Who Cares About Your Story?

Places We Go with Media, LLC (PWGWM) is a manifestation of my desire to tell stories visually. The brand was announced to the public on Instagram in the year 2015. Since that time, we have experienced our share of trials. There were times when I did not know if I would be able to bring anything to market for our customers. On the other hand, my family and I have witnessed some amazing things along the way. My hope is that the reader will find something of value in this very personal log entry to use in their darkest of times.

A Season for Autumn and a Time for Winter

It was the fall of 2018 and I asked myself what I could give to others for the month of my birth. An idea popped up. Enthusiastically, I gathered my wife, and children to help me present our own event called Daddy Where Do the Animals on the Train Go? Book Reading. We cooked and fed guests as they were invited into our home to paint woodened trains and color masks of animals which were based on the title of our 1st story. My youngest daughter read aloud to children and their parents. One young lady found the environment so exhilarating that she suggested we hold the function again. Admittedly, I was overwhelmed and exhausted by all of the planning and fundraising that went into the special occasion. It would be a while before I would host another one. Regardless, we posted our recurring gathering for the month on social media. Then, something I had not intended happened. While our new home page came online, a few people following us on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn pre-ordered copies of Daddy, Where Do the Animals on the Train Go? It was definitely a welcomed surprise during what was proving to be a tumultuous season.

Sometime in November of the same year, I received an unexpected phone call. The girl who loved our children’s book event lost her uncle. He was the same man who was excited to bring her and another of his nieces to our gathering. Years ago, this upbeat individual was the first person to place money down for our children’s book after I read it to him. Our story had no images at that time. A former customer from another venture, he declared most assuredly, “Solomon, there’s no need for you to explain to me the details of your vision. I see it and that’s why I am giving you the money. Later, he declared with confidence, “YOU’RE NOT a children’s book author. YOU ARE an author.” It is important for me to note that I only interacted with this positive human being about 3 or 4 times in my life. A creative professional’s life can be one of solitude and unpredictability at times. However, this man’s words helped me when I needed them most. So, listening to the voice of his relative over the phone announce his passing shook me. An uncontrollable emotion of sadness came over me as the phone just sat on my bed. It buzzed with the caller’s voice. I was deeply wounded, and unable to continue the call. My wife had to pick up the conversation for me.

Not too long after, I lost a very close relative. Without going into much detail, it was a devastating period in my life. For the remainder of December 2018 and majority of 2019, I felt a cloud of dread. I did what I could to snap out of it. I took promenades for clearing my mind and read books to evoke positive thinking. Nothing helped. I was enveloped in constant pain. Meanwhile, there was still the commitment of delivering a children’s book.

Were There Five, Four, or Three Horsemen?

Originally, I envisioned myself as one of the 5 artists who would help tackle a total of about 100 illustrated pages for Daddy, Where Do the Animals on the Train Go? (I know. That number of pages is unheard of for a children’s book. What can I say? I have a huge imagination). In hindsight, I think 2 alternatives would have been better. It may have been in my best interest to commission 1 illustrator to work on each image. In this way, the work would achieve a visual coherence while I only served to make minor corrections. Also, the conceptual artist’s compensation would be more attractive as it would not have been divided amongst others. Another idea would have been to contract an expert in environmental design and who was skilled at lighting various scenes. They could be partnered with another professional excellent at character design and illustration to systematically break up the monumental project. Again, with my understanding of lighting subjects in photography, product design, and Adobe Photoshop, I would assist with mild corrections. Unfortunately, in the end, I had to let a couple artists go and 1 of the 3 selected left our project to prepare for their graduation. The good news is that they all went off to do some wonderful things as professional artists. Time passed and I gave paid trial assignments to 2 more artists, but my vision and their art style did not match up. If it was meant to be, it was up to me to finish what seemed to be an insurmountable task.

Braving the Storm

Like many across the world, I stayed at home during the global spread of the coronavirus disease starting in late 2019 and dominating well into 2020. Just as persistent and deadly was the spread of ignorance and a longstanding societal system based upon the delusion of white superiority. It was a tense time as people were understandably experiencing a sort of cabin fever. I remember anxiety being so high that some reported on social media contemplations of suicide or had a relative that took their own life. In my household, I worked with my family to learn more about African history and the power of change within each individual. In my own actions, I encouraged exercising outdoors on the neighborhood track field. It was amazing what it did for my mental and physical well-being. During the summer, I was inspired to illustrate 1 image each morning for our children’s book. I found excitement in going to the park and imagining scenes on paper. Oddly, the pencil sketches came rather quickly and with ease. Perhaps it was due to the freedom of time. Whatever it was, I finally finished this part of Daddy Where Do the Animals on the Train Go? (The first step in the process was conceiving the final piece of literature. It had gone through several transformations several years prior.)

I do not recall what prompted me to, but I applied for the Kresge Artist Fellowship of 2021 (KAF ’21) in the fall. I remember writing a couple drafts for the artist statement and other application questions before asking of several people’s opinions. In applying for the fellowship, I focused my attention on the chosen purpose and meaning behind the children’s story I created. Whether or not I would be awarded $25,000.00 out of 800-plus applicants within our tri-county area in southeast Michigan was not of my concern. In the end, I gave everything I had within me including samples of my work to the competition and ended December on a high note. As one retired billionaire once said, “all you can do is all you can do, and all you can do is good enough.”

Never one to just sit around and twiddle my thumbs, I worked on other things. As the pandemic progressed in 2021, I picked up new skills in another industry to prepare myself for a different marketplace. Then, June rolled around, and I remember receiving that fateful call while at my desk. “Solomon Johnson, you have been selected for the 2021 Kresge Artist Fellowship.” I responded rather dry with an, “okay.” Now, I know what you are thinking. “Why were you so ungrateful?” However, can you blame someone for thinking, “what else is next? How many more rounds do I have to go?” Again, I went into this assuming that there was a good chance that I would not win, and that was okay. The young lady’s voice seemed to reposition over the phone. “Perhaps I was not clear. You’re one of our 20 Kresge Artist Fellows,” announced the staff member of Kresge Arts in Detroit (KAID). I was shocked and not surprised. It was unexpected for me because it had been many years since I was responsible for any wins in the art world. Yet, I was not surprised because the zeitgeist told me it was time. No matter how paradoxical it may seem to the reader, I finally could acquire the necessary tools I needed to complete a story I started 5 years prior. That was exciting and my life seemed to be getting brighter.

Glimpse of a Bright Future

Learning about my accomplishment with KAF, I was asked by the Design Director of HARMAN International, Inc. to be a guest speaker for their Black Professionals Network annual series. It was one of the best experiences in my life as I learned more about myself preparing for the occasion. Meanwhile, KAID made it possible for us to participate in their Artist Salon series where the KAF ’21 honorees interacted with guests in real-time while answering questions from our host Ryan Patrick Hooper, a local radio journalist of arts and culture at WDET FM in Detroit, MI.

Truly, one of my favorite experiences was working with local filmmaker John Azoni to create a 3-minute and a half video for Spotlight Detroit: Short Films Featuring Kresge Artist Fellows which aired on March 21, 2022 on PBS’s Detroit Public Television. Azoni made the environment very relaxing for me to answer questions on my artistic path. Unfortunately, we had to cut down about an hour-worth of information, but I was happy with the result. Our brief relationship resulted in contacts of both professional and amateur sound designers for another one of my stories. (We’ll explore that at a later time. Heehee).

Will the Book Have to Wait?

Later in 2022, we raised over $3,000 online and in-person within roughly 30 days for mass production of our children’s book. It was the end of the summer and I had taken the advice from a colleague who had successfully brokered a deal with Walmart to place his child-friendly product in their chain of stores years prior. However, he admitted that he and his business partners made several mistakes, and he encouraged me to break up the children’s book into parts. So, I made the decision to start with Daddy, Where Do the Animals on the Train Go? Book One. This would help me get a physical copy of the story into customers’ and contributors’ hands.

For several weeks, I reached out to various book printers. I started within our local area of Michigan but found myself spreading out to a province in Canada as success began to take on a less desirable tone yet again. What was the issue that I contacted at least 10 different book printing companies if not more? Well, some said they could not print in the orientation or the dimensions I wanted. Other printers were extremely cost prohibitive for what we were looking to achieve. Yet, the main thing I heard more often than not was that there was a worldwide paper shortage. YIKES! I promised people a book and I was aiming for a December 2022 release. Supposedly, the manufacturing companies still had not fully recovered from the 2020 pandemic. This was not too different from the halt in production of computer graphic cards and microchips in 2021, making things terribly frustrating for those building a new computer to improve upon their new workflow for clients. (Trust me. I know). Every single email and call seemed to get bleaker and bleaker. There were printers who said they were not taking any more orders because it might be another 6 to 8 months before the paper shortage was over. Some said it maybe even later. Given such a late date in production schedules, they believed the prices would change dramatically. It was a time of uncertainty.

Now, I do not know why I kept going. There was nothing on the horizon that was real promising. Maybe I had gotten used to being told “no” or perhaps it was thinking about all of those people who supported our family’s vision becoming very unhappy that played on my conscience. Whichever the case, I continued researching and contacting more companies until I came upon one in China. I really wanted to stay local to Michigan but (A) they had the paper and many various manufacturing processes, (B) they could print in the dimensions and with the orientation I wanted, and (C) even though they were not able to make a December 2022 time frame, delivering 13 to 15 boxes of books in January 2023 was not an issue. What would you have done?

Things are Beginning to Heat Up

In October of 2022, I was honored to be asked by St. Clair County Community College’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion’s Coordinator to present my creative process for storytelling to teachers, parents, youth and community leaders. It was an invitation I could not pass up. In addition, in mid-December of 2022, the Academic Specialist and Dean of the Residential College for the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University, offered me the chance to showcase the digital illustrations of, what is now, the 1st installment of a book series at their Look Out Gallery which was a part of me serving an artist residency where I would assist with their collegiates’ education. Of course, both of these opportunities expanded the awareness of the message we were spreading with PWGWM through our children’s book Daddy, Where Do the Animals on the Train Go? Book One. Simultaneously, it gave me the chance to share with my family, in real-time, that deliberate work or focused energy balances out. The months of January and February in 2023 were very exciting. I was “real-izing” my imagination.

My family and I delivered our children’s book to our first customer on January 17, 2023, just a couple days after the observance of MLK’s birthday, and given the success of the crowdfunding, the speaking engagement, the art exhibition, and the mass production of our books, I decided it was time to do something special. PWGWM became an official limited liability company (LLC) with its own employer identification number (EIN). Now, the question would be why I didn’t do this before. The answer is that I created many companies in the past but didn’t understand the power of marketing and sales. So, they looked good on paper, but had little to no money. They’re dissolved now, a hard-earned lesson. In contrast, this was a result of everything I had learned from other experiences coming to bear fruit. So, I felt confident about creating it as a legal entity. I was off to the races fulfilling orders and making appearances, but something slipped passed me.

By May 2023, I fell sick unable to gain full health over my body. A couple of medications taken at the advice of my physician wreaked havoc on me for what I presently think may be permanent. For several months, I succumbed to a suffering that I had experienced long ago, but not as intense. Today, my system is not what it used to be and there are days where it’s challenging to function. In the end, I do what I can. Interestingly, it has been around this painful time that I began writing my science fiction/fantasy series called MUSE: A Story Sketch Collection. I believe that all is fluctuating energy, and, in some instances, we need to take what we perceive to be negative or destructive and turn it into something useful. You can learn more about the 1st installment here.

What Does the Future Hold?

In more recent times, I continue to live through my fair share of losses and successes just like everyone else. PWGWM has conducted successful pop-up shops on a couple of occasions, we worked with local mobile bookstore Detroit Book City for several events in February and March of 2024, and we started a newsletter to keep customers up to date with us. It is a lot of work and there is much more for us to do as a self-publishing entity. A couple of days ago, I really started pondering on the lessons I learned from the pandemic in 2020, the paper shortage in late 2022, and other periods in life that may be considered dark and unbearable. I was reminded by the following:

A) Wherever I choose to place my focus becomes my reality.

B) It’s about now, not some day. What am I doing now?

C) Know that you are a trailblazer placing in the necessary work creating something special in the present moment. (Again, this is only if you know that you are placing all of your energies on that which you desire. No bull’s mess here). Trailblazers experience a lot of resistance because by default the path has not been laid. It’s okay to reference and get ideas from how others have done it. Yet, remember, that’s their story, not yours. So trust your inner voice and be patient with yourself and the process.

D) Learn from the days you have in this life on earth. Make alterations as you see fit.

E) Show up and be consistent. Create the schedule that best suits you and your aspirations. If you aspire to be more, then what is required may be more or different than what you have been giving. Find out what you need to do and commit to doing it. This is a part of your system’s base.

F) Do not lie to yourself. (This goes back to “C“). Be directly honest and find freedom in it. You can build a sturdy foundation from this.

There are tons more, but these reminders stood out the most to me.

I once took the opportunity to work with and learn from multimillionaires in the sales industry. (Yes, the experience was agonizing at first). They told me not to do what I am going to reveal in the next couple of sentences. It’s called discussing with people your dark time when you are in the midst of it. That is right. Currently, things are not peaches and creme for me. However, given the trials and successes presented in this article, where do you think this story is going next? In fact, how do you imagine your story unfolding?

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