Joseph “JP” Weber was living the dream.
He played basketball at Conestoga High School on the Main Line, graduated from Penn State, married his high school sweetheart, found a great-paying finance job, bought a beautiful home along a tree-lined street in Berwyn, and had three wonderful little girls.
On the outside, his life was perfect. On the inside, he was crumbling.
There was the unrelenting unhappiness he felt trying to please everybody. A burgeoning addiction to Percocet, which had been prescribed for debilitating neck pain that was exacerbated by stress. And a growing dissatisfaction with a demanding career as a bank loan officer that kept him from being with family.
“I was friggin’ miserable,” said JP, 44. “The weight of the world was on me, and I needed an out.”
He entered an outpatient rehab program to discontinue the opioids. He quit drinking, took up yoga, and dropped about 50 pounds. His emotions began to stabilize, but it was still not enough.
On June 3, 2016, after a conflict at work, he broke.
“I walked out and never went back,” said JP.
He took family medical leave from his job, sought therapy for his mental health, and was diagnosed with general anxiety. Short- and long-term disability followed. To deal with his feelings, which included depression, he turned to art.
“The only place I could go was my basement, to paint,” said JP, who began filling canvas after canvas with wild color. The place was his safe zone.
His wife, Lindsey, was shocked by the abrupt change in her life.
For years, she had been holding up her end of “the agreement” between them: JP would toil away in his corporate gig, and she would handle the demanding role of suburban mom — shuffling the kids to activities, making plans for a kitchen renovation, and running the household.
“I was stressed, not knowing what was going on," said Lindsey, who was confused, panicked, and trying to be patient as JP made one trip after another to Michaels for art supplies, only to disappear into the basement when he returned. “I was waiting for things to go back to the way they were," she said.
JP, on the other hand, embraced the uncertainty.
With no formal training, he threw himself into the art, using brilliant, electric-colored paints to fill in geometric patterns or to splash over a canvas in ways reminiscent of artists Piet Mondrian and Jackson Pollock. The paintings began to pile up by the hundreds.
When he took over the playroom he had renovated for his daughters, JP promised himself he wouldn’t get paint on the walls or floors. That didn’t last.
“You can’t paint and have rules,” he said on a recent weekday afternoon as he squirted orange paint on a work in progress — and onto the now-paint-stained carpet.
He and Lindsey each went to therapy to better understand what the other was going through.
“We needed to figure this out, to address it as a family," Lindsey said. Throughout it all, JP encouraged his wife, who was a grant writer before they had children, to ponder what she’d rather be doing as well.
JP’s corporate look gave way to old T-shirts, jeans, and a ponytail. He began posting his work on Instagram, where his handle was @JohnHamster, a name he once used to organize a bachelor party for his brother. The stutter he had had since childhood left, and he began coaching his daughters’ basketball teams. The family took their first real vacation together, to Florida, and loved it.
He was "going to be ‘that dad’ for my girls,” vowed JP. Before, even when he was "present” with his family, he had still been preoccupied by his work. The girls — Emma, 14, Lucy, 11, and Jane, 8 — asked about the changes in their dad but took everything in stride.
After Lindsey’s brother casually remarked that JP’s paintings were “pretty good,” Lindsey showed some of them to an acquaintance who owned a fiber-art business. JP’s disability payouts had ended, and the couple was now living on savings. They needed to see if the art could pay the bills.
The positive feedback JP received from the artist expanded his sense of what to do, commercially, with his art. He began to create designs by computer, which Lindsey then had transferred onto fabrics for tote bags and pouches that the couple began selling through a website. The Chicago-based “You are Beautiful” project picked one of his designs for their motivational stickers.
And the momentum kept building.
Lindsey, by now her husband’s manager, approached Chrissy Piombino Bennett, owner of Berwyn’s StudioFlora — a full-service floral shop, gift store, and gallery — to see about selling Weber’s paintings. Bennett, a collector of “outsider art” — work made by self-taught artists — visited Weber’s studio and was “blown away.”
“The feeling and vibe was different from piece to piece,” Piombino Bennett said. “It was so invigorating.”
In September, JP had his first show at StudioFlora and sold nine paintings for about $7,000. (The studio is now showing more of his pieces.)
Weber has also had shows at Christopher’s A Neighborhood Place restaurant in Wayne and Malvern, Aneu Kitchen in Rosemont, and at Tredyffrin Township Library. A private collector has commissioned three pieces, and a designer recently purchased a piece that was in Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital’s Art Ability program, which showcases works by those dealing with physical or mental challenges. Others are beginning to snatch up his work, too, for $100 to $1,500 apiece; more complicated works are priced up to $5,000. A growing number of them now grace commercial establishments in the area.
Financially, JP and his wife are still adjusting to the loss of his healthy banking salary. They’ve dug into their savings and are using the money they’d set aside for home renovations — which they decided they didn’t need after all — for living expenses.
While it’s obviously been important to the couple to pay their bills, said Lindsey, equally important has been their public promotion of the message that it’s vital to talk about and address mental health. Still, it’s validating that more and more of her husband’s art now hangs in homes and offices.
She believes in JP.
“He has always just been one who says he will do something, and he will do it," said Lindsey.
JP dreams of a future career that combines his art-making with public speaking about the mental-health challenges he has faced.
“It’s going to work,” he said. “I just have faith, a ton of faith."