also realize they’re up for the challenge should they meet one of their own in the future. Sometimes I wonder what happens if I can’t sustain this momentum? I’ll figure it out I think.

“Years of figuring it out, of work and luck, of struggle and darkness; I was finally successful on my own terms… Sometimes I wonder what happens if I can’t sustain this momentum? I’ll figure it out I think.”

In the middle of my huge professional gains, my dad died. I figured out how to navigate death and a pandemic funeral as an only child. I tried to figure out what it means when someone you were estranged from for nearly a decade chooses addiction over you and your children, but you still shockingly, loved them. I figured out that grief and rage can hold hands. That sadness and fury and disappointment can all sit criss cross applesauce and stare at you while you sob and eat cheese in your bed at 2am. I figured out that my children, who shuffled one at a time to the side of his hospital bed to tell a man they barely knew goodbye with all the emotion of saying bye to a Honey Baked Ham were doing more grown up things than I thought they could. I figured out that sometimes you can’t figure it out, the questions and the reasons people do what they do, and that in and of itself is a way of figuring it out all the same.

None of this is unique to me. Yes, the experiences are squarely mine, but the ability of women to flourish in less than ideal conditions, to build something where there is nothing, to be left holding everything all at once and still come out okay in the end? That is the thing— the it that we all share. Women will always be the ones with a heavy load to carry, balanced in ways that make it look easy. The tenacity of the female spirit will always reveal itself in the ways we inherently figure it out, no matter the time or place.

“I figured out that sometimes you can’t figure it out, the questions and the reasons people do what they do, and that in and of itself is a way of figuring it out all the same… The tenacity of the female spirit will always reveal itself in the ways we inherently figure it out, no matter the time or place.”

Once, when I mentioned in a mom group that I felt like I was drowning that week, an acquaintance commented telling me she was so glad to know I had bad days, that I seemed super human in my ability to “do it all” and to do everything alone. “Im not special,” I replied, “I for sure have God- awful days. But I just figure it out I guess.”

I figure it out. Women always do.

“I figure it out, Women always do.”

Connect with Ashley Garner »

More Exhibits

The Emily McClenagan Exhibit

Jane & Pearl started during my twins' nap in 2015 as a way for me to create as well as give back to others. I am partnering with Thrive Parkridge in East Knoxville to amplify their work and donate profits to help with projects such as renovating rooms and spaces in their 100-year-old building. I love to paint live at weddings, watercolor home portraits, and of course whimsical florals.

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