By Jill Draper
A stepmother-daughter team who produce colorful, exuberant artwork have big hopes. They already do motivational speaking, workshops and booth sales at national conferences, and their website offers online sales of paintings, cards, mugs and more. But they’d like to partner with a major vendor and a book publisher.
“We’ve had two really close calls,” says Wendi Unrein. “That makes me think it’s not a fluke.”
Wendi is stepmom to Jenny, a 33-year-old illustrator with a rare genetic handicap called Williams syndrome. They live in Liberty, but spent five years in the late 1990s in Grandview. Jenny was in high school in Topeka when she discovered her calling.
She was watching a segment on Oprah’s TV show about Alex’s Lemonade Stand, which raises money for childhood cancer. “Mom, I want to do something,” Jenny announced. Using a black Sharpie pen, she produced a series of drawings full of hearts, flowers and “I love you’s”. Her coloring skills were not great, so Wendi stepped in to do the painting. They planned to donate the artwork to a fundraiser.
“Jenny took her work to school, and oh my goodness, the teachers snatched it up,” Wendi remembers. “You can’t always see someone’s personality through their artwork, but hers just screamed out.”
When Jenny’s transition teacher suggested she start a business, Wendi agreed to collaborate and helped her get a $5,000 vocational rehabilitation grant.
Wendi, an artist herself, has worked as an illustrator, freelancer and substitute teacher. She lived in Olathe for a time, and held student art camps in her home studio. Before the pandemic, she and Jenny traveled around the country giving talks and setting up booths at special needs conventions such as the Council for Exceptional Children. At these events Wendi walks out on stage with her stepdaughter and prompts her with questions so she can tell her story.
At one CEC conference they connected with a company in Chicago that now buys $1,000 worth of Jenny’s cards twice a year for their customers. And some years ago they had a contract in hand with an educational company that produces borders and other art for special ed classrooms. But the company pulled out during the Recession, Wendi says. Another contract with Demdaco, a company that sells handcrafted gifts, also fell through. And they’re still seeking a publisher for an illustrated children’s book.
Although Covid put a stop to their travels, they’ve been selling products locally at markets like Strawberry Swing as well as online through Etsy and their website, jennyludesigns.com.
“I didn’t see any of this coming. I just went along with it,” says Wendi. “It’s given Jenny a voice, a purpose. I’m so grateful.”
According to Jenny, the purpose of her art is to make people happy. She still donates some of her proceeds to the American Cancer Society and other causes. People with Williams syndrome are very empathetic, her stepmom says. “It used to be that if she saw someone with a bald head, she would come unglued.”
The syndrome is linked to missing genes from chromosome 7. Physical characteristics include short stature, a wide mouth, a short, upturned nose and scoliosis. Heart disease is also common, but Jenny had only a mild problem with this when she was younger.
Jenny’s art style has changed a bit over the years, Wendi says, especially when she works on commission. “It’s a little less kooky, a little less fluid.” In the future, she hopes Jenny will return to the more exciting look she first had. Special needs kids have more freedom than we do, Wendi notes. “They’re just doing, and we’re always thinking, thinking, thinking.”
But any change in style will be up to Jenny. “She is very controlling over her work. She won’t let me touch it, and I love that,” Wendi says.
“You have no idea what she has done for me, showing me how to forgive, how to respect, how to get out of the box. It’s truly a win-win for us.”