Life can change dramatically when you actually keep a New Year's resolution.
On Dec. 31, 1999, as the 20th century was about to enter its final year, JoAnne Von Zwehl sought a change from the misery, stress and exhaustion that defined her life. Outwardly, she seemed to have it all — a beautiful home, a husband, a daughter and a thriving real estate business that afforded all the material things anyone could want.
But there was a problem with what the world saw.
"I was working all the time," said Von Zwehl, who lives in Brookville. "There were always emergencies, and I wasn't fulfilled."
Something had to change, and Von Zwehl, who was 40 at the time, had to make it happen. So she resolved to do something for herself — to follow a passion she had suppressed for more than two decades. She signed up for a weekly nighttime art class at the Brush and Easel Art School in Great Neck. The course changed her attitude, her career and her life.
A desire to learn
Von Zwehl, 55, always had a knack for art while growing up in Port Washington, the second oldest of six siblings.
"It would make me happy any time I was doing anything artistic," she said.
After graduating in 1977 from Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington, Von Zwehl dreamed of going to art school, but that hope was swiftly dashed for more practical endeavors. Her late father, Joseph Von Zwehl, who owned Varn Products, a prosperous international chemical company that made solvents and cleaners for printing presses, wouldn't have it.
"My father said, 'No, you're going to business school so you can support yourself,' " Von Zwehl recalled. So she enrolled in Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, where she indeed majored in business, obtaining a degree in 1981 that eventually led to a diversified career in Long Island real estate that involved consulting, evaluating houses, conducting property appraisals and insuring nonperforming real estate loans. By the 1990s, Von Zwehl and a partner had their own company, Secured Capital, a business based in Jericho that renovated, sold and rented properties under joint ventures with other firms.
It was wildly successful, but she had little time to spend with her family or do anything creative with her life. Von Zwehl signed up for the painting class in Great Neck with instructor Vivian S. Christopoulos, who remembered Von Zwehl as an eager student who learned the required skills swiftly.
"You can do anything you want in this world if you are willing to learn," said Christopoulos, who lives in Flushing, Queens, and is 84 now. "You have to have the desire."
Von Zwehl not only had the desire, she also had talent, plus the business sense that enabled her to begin selling her artwork — oil paintings that are displayed prominently in her home. Gradually, she eased out of real estate and toward a brush and easel. The slow, orchestrated plan was instrumental to her current success.
"I said to my [business] partner, 'I'm done,' " Von Zwehl said. "But you don't just go, 'I'm going to change careers.' You have to be financially responsible as an adult, so before I switched my career I paid off my car loan, I paid off the mortgage."
The process of selling her company took several years, which ensured that Von Zwehl still had income from real estate as she laid down the foundations of her new career in art. None of it was easy, but she said it was all necessary for her soul and inner peace.
"Switching careers at the age of 40 took a lot of nerve, but I'm so happy," Von Zwehl said. "It's never too late to change your life, and you're never too old to start a new career. If you do something that brings you joy, success will follow."
Indeed, one of her paintings hangs in the Mineola office of Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano. The lithographed reproduction depicts the Virgin Mary clad in a white hooded robe, the American flag wrapped around her. Behind her in script are the lyrics to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America."
"Mary is the patron saint of the United States," said Von Zwehl. "It symbolically shows her love for the United States as she puts her mantle of protection over our country."
Von Zwehl gave the painting to Mangano as a gift in February 2014 after learning that he liked a card-size image of the painting shown to him by a woman who worked for him. Through a spokesman, Mangano said, "JoAnne Von Zwehl is a gifted artist who captures the spirit and emotion in her moving works of art."
Von Zwehl specializes in florals, animals and portraits, and her artwork is based on photographs. She has created and donated many patriotic and religious paintings over the years.
Von Zwehl said she usually does a few shows a year. In early March, her painting "Bubbles" placed second out of 50 entries at the "Women of the World, Think Big!" exhibit, which was a judged competition hosted by the Nassau County office of the comptroller. In June, her artwork will be featured at the Port Washington Library in a solo exhibit called "Summer."
Commissions and more
Von Zwehl has a long list of clients — most of whom she gets through word of mouth — on Long Island and all over the country. Her original oil paintings sell in the thousands: An 11-by-14-inch painting starts at $1,200, and a 48-by-60-inch one could cost up to $8,700, depending on the number of subjects.
Joie Marie Hein, of Muttontown, is a repeat customer. After purchasing two of Von Zwehl's works in the past nine years, she commissioned from the fine artist first a portrait of herself, then a painting of her six-member family. The family had a photo shoot done and selected the best picture as the basis for the portrait.
"She really captures facial expressions and the look in people's eyes; it's amazing," said Hein, 47, a stay-at-home mom who was introduced to Von Zwehl about nine years ago through friends.
Hein has commissioned a new painting from Von Zwehl, which will be Hein's fifth piece from the artist.
In addition to canvas and lithographic reproductions of her works, which she sells via a website, Von Zwehl's creations appear on book covers, prayer cards and CD covers.
And her subjects include her own family. A self-portrait depicts Von Zwehl in her bare feet sitting on the floor, surrounded by her children — Laine, 12, Aidan, 14, and Devin, 15. It hangs over the fireplace in their Brookville home. A portrait of each child hangs on each of their bedroom doors. A work in progress in her attic studio shows a client's three children holding their breath underwater, their hair floating as bubbles rise gently to the surface. The work is so detailed it's hard to believe it's not a photograph.
Von Zwehl works primarily in her home studio, but on Mondays she paints with her first instructor, Christopoulos. She also paints with Manhattan-based art teacher Steve Lampasona at a studio in Chelsea Mansion, in Muttontown.
"I paint there every Thursday, and my painting buddy is Ellen Hallie Schiff, who is a well-known abstract artist," Von Zwehl said. "We work well together because our styles are so different. We see things from different viewpoints and give a fresh point to each other's work."
Von Zwehl's artistic career now enables her to spend valuable time with her children and design her own schedule, which includes continuing her family's philanthropic efforts through the Muttontown-based M.A.N. Foundation.
Von Zwehl's parents, Joseph and Noreen, started the foundation in the 1990s. It builds hospitals, churches and schoolhouses in Third World countries and recently merged with the family's Rosa Mystica Foundation of America and the Rosa Mystica House of Prayer in upstate New York. They are dedicated to spiritual renewal, something Von Zwehl — who runs the foundation — can relate to.
"Have the courage to pursue your passion no matter what the obstacles," she advises. "Mistakes are like valuable jewels, meant to be worn well."
She did it her way
Businesswoman-turned-artist JoAnne Von Zwehl in 2000 found the courage to do what she really wanted to do with her life. She explains how she got from there to here:
How did you get the nerve to change your career when you were 40 years old?
"I got the courage because I knew the path I was on was not the path I was supposed to be on. If you want to change your path, you have to change what you are doing.
"I made small changes at first because that was not too intimidating for me. We always have the courage to make small changes, and if you keep making a lot of small ones each day, one day you will wake up and find all those small changes in the right direction add up to one big change.
"It made it even harder to make those changes with children, but it showed my children how important it is to have the courage to be the person you want to be."
Is there anything you regret along the way?
"I do have a lot of regrets, but I think if we embrace mistakes and learn from them it gets us closer to where we want to be in life. Since you can't go back and change things, there's no use in wondering what would happen if you had 'only.' "
What would you tell your younger self now about choices, paths?
"I would tell my younger self that the choices we make are very important. Especially when we are young and events can affect the rest of our lives. So do as much as you can for others along the way because that is the true meaning of happiness. And follow your own heart, even if it is not what everyone else thinks you should do."
You must have had periods of feeling down along the way. How did you lift your spirits and move forward?
"I've had quite a few periods where I felt down, but I try not to let that last too long. So even when I didn't feel like going forward, I would put my body in motion and sooner or later my heart and mind would catch up."