By Will Barnes
I, Will Barnes, born William D. Barnes III, owner/artist, was born and raised in New Mexico with mixed racial descent; Spanish, Native, and Dutch. My style embodies who I am, and where I came from. With strong southwest influence, my designs incorporate the essence of the southwest and its traditions, as well as the way of life many New Mexicans can relate to.
I was raised in poverty. My mother and father split when I was a young child, so, I was dispositioned almost immediately. I was fortunate to have played baseball in my childhood, where I learned things like being a team player as well as having a strong competitive edge. I was a pitcher, which basically takes the stage when playing baseball, which gave me confidence when performing amongst an audience.
Before I became a jeweler, I had a variety of skilled trades in which I professed. Drawing, the fundamental root of most creation, was my first love when it comes to art itself. In my late teens, I learned how to weld and do ornamental ironwork, which led to my first trades job as a welder/fabricator, when I moved to Southern California.
In my late twenties, after almost a decade of being a Union Employed Journeyman Fabricator, I decided to hang up the blue-collar life and switch into business mode. I didn’t know a thing about business, so, for a while, it was a really bumpy road. I wound up going broke and had to move from Los Angeles to Phoenix, Arizona. It wasn’t long before I found a salary position as the COO for a 3rd party logistics company startup. Around the same time, I was knee-deep in personal development material, as well as being an advanced yoga practitioner (Yogi), and decided to write an inspirational novel. I knew if I came from nothing, that just about anyone else could bring forth their determination in becoming a better person, for their own good. One thing I knew at that point, was that it was way too hot to live in Arizona, even though I had met some amazing friends, which, for the most part, I still have. So, right when things started to work out financially, I finished my book and decided to move back to California.
After being back in California for a few weeks, I finished my book and found a position as a General Manager for a handful of Hollywood Entertainment related companies. One of which was booking celebrities for a long-standing meet-and-greet celebrity autograph show, as well as a well-known memorabilia company (at the time), as well as a reseller of Hollywood Movie wardrobe. Needless to say, I was making good money, but that didn’t come without lots of work. I totally put my book and marketing my book on the backburner, shortly, my enthusiasm for the book had diminished. Coming from the housing projects in Albuquerque, I was finally making a respectable income, owned a German sports car, and could do all the great things that Los Angeles has to offer. One thing I still didn’t learn, was to budget my money. I was still longing for something a little more stimulating, and more importantly, something that paid based on my results. Around that time, I learned of my grandfather (William Barnes Jr. ) in Montana having stage-4 lung cancer. As my income started to decrease, my relationship with my employer became unbearable, as he was a very degrading individual, and really did a job to my self-esteem. I was laid off, out-of-the-blue, at a bad time, and was forced to move from California, again, so, I set my sails toward Montana to spend time with my grandfather for his remaining days, and help my grandma do what he normally would be doing, i.e, splitting wood, odds, and ends, while I tried to figure out what I was going to.
After being in Thompson Falls, Montana for about 5 months, a friend of mine, that I had met online, had a job available at her real estate office in Florida, so I obliged. I had never been to Florida but enjoyed the beach and coastal living, such as the one that I had in California. Even though it was the middle of the winter and my rear-wheel-drive Beamer didn’t handle well in the snow, I decided to drive to Florida, from Montana. I took off, alone, again, but this time to a place I’d never been. I had just sold my last thing, a DSLR camera, that I really loved, for gas money. In fact, all I had was $400 to my name, a mountain of debt, and a car, which I had defaulted on, and an itch to still be something, and do something with my life.
Equally as great as Arizona, I was instantly welcomed with open arms. My friend was the head of a group called “Young Professionals of Southwest Florida”, and she voted for me to be the art director for the non-profit, creating brochures, flyers, as well as marketing material. The thing about the job, was, that I was an independent contractor, and they really didn’t have that much work available. So, while I had a place to stay (rent-free), I was still broke. I took on odd jobs from the Real Estate Broker, even fixing appliances at some of the rental units. He liked that I was ambitious and was willing to learn and decided to pay for my real estate license. While going to school, he taught me how to do comps for real estate listings, as well as BPO’s for the banks. While my income was going up, little by little, the boss was incredibly generous and we’d go golfing together, play darts, have a few drinks. My friend that I was staying with, also a club and rave promoter, didn’t like the way that the boss was valuing my services, or the fact that I didn’t like her in the same light that she liked me, she threw me under the bus and had me laid off, as well as to move out of her townhouse. This was the day after the Broker offered me a salary position, as well as a paid condo in a prestigious condominium complex.
Here I was again, SOL (shit out of luck). I stayed with a friend for several weeks to try to find another source of employment, but I had no luck. Not only could I not find a job, but I didn’t have any money, either. I had my mother wire me some cash for gas money to drive to New Mexico. Here I was, a 30-year-old man, single, broke, and on the road to moving in with my mother in Albuquerque.
The film industry had recently become a big hit at the time for Albuquerquians and met a few people that could get me into doing some background work, mainly because there is no job market in New Mexico, especially those without a degree. So, for about the next 5 months, I did background work for a few movies and tv shows. If you look really close, you can see me in a few flicks (in the background). Here’s the list:
US Marshall (uncredited)
Bar Patron (uncredited)
McCain Staffer (uncredited)
Amusement Park Guest (uncredited)
High School Security Guard
Nightclub Patron (uncredited)
Pizza Restaurant Employee (uncredited)
Yeah, it’s pretty fun to be a professional pretender, but I quickly realized that any actual parts in movies, that they’re willing to hand over to background, are few and far between. On top of that, I still wasn’t a big fan of my hometown, Albuquerque, or proud of the fact that I was staying with my mom. A friend of mine and myself had both been aspiring to be Yoga instructors, and we soon both decided that we were going to do a teacher training and start teaching Yoga. She had a friend who was doing teacher training in San Francisco and we both began to get excited upon the new changes that we’d have spiritually, as well as part of our life journies. I decided to sell my car, which was basically the last thing of value that I actually owned. Upon poor communication, my friend decided to enroll in college, instead, so she could receive financial aid, and get some real-time education. While I had already pulled the trigger on selling my car.
I continued on my pursuit, mainly because I had already done the deed, sell my car, which would definitely put me on foot, and forcibly, to the next chapter in my life, and whatever it had in store. I didn’t even have a bank account at the time, so I went into the local BofA with $7000 cash and opened an account. I also had a friend that was doing a hot yoga teacher training at the time, but in this case, was in Washington State, outside of Tacoma. The only thing was, her last class of the season was starting in a few days. So, I quickly jumped online to make the purchase, but I ran into a problem, my card was declined. I quickly got on the phone with BofA, and because I had bad credit (with one of their affiliates), they actually sent my money in a paper check that took 14 days to reach me, which went beyond the timeline to enroll for the teacher training. So, here I was, without a plan, and no wheels. The only way to live effectively without a car is in the city, so, even though it wasn’t even on the list of places to forge my next chapter, I had chosen to move back to Los Angeles, but this time, with no car. Before I left, I created a business model for doing headshots and said what the hell, then proceeded to the Amtrak station. Next stop, Union Station in Los Angeles.
I friend of mine in Mar Vista, CA (Westside, Los Angeles) offered to let me stay with her for a while while I get my things in order, so I took the opportunity. The first thing I did was buy a bicycle, then head to the county clerks office, so I could get a business license. While I didn’t know if this bird was going to fly, I didn’t have much of a choice but to move forward. After a quick trip to San Francisco with my friend, we were back in LA, and she decided to stick me with the bill for the rental car. I was quickly left with a bad taste in my mouth from the experience, considering I thought I was just along for the ride. So, to subconsciously further complicate the situation for me, I looked for a super cheap apartment, which I knew was probably going to be impossible. I found a sober living home, which housed people with substance abuse. I knew it wasn’t ideal, and I didn’t have any substance abuse problems, either. But a $400 a month apartment in Los Angeles, is pretty much impossible to find, so I said screw it. It would just be temporary. So, here I was, trying to build a business while riding a bike and bunking with drug addicts. Not the ideal situation. I had been pouring my money into creating marketing material for my headshot business, not to mention having to buy an expensive camera body and lens to start. I ventured into the territory of running out of money and having to ponder a creative way to reconcile the situation. While riding my bike through North Hollywood a few times, I had seen an Art college and decided to go back and see what I needed to do to enroll and talk about the possibility of student housing. I literally had till the end of the week before I would have to move out of the sober living house. The marketing for my business had no effect, so I had no income. The school was able to get me enrolled and signed up for student housing. The only thing that I didn’t have, was the $250 deposit. I called a dear friend from my childhood and told them what was going on and they offered to fit the bill for the 250 bucks. I was relieved and stressed at the same time. I wouldn’t be able to move into student housing till Friday, but I had to be out of the sober living house on a Wednesday. So, what was I going to do for those two days? I didn’t know. The time ticked down and it was time to make a decision, but I couldn’t get a hold of my friend, nor would they return my call.
When you’re forced to make a decision, your human instinct kicks in. In this case, I decided to sell the camera I had just bought for my business, which would wind up being the end of the business. Talk about a string of bad luck. The next day I received two calls to schedule an appointment for headshots. Unfortunately, I had to tell them that I was no longer in business. On the bright side, I was attending school full-time, I had a roof over my head, and after a few close-calls with automobiles, I decided to get rid of the bike. Now, I was on foot. One step back, I’d be homeless, and one step forward, I’d have a degree. The crappiest part was that I still didn’t have any money, or a source of income. I’d eat like 3 times a week (maybe), sometimes, and literally have to save my change to buy potable water. Here I had come full circle; living on top of the world, being able to do whatever I want and buy and do the things that I wanted, to having to foot-it in the city. You’ve heard the song, “nobody walks in LA”, well, it’s true unless you’re homeless or damn near. To have traveled to such great heights in spirituality and career, then have it stripped away. I went from getting respect to almost getting run over by people that are in such a hurry that they don’t consider the people “on the street”, five times a day. Having grown up in poverty, I knew that I could escape this particular situation, and move toward greater light.
I was getting a 4.0 with honors in school and after a few months of being hungry, I got a job creating digital marketing material, freelance, for the top movie houses and production companies in Los Angeles. Next thing I knew, I was making nearly $1000 a week and the future seemed bright. The only unfortunate thing, was, that the Art Institutes college that I was going to called me into their admissions office to tell me that if I don’t give them $15000 by the end of the month, I’d have to withdraw from the school. So, here I was again, faced with making a decision based on another series of unfortunate events. Focusing on the positive, I surged forward. A friend of mine from Florida was going to be making a visit soon. She and I hit it off like never before and she decided to move to LA. Next thing, she was staying in my student housing room with me for a week or two, till we found an apartment.
Wow, what a bad idea that was. While it filled the need, the next two years were hell. Never had I met someone so emotionless and mean. This girl made me walk 3 miles to the bus every morning, instead of offering me a ride. Needless to say, I was unhappy. My self-esteem suffered dearly. Our relationship became so bad that I told her I’d leave if she bought me a train ticket back to NM. She did.
Upon moving back here, I initially started doing background work again because I still had some connections from when I was here prior, but the wages out here are a joke, so I started doing a little landscaping. And since we’d be on the road to rural communities, I was inspired by the morning sunrise as well as the sunset in the evening. I began taking inventory on the things that I did love about New Mexico and all the things that are great, rather than dwell on the shitty upbringing that I had here. A friend that is involved in the radio invited me to go with him to help judge “the best Green Chile Cheeseburger” in New Mexico, at several places in Santa Fe. We were guided by the head of the program as well as the director of tourism for the state. I started to realize the severe distance of the communities in New Mexico and the lack of connectivity when it comes to commerce. At that moment, I decided to create something to narrow that gap, as well as be a beacon for New Mexico culture. That’s when “I am New Mexico”, came to fruition. I discovered that not only were the cities, towns, and villages, were not only far apart, but they were well disconnected from the rest of the United States. Our culture, pretty much living in the shadows of the rest of the United States, was getting no play. You’d hear the occasional story of New Mexico, but it would always be in a negative light. Soon after, I met my amazing wife. Someone that was willing to love me for me, as well as stand by me. For the next several years, I was dedicated to putting New Mexico on the map. I am New Mexico has become a household name for New Mexicans worldwide. The website alone has received over 27 million page views over the past 5 years. While I’ve had my ups and downs with I am New Mexico, it’s been censored since the day that Facebook discovered the profitability of my content and it’s highly defined demographic.
The strict control over the content and distribution has always been the Achilles heel, keeping it from growing or seeing it’s true potential. Until I discovered their control, I thought ‘I am New Mexico’ would be something on the level of creating a legacy. That’s what led to the creation of Strange Grain. I created Strange Grain as a buffer to the constant fluctuations in cash flow that I was receiving from the ‘I am New Mexico’ franchise, however, by accident.
Here’s how it happened…
I had a friend that wanted to build a landscaping and yard design business. We exchanged ideas and decided to move forward. As an experienced business person, I wanted to get everything set in stone, as far as getting a business license and creating a business plan. I also wanted to be able to fully emphasize my skillsets in the business plan. Our collaboration was moving slowly, but I was moving forward without any delays and took out a loan to buy a nice AC/DC arc welder, as well as grinders, chop saws, and other equipment that I may need to produce a quality product. The communications between my potential business partner became few and far between. Determined to move forward, I created Strange Grain, because I had also begun building hardwood furniture. My wife’s friend caught word of my welding abilities and commissioned me for a job for a set of massive 12-foot French doors. Even though I hadn’t welded anything to that capacity for over a decade, I took the job, and astonishingly enough, they came out remarkable. Soon after, I received another commission for a security fence for my wife’s supervisor. Winter was coming and I wasn’t getting any bites as far as potential clients are concerned, so I decided to try to get some of my furniture work out there. We literally loaded up both of our vehicles with all our furniture that I had built. When we bought our home, we didn’t have much. So, here we were without furniture, but still pushing the belief that I was going to sell some of my furniture. Unfortunately, I sold one piece in 3 months. The doldrum of living in a town with no money or opportunity was creeping in again, and I was still getting screwed by FB. I was really running out of options, and unfortunately, I was losing hope in my abilities all-together. While the fire within had been reignited, I was feeling like I was running out of places that I could shed my light. On top of that, we were pregnant with a baby, so I needed to figure something out, fast.
One morning, my wife woke up with a burst of positive energy and said “I had a dream!”, she exclaimed. She then proceeded to tell me that she had a dream that she was making jewelry and that the dream felt so real that she had to start making jewelry. The next days were filled with excitement for her as she researched all the things that she would need, the tools, and other trade knowledge. While most of the things that she ordered were in transit, she wanted to get a lapidary set up. We searched the internet, and even the used equipment was expensive. She happened to run across one that was literally in parts. She showed me a photo and asked if I could make it work. Being a millwright and welder/fabricator for a concrete block company for the greater part of a decade definitely came in handy. I was able to find a swamp cooler motor at a surplus and was able to fabricate a new bracket to retrofit the motor onto the unit, without any tiffs.
My wife received her tools and butane torch, as well as some other things that were recommended, and was super excited to begin making jewelry as she had dreamed. She soon learned that it wasn’t as easy as she had anticipated. The disappointment started to swell and I didn’t like to see her feel like her dreams were shattered or out of reach, so I offered to learn the trade, to a certain degree, just so I could teach her. We decided that the fumes and use of chemicals weren’t a good idea while she was pregnant. The first thing I made was a brass ring with a stone that I found in the river. I immediately wanted to make another piece. One of the fun parts was that I could turn an ordinary stone into something that could be sold. Since I had already had an Etsy store for my furniture, I thought that I would try to see if I could sell one of my pieces. It wasn’t long before I had my first cha-ching. Then another! I was hooked. For some reason, I started making cuffs, a lot of them, not knowing that they’re actually harder to make than smaller pieces, and since I was using mostly brass, copper, and nickel silver, I didn’t realize that silver was much easier to work with, and much more malleable, till I took the plunge in using only sterling silver.
Although I got a lot of sales initially, just like any other business, there’s ups and downs. For a period of time, after receiving over 100 sales in my first 6 months on Etsy, like that, there was nothing, and for about 5 months, I had next to zero sales. I was beginning to lose faith in my craft. Maybe I hit a creative roadblock. Maybe I wasn’t doing the right thing? So, I literally had to quit. Silversmithing is quite expensive and if you’re not making sales, it’s just money going out the window. I saw a ceramics kiln on Craigslist for sale and thought that if I could learn jewelry that quickly, I could learn ceramics as well, and with a manual kiln, I knew it would be a very involved and intimate experience. I also bought a small pottery wheel. I quickly learned that pottery, while it looks easy, it is quite difficult. I must have gone through almost 100 lbs of clay before I was able to center my first piece on the wheel, let alone get much height from my pieces. Like a nut, instead of quitting, I bought a professional full-sized pottery wheel with a hundred-pound capacity. It wound up being a good idea because the radius of the wheel is larger and centered much easier than the smaller wheel.
While ‘I am New Mexico’ was receiving another hit from FB, I was having to, yet again, figure out what I was going to do next. All-day, every day, for about 5-6 months, I woke up, threw clay on the wheel all day, then had an occasional bisque and glaze firing, once I was able to fill my massive ceramics kiln. I even went about buying all the raw chemicals to make glazes and found that I really enjoyed creating my own glazes from scratch, as well as experimenting with different glaze combinations. Although I made a lot of stuff, which was pretty good, I was having a hard time selling it. After making hundreds of pieces, I was able to sell two ceramic planters. I was in a predicament where I had an inventory of jewelry that I couldn’t move as well as a bunch of pots and mugs that I couldn’t get rid of. My wife suggested that I attend an art show with her, to bring my pottery, as well as my jewelry.
To much surprise, I sold about eight pieces of jewelry and a cup or two to my brother-in-law. With the influx of cash, I was able to buy silver again, so I reinvested all the money back into my jewelry business and decided to start again with a new sense of determination. Not to mention that we were going to have another baby. Not only was I going to try to achieve more difficult works of jewelry, but I wanted to also build a greater sense of purpose and direction with my work. Although there are still ups and downs when it comes to sales, I still focus on the quality of service and craftsmanship, foremost. For the past year, I’ve also taken up lapidary every other week as supplemental income to facilitate my families well being. The combination of the three businesses has become a three-way security blanket, however, I may be able to cut back on the cutting of cabochon to focus more on building my jewelry business. I still have a lot of things up my sleeve beyond jewelry making that I’d also like to bring to fruition. After living back in Albuquerque for a little over 6 years, and creating a beautiful family, we have our sights set on a place with far more opportunity. If you’ve read this far, the story is getting good :) Thanks for your time. I can’t wait to forge our future.