Monday, September 19, 2011

Goddess Power: Jennifer Jolicoeur & Athena's Home Novelties

When you’re gearing up for a tough battle, it’s always good to “have a strong goddess archetype” working for you, observes Jennifer Jolicoeur. And battle was very much on her mind when she began selling “romantic enhancements products” – sex toys, erotic DVDs, sensual oils, and the like – from her home in Rhode Island in 1998. People – including her own father, a retired firefighter – told her that she was making a very big mistake. She needed a name to rally the troops with. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was just too gentle, too soft. So Jolicoeur opted for a tougher Olympian, and Athena’s Home Novelties sprang into being, much as the goddess of wisdom herself did in Greek mythology.

“I needed the wisdom of Athena on my side to help me impart the knowledge that sex is pleasurable, normal, not something to feel ashamed or embarrassed about,” the entrepreneur explains. She liked the fact that in the stories, Athena is always “using her brain, planning strategy” because she herself was declaring war on patriarchal attitudes regarding female sexuality. “I was going to be fighting the beliefs of men and women -- and organizations – because when it comes to sexuality, people tend to be very judgmental.”

Today, Athena’s is a multi-million-dollar company with more than 1,600 independent consultants -- known as “Goddesses” and “Adoni” -- selling adult-novelty products to women and men at home. “Very similar to the Tupperware parties of the `70s,” Jolicoeur says breezily. “Different plastic.” She herself is the Mother Goddess and president and has three volumes of thank-you notes from some very happy customers. She used to test the products herself, but now there’s a Goddess Advisory Board of 10 women that handles that. “It’s funny,” she reflects, “when you’re testing a toy, your mind is focused on how it works. Is it powerful enough? Is it quiet enough? Do I like the feeling of it --? It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to it.”

The Adoni (yep, that’s the plural of Adonis in case you were wondering) or male presenters are a more recent addition. “A few years ago, we had some men come and say they wanted to take part. They were primarily gay men. The women have been very receptive because they [gay men] tend to be very good presenters and very knowledgeable about human sexuality.”

This past February, Athena’s marked another milestone with the release of their first publication, Goddess Bedtime Stories: 21 Stories to Keep You Up All Night. Not all of them are written by heterosexual women -- the anthology includes work by gay men and lesbians -- and the stories run the sexual gamut. About 20 per cent of them, for instance, involve stranger fantasies, which surprised Jolicoeur. But she understands how that particular formula “gave them the freedom to express themselves without fear of judgment.” She herself wrote a more-the-merrier story, “although in my real life, I would never have anonymous group sex.”

It’s all light years away from the time town officials tried to run her business out of Woonsocket. The zoning board actually came into her office, demanding to know whether she was operating a sex ring. Jolicoeur, who was married to her childhood sweetheart and the mother of two children, was “devastated” but managed to show them the error of their thinking. “In subsequent years, my mayor would send me a wreath for my door.” She pauses. “And I would send her a basket of vibrators.”

Athena’s has now become something of a family concern. Her husband, Curtis, a chef,  has chosen to be a stay-at-home dad for the last 13-and-a-half years, giving her more time to build the business up. Her mom heads the accounts payable department. Her dad is now “one of my biggest fans.” And her 83-year-old widower grandfather collects bras for Athena’s Cup, which Jolicoeur calls “my attempt to break the Guinness Book of World Records for most bras linked together as a united stand against breast cancer.” Her grandfather “wears the ‘Can I have your bra?’ button when he goes to dances at the senior center. They ask, then bring him a grocery-bagful.”

Once, Jolicoeur had lunch with one of her grandfather’s lady friends – a seemingly typical little old lady with a wig and little old-lady high heels. Evelyn leaned forward and said in a quavery voice, “Jennifer, your grandfather tells me you sell sex toys.”

“I do, Evelyn.”

“Oh, my, there was a time when you could buy them through the Sears Roebuck catalogue, but then they disappeared. And in the `70s, you could find them in the back of the catalogue, but they were loud.”

More needs to be said about those bras. Jolicoeur has received them from the Bahamas, Australia, Ireland, and, of course, across the United States. She has gone to the Emmys four times to collect bras from celebrities. Girl scouts have collected them from their moms, grandmas, aunts, and cousins. “I was asking women to release the bras that no longer serve them,” she says simply. “Practically every woman presses a bra against our chests. It’s such a symbol.”

The bras often have tributes written on them. “Breast cancer survivor 2002.” “Cancer took what God gave me, but science re-made me during mastectomy.” “Mom, can’t wait to have tea in Heaven.” Or one that’s especially heart-breaking, written in big black block letters: “I miss my mom.”

That’s one way in which Athena’s is helping women. It has also provided them with work opportunities. Women in abusive marriages or relationships suddenly have the financial and emotional wherewithal to leave. Another woman joined up “to earn enough for health insurance because she had no health insurance. Women who have suffered severe agoraphobia have become top salespeople. It’s amazing to see women arise from difficult situations and find a place like Athena’s, where they can soar and find empowerment. They are able to find equality financially and sexually.”

In a sense, Athena’s has enabled Jolicoeur to do some transforming of her own. “The whole point of Athena’s was turning my pain into my passion,” she admits. She talks about the old sexual double standards and how when she was 14, her father left her mother for a younger woman. "As a teenager, I was acutely aware of what my mom was going through. I really have come from the place that when people are having great sex, they are less likely to stray….I believe there’s balance when you have god and goddess. And there needs to be a balance in the bedroom.”

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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Finding Joy: Connecticut Women Artists Talk about Their Craft

(From The Way-Back Files – Hartford Woman, Nov. 1988)

“To struggle for strength,” mused German artist Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876 – 1907). “It sounds so dramatic. One does the best one can, and then one goes to bed. And that’s how suddenly one day, it becomes obvious one has achieved something.”

In those few words, the young artist stripped the creative process down to its bones. But elsewhere she wrote of the great joy she experienced in creating art…from simply sleeping in her studio: “To sleep among my paintings is beautiful….Upon waking, I quickly jump up and I look at my work: my paintings are what first meet my eye.”

That same joy tumbles out into the conversations I have with a number of Connecticut women artists in the here and now. “The process is it,” says Milli Silvestri, an actress with the Drama Trio and director of the Poetry Center at Hartford’s Trinity College. Acting is, she adds, “like any other art form. It’s the challenge – the challenge of doing it and being successful at it….The interesting thing about theater is that you’re creating another persona, which gives you the opportunity of actually living the life of another individual – which then, of course, transfers itself to you in the sense that it enhances your life. I think it makes you much more humanistic, makes you look at the world more realistically.”

One aspect of acting that Silvestri finds especially exciting is how she becomes the “instrument” for developing a character: “Unlike other art forms [in which] there’s something outside of yourself that you use…the actor has [only] himself or herself.” After forty-eight some odd years of theater work, she’s still in love with the process of externalizing the internal. Of tapping into her emotions. “The wonderful thing about acting,” she reflects, her eyes large and shining, “is that you get to use them all.”

Hartford artist Irene Doudera and Simsbury writer Kathryn Lord have their own take on what Silvestri says. For Doudera, making art doesn’t mean just venting her feelings – it means realizing them. Realizing herself. “I’ll have feelings that are very, very hidden from myself,” she explains, “but that are very deep feelings and thoughts about the world, the spirit of growing and the spirit of rejuvenation and striving that is necessary in life. Painting brings all this forward, and I can experience it. If I didn’t paint, it would all be underneath. Sometimes she starts out with a rough idea of what she wants to paint; usually, however, she just starts making random strokes the canvas, and “very quickly, they become meaning. Meaning and representation are very important to me.”

Lord, whose work has appeared in Northeast Magazine, Northwest Magazine (Portland, Oregon), The New York Times Connecticut Weekly, and The Christian Science Monitor, says that writing does the same for her. “I think that any art is coming from within the artist. One thing that writing does is give me a fuller accounting of myself.” For instance, doing a magazine article on a very mundane subject -- smelts – brought back to mind how close she’d felt to her family on their long-ago fishing trips. And writing has helped her deal with more complicated feelings or situations, such as her mother’s illness.

“Also, there is great pleasure in the actual doing of it,” Lord adds thoughtfully. “I love it when the words and the ideas and the images come out the way I want….When it all comes out the way I want it, it’s a rush. You’re going after perfection, and you’re never going to get there, but when you get close to it – whoa!

“Maybe you have to be a quester to be an artist – always have to know what’s coming up, what’s in the next pot of paint if you’re a painter or in the next hunk of clay if you’re a sculptor. It’s sort of like pioneers going off, only we’re sitting in one place.”

Short-story writer Thalia Selz finds the creative process (“that delightful business of grubbing around with words”) exciting, too, but emphasizes that the “product” – the story she is trying to tell – is equally important to her. Her need to tell that story interweaves itself with the process, making it impossible for her to separate the two.

“I had a teacher who used to say, ‘What is the story you would write if you could write only one story in your life?’” recalls Selz, writer-in-residence at Trinity College. “Or another teacher would put it differently and make a slightly different point: ‘What is the story you will die if you don’t tell – that you have to tell, or you will die?’

“I can understand writing from that particular base. Indeed, I did write a story that I realized…Die? Yeah, in a sense, I would have died if I hadn’t written it, and it had been waiting for very many years to be written. There are a couple of other stories like that that I feel I’ll really die if I don’t go and tell….I’ll die anyhow,” she laughs, “because one does. But I’ll die sooner if I don’t get to speak.”

She talks, too, about the wonderful sense of liberation that writing gives her, the feelings of joy and release that she has on “a really good day.” She remembers finishing one rough draft in particular: that story later morphed into a novella and was published in both The Partisan Review and The Best American Short Stories before being selected for The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories collection the following year. “I knew it was a very, very, very, very modest rough draft,” Selz says. “But I knew I’d got it somehow…And sometimes I think one reason it was very good, besides all the other reasons, such as my writing about stuff that mattered to me a great deal, was that I wrote it with this feeling of ‘I’m giving it up – here I’m giving it to you. Take it. Quick – catch it before it goes.’”

For poet Clem Young, who teaches her craft at Manchester Community College, “writing is an almost religious experience.” She likes “the feeling you get when you know you’ve done a good job. I like to be free enough to be able to look at the world through a poet’s eyes rather than always rushing around. You definitely look at things differently. It’s like smelling the roses long before you die.” She loves the frame of mind she gets into when she’s writing poetry: sometimes she feels as though she’s working with a Ouija board, especially when something unexpected pops into a poem-in-progress.

Perhaps photographer Mary Klein speaks for all when she says simply, “It’s something you have to do, and I don’t think for most artists it’s anything more than that.” The director of Demeter’s Door, a gallery for women artists in Simsbury, Klein has been shooting photos since she received an Eastman Kodak Brownie camera for Christmas when she was 8. “As far as photography’s concerned,” she observes, “I don’t know that it makes me see things differently. I’ve always seen things differently.

“I zero in on things rather than concentrating on a whole scene….I do some landscapes because there’s a lot of beauty in them. In some ways, [though,] if you’re doing landscapes, you’re working at a disadvantage because a camera takes in everything.” She loves photographing animals because “it’s very thrilling for me to approach an animal, get a response from it, and capture that.” But the what doesn’t matter as much to Klein as the why: she likes to photograph what matters to her than simply point and shoot for the sake of pointing and shooting. It is, she says, “a need to record that which you love seeing so that you can see it again and remember what you love seeing.”