Dispatches: Remodeling the American Dream, With Elbow Grease

Artist Jill Van Sickle makes the most of a difficult economy.

is not who you picture when you think of a one-person remodeling crew. The petite 33-year-old with fiery red hair and a personality to match is the model image of an artist. But last winter, she traded her paintbrush for a hammer and set to work on a large scale project: a home of her own. 

Despite great credit and $10,000 saved up from art sales and a part-time bartending job, Van Sickle learned she’d need a co-signer to purchase a modest $80,000 foreclosed home in South Minneapolis. 

“When I went in, they said two years ago we would have given you a $300,000 loan, and we won’t give you anything now without your parents co-signing,” Van Sickle said. 

With the help of a supportive family, Van Sickle bought the fixer-upper and got to work. She’s done everything from the floors and countertops to the plumbing and electrical. She searched the internet to teach herself what she didn’t already know, finding gratification in each new experience. 

“I’m doing it alone and people think that’s really weird, but it’s too bad they don’t realize how lucky I am,” Van Sickle said. 

The Upside of a Down Economy

A creative person who’s used to thinking outside the box and working on a budget, Van Sickle was able to take advantage of the housing crash, buying a house in an area of the city she loves for a price that would have been unheard of a few short years ago. 

Even as she’s elbow-deep in electrical wiring, Van Sickle recognizes her good fortune.

“It’s a horrible situation for so many people, I feel a little guilty that it worked out so well for me,” she said.  

This is not to say her finances haven’t been hit by the economy, only that she’s found a rewarding way to work with it.

“Selling art is really hard. I’m not immune to [the economy] by any stretch. But the house has been a blast; I love it. It’s hard for me to be at home painting when all I can think is, ‘I really want to tear that sink out, I really want to tear that sink out...’” Van Sickle said.

No Pain, No Gain

Of course, it hasn’t all been easy work with pleasing results. Van Sickle remembers a time, shortly after moving in, when she was living off of bread and peanut butter because there was no stove or refrigerator. Then there was the gas leak that forced her out on a cold winter evening. That same week, a rogue shelf gave Van Sickle a black eye.

Despite that, Van Sickle’s home renovation has brought her more satisfaction than she could have ever predicted—and it’s more than just the new experiences of having a place to store things in the basement, a lawn to mow, and her very own garage. After creating a place of her own, Van Sickle said she feels sorry for people who hire others to do the work she’s been able to do herself. They don’t know the joy it brings.

It’s Van Sickle’s new version of the old American dream: fixing up a house, relishing her garden, dreaming of raising chickens for eggs. And through it all: a sense of gratitude. 

“No, I don’t get to go to Aruba this winter for a vacation, and I drive a junky old truck, but I find true joy in the little, teeny things and being happy with what I do have,” Van Sickle said. “It’s so cliche, but I don’t know if there’s any other option at this point.”

Owen Riess October 10, 2012 at 05:00 PM
Nice story. Keep up the good work Jill.


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