“Success is not final, failure is not fatal:
it is the courage to continue that counts.”
- Winston Churchill
This is a post that is about two years overdue. Better late than never, I suppose. The two questions I get in regard to ZNE, most often, are: What is ZNE? and, What happened to ZNE?
Well, here goes:
In March of 2005, I began selling my mixed media artwork on eBay. At the time, I noticed that there were not a lot of online mixed media specific art groups available, so I decided to start one of my own.
Originally an eBay specific group, I chose the name Variazione for the group. [Variazione is Itailian for 'variation.'] When the group asked for an acronym that would indicate affiliation, we came up with ZNE. Hence, ZNE, as the group was better known, was born.
The group grew quickly, with the founding membership soon topping 100. At that time, with a great deal of help from the founding members, I made the decision to open the group to the public, via a public website. By July of 2005, the public group was up and running.
Over the next several years, the group continued to grow. Members were provided with discussion boards, galleries, blogs, and cross promotion opportunities. In addition we had an incredible array of mini groups that were moderated by members, a design team, contests, activities and the group participated in charitable activities that varied from a scholarship for art school students to fundraising activities and member-to-member outreach and support. By 2008, group membership neared 2,000.
Without question, founding ZNE and being a part of such an incredible, talented and caring group of people was and is one of the most defining efforts of my life, and one of which I remain incredibly proud.
In 2008, we added to our roster a convention and art retreat - Convenzione ZNE. We held two conventions, one that year, and one the next in 2009. Both conventions were attended by talented and lovely people. We had extraordinary teachers and speakers at both events. The 2008 event even featured a movie screening. My greatest hope for the events was that the attendees would enjoy themselves, and I do believe that we accomplished that goal, and then some.
Unfortunately, the fall of 2008 marked the beginning of a very difficult time in my life personally, as well as business-wise (not only for me, but for many artists, and indeed the entire country, here in the United States).
It is not difficult to recall that fall, which is when the stock market fell in record amounts, the unemployment rate skyrocketed in this country, and those who were still employed were scared for jobs, in nearly every field of work.
I am not a finance wizard and I know little or nothing about finance predictors. I, like many people in America, was unprepared for what a major impact the new 'recession' would have on my wonderful small business - ZNE.
The previous Spring, on the heels of a well received first convention, I signed on for a second event to be held at the Alameda County Fairgrounds, effectively locking myself into expensive and complex contracts.
By early 2009, the paying portion of group membership was falling drastically. And, a large percentage of those members who had signed up to attend Convenzione 2009 were dropping out and either requesting refunds, or neglecting to pay the remaining portions of payment plans they had entered into. I blame absolutely no one for this. The vast majority of both our membership and our event attendees were independent artists with little or no other income stream.
At the time, I did everything I could to address the issue. I created a scholarship program for both members and for event attendees. Members requesting scholarships were allowed to name their own membership price, no questions asked. Event attendees were offered 'at cost' participation. However, the 'at cost' fee was calculated assuming that we would have at minimum, 200 attendees.
Convenzione 2009 ended up with more than 50, but less than 100 attendees. In the end, between the expenses of running ZNE and the expenses incurred during the convention, my family took a loss of over $20,000.
This was not money we had in savings. More simply, this was not money that we had, period.
The result was catastrophic in terms of its impact on my family (we ended up selling our home) and my reputation in the artistic community. (I incurred advertising debts, instructor fees, and many other expenses that took me months to pay (and in some cases, I am still in debt).
I received emails calling me a scam artist, people quit the group after publicly stating that all I cared about was money, and in at least one case, a lawsuit was threatened. Whereas I had been kindly nicknamed 'the ZNE Queen' by my fabulous group, by the fall of 2009, I had been decidely dethroned.
All of this would be one thing, and perhaps I could have pulled myself and our group up by the bootstraps, and forged on, but, due to ongoing health concerns, this simply was not possible for me. As many ZNE members are aware, I suffered from a terrible depression in early 2009. It has taken me close to two years of hard work and sole dedication to my health and family life to feel confident that my depression is being managed effectively.
The truth is, my reaction to my depression was one of fear and shame. In fact, these are common reactions felt by those dealing with mental illness, and I could write volumes about the stigmatization of mental illness, but, that's for another day. Complicating my fear was the fact that my own mother, who also suffered from depression, committed suicide in 2002. I have children and a husband and the thought that I may not be able to be there for them, only exacerbated my condition.
In the attempt to deal with my depression as proactively as possible, I was hospitalized several times. If you personally have not dealt with this type of health issue (or, been close to someone who has) then it may be difficult to understand the ups and downs caused by medication management alone. I tried a variety of different medications over extended periods of time in an effort to get my depression under control. Aside from some of the medications not working in terms of alleviating the depression, many of them caused prolongued memory lapses and/or periods of exhaustion.
I am not a terribly private person, but my willingness to share these issues with others, including group members - was met with mixed reactions. I will always be grateful for the incredible amount of support I received from members both near and far who wrote emails, sent letters, and/or visited or called while I was in the hospital. However, I received a great deal of backlash as well. Everything from people telling me that they thought I was making up my illness (?) as an excuse to get out of my responsibilities, to others who told me outright that they felt sorry for me or pitied me (not helpful at all). My forthright discussions on a separate blog dedicated to artists dealing with mental health issues resulted in a potential threat to my husband's custody of his daughter. (Not because I had done anything directly to her, but because someone felt that her being around a person dealing with mental illness was reason enough to challenge custody).
The result? I pulled back from everything except for my family. I worked professinally off and on to help alleviate some of our bills, but we still ended up having to sell the house. I concentrated on being there for my family to make our transition to a new place to live as painless as possible.
Many of my online friends either took my absence in their lives personally, or were otherwise frustrated by my behavior. I lost touch with many people. I take responsibility for being unavailable, forgetful, and unreliable.
For several months, ZNE floated along with little or no moderation from me. Eventually, when annual fees for domain names, websites and image hosting recurred, I let them slip by. My focus was and is on my health, and the happiness of my family.
Many people have continued to pay a membership fee in exchange for full permission to the use the term ZNE in their eBay and etsy listings. (ZNE received trademark status with the US Patent and Trademark Organization in 2005. The term continues to be a trademarked group name owned by me.) For those that chose to do this, thank you.
I have been doing better now, for quite a while. Through a combination of medication, counseling, and spiritual support, as well as the enduring love of my family and friends - I am ok. I really am.
To all of the wonderful ZNE members, both past and present - I remain ever hopeful that you will forgive the confusing manner in which the group closed down. More importantly, I thank you all for the contributions each of you made to an extraordinary group that I was proud to be affiliated with.
Officially, ZNE is on indefinite hiatus. In recent months, I have returned to where I started, which is creating art, driven by joy. For me, that is enough. I am not able to say that ZNE is gone forever, because the friendships that have endured and the incredible efforts and activity of the group will live within me, forever.
I hope you will accept the invitation to join me on the next steps in my journey, by following this blog for personal updates, my art blog (http://chelisehery.blogspot.com) to see what I've been playing with lately, and/or by liking my art-related facebook page - http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Chelise-Hery/136208713153774?notif_t=page_new_likes.
xoxo - Chel
PS - and always - enjoy creating!