Guernseys Help Jacky Find His Voice
By Cheri Oechsle, Michael Flanagan & Susan Sullivan ~ excerpts from the December 14, Guernsey Breeders’ Journal article.
Jacky Wojchechowski was born June 10, 1983. He lives on Staten Island in New York City. What is so special about Jacky? Jacky is fascinated with the Guernsey cow and her world. And he has tied that love into his unusual talent of artistry.
Jacky is the second child of Sharon Sullivan. He has an older sister Maureen. His father Ed died when Jacky was three. A few years later, Michael Flanagan came into their lives. At some point Jacky “adopted” Michael and calls him Dad, especially when he wants something.
“Jacky’s first two years were normal in terms of development until he withdrew into his autistic world,” said Sharon. Today autism covers a broad spectrum of disorders and symptoms. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior. Although ASD varies significantly in character and severity, it occurs in all ethnic and socioeconomic groups and affects every age group.
Jacky’s original “symptoms” included a lack of verbal communication, repetitive behaviors such as hand flapping and spinning in circles and an unusual obsession with objects. Jacky’s obsession with objects included his obsession with cows at around three years old and has continued to this day. “We don’t know why he has the obsession. His first cow love was, and still is, “Gladys the Cow.” At some point before computers, Jacky discovered the encyclopedia and without the family knowing, learned about many breeds of cows. “We didn’t even realize he could read,” said Sharon.
Jacky first started with plastic cow toys and farm toys, but has always been selective as to the type and breed. “At one oint,” Sharon and Michael shared, “we were the best customers of Country Critters, which made life-like stuffed animals and puppets.”
Jacky’s first cow encounter occurred with a visit to Lancaster County where they visited an agri-tourism farm. Jacky was thrilled to see a cow but would not go near it or touch it. Every time they tried to leave, Jacky would cry. They would go back and he would “fear” the cow. “Finally in a bold move we took him by the hand and held his hands on the cooperating cow and Jacky has been in love ever since! He can even milk by hand,” they said.
For many years, Jacky walked everywhere carrying a cow. Now he carries a folder containing several hundred downloaded pictures of his cow friends. If he really likes someone, he will give them a picture.
Jacky first found his artistic voice at Pure Vision Arts where Dr. Pamala Rogers took Jacky under her wing and helped him express his love for cows, farms and art. Jacky is a resident artist with Pure Vision which has displayed and sold his work for years.
Jacky resides in a group home affiliated with HeartShare Human Services of New York. He has been a part of ArtShare for HeartShare where he has further developed his artistic skills. His parents say art has become his vehicle for communication to his family and world.
Since computers became household staples, Jacky has used them to open the world to him. Several years ago, Jacky located the American Guernsey Association online and found the member directory. Jacky’s first Guernsey friends are George and Kathy Kraft of Kas Knolls Farm in New York. He has visited them several times and always wears boots and is quick to grab a shovel and clean the barn. “During those visits, we don’t exist; ‘Farmer George’ becomes the center of Jacky’s universe,” said Sharon.
George Kraft commented, “You can tell he’s disabled, but once Jacky sees a cow and knows her name, he doesn’t forget her, even if it’s been a year, which is really unique. He’s very eager for hands-on, just even giving grain to the cows. It just thrilled him to get to do the little things we take for granted sometimes. Some farms I guess weren’t as open when the family approached them, but to me it was something we needed to do, to open up our farm for people to visit and educate the public. Visiting with Jacky’s mother, living in the city, she now says she always stands up for the farmer.”
Jacky’s next Guernsey friends are Jeanie and Dennis Nelson of Nells Glow Farm in California. Jacky is delighted that Jeannie is also a teacher. She encourages him to do math and word problems and in the last year he has prepared thousands of word and math problems which he has sent to her. “When we were preparing to send Jeannie the word problems, we found a bit of a miracle (to us). Jacky would prepare ‘Dear Jeannie Nelson’ notes. What we found in these notes were almost 800 pages of his autobiography covering highlights of Jacky’s life including the good and the bad,” they said.
Jacky’s third Guernsey friend is Eric Craig of Craig Moor Farms in New York. Jacky really loves the back and forth with Erick through letters and packages. Eric sent him a hat and t-shirt that Jacky has made his wardrobe of choice and has provided him with a subscription to the Guernsey Breeders’ Journal.
“We try to keep Jacky from sending his own letter so as not to scare people with his primitive writing style, but Jacky considers every member of the American Guernsey Association a “friend.”
Jacky has built a fantasy world around his Guernsey cow, friends and of course their milk. Jacky’s Christmas list includes five cheeses. His communication skills, through these visits and his art, have enabled him to lecture and cheese and cheese making according to a video from ArtShare. His parents say they never expected him to be comfortable handling a microphone in front of people at the art gallery like he did on the art exhibition day.
His farm works have been on display at the Minskoff Theater on Broadway as well as American Folk Art Museum and his art is the subject of a documentary called HeartShare: A voice for Jacky, which discusses his artwork.
“We consider Jacky to be our Forrest Gump, because of all the unusual situations in which we often find ourselves and the wonderful, diverse people we’ve met. I never imagined that Sharon, a Brooklyn girl, would find herself in a barn in Sharron Springs, New York, tending to Guernsey cows and being so welcomed by ‘strangers’ who are so kind to Jacky. We all love Guernsey folk!” Sharon and Michael said.
For more on Jacky watch the video on YouTube called “HeartShare: Finding A Voice For Jacky” or visit his gallery page at http://www.purevisionarts.org/artist-gallery/
Photos included in this article are recent works of art by Jacky and a recent visit to Poppydale Farm in New York.