From shutter to brush: Jay Asquini keeps creating despite crushing accident

Despite a tumor blinding his left eye when he was a toddler, Jay Asquini has never been short of vision. What he didn’t picture, though, was an accident that would thrust him from a lucrative career as a charismatic photographer into early retirement as a painter.

Jay Asquini with camera in 1998

Jay Asquini in 1998

Observing one grandfather return home to cheerfully discuss his self-owned business and another grandfather return in a foul mood after an aggravating day in the corporate world, Asquini determined at a young age he would be self-employed. His initial plan was to turn his love of literature into a career as a writer. In his mind’s eye, he would be the house husband who sent his wife off to work and kids off to school before he retired to his IBM Selectric typewriter and banged out the great American novel. When Asquini’s parents gave him a camera on the Christmas of his 19th year, he embarked on a duo career as writer and photographer.

“The mechanics (of photography) made sense to me,” says now 60-year-old Asquini. While most photographers have to adjust their vision when looking through a camera’s viewfinder, being blind in one eye makes looking through a viewfinder no different than the way he already sees the world. “A lack of binocular vision has never bothered me.”

While Asquini started making money with the camera right away, he found creative writing and freelance copy writing for ad agencies difficult pursuits. The rewrites seemed endless and billing confusing.

“I found photography an easier environment.” Projects had simpler start and end dates, he says. “There’s a lot more responsibility as a writer, especially as a creative writer because you’re responsible for everything. A photographer has the subject. There’s a form of reality no matter how much creativity goes into it because of the subject.”

Second shot

After about three years of defining himself as a writer and photographer, Asquini clarified his career. Instead of sticking with the dream he had, he created the dream he was meant to bring to life. He made writing a hobby and put the bulk of his energy into photography.

“Photography was part of my personality. It was part of who I was. There was this great reward. I worked from home, with my wife running the office and the studio in the back of the house. The kids grew up in that house. All the things I got hired to see and all the people I got to be with, I loved it. It was infectious, too. I would work with other photographers and we would say we had the best job in the world.”

One day Asquini would find himself riding in a motorcade with the visiting president of Armenia and the next photographing the Detroit Red Wings or the manufacturing processes at a plant. He says he found an easy home in the industrial photography world.

“I didn’t press engineers into doing something creative and outside of their comfort zones. Instead, I could find the beauty in what they were doing and how they were doing it.”

Unlike working in an office, Asquini found he could approach photography with his own personality. “I was never anything but myself, so I never made sense in the ad world. But I did belong with the engineers, the people who built and designed things and turned them into products. That all made sense to me.”

He wasn’t just skilled at industrial photography, he relished its many challenges. There were no film or lights made for the poorly lit and unpredictable manufacturing facilities.

“It’s hot and loud, it can be dangerous, and your images can end up grainy. What you think is a table you can lean on might actually be molten aluminum. There are a lot of crazy things going on that you don’t have control over. But if you can learn how to control those things, you can be a great photographer and land on your feet in any situation. If you can learn how to be creative in that scene too, you can be even f****** better.”

Yard work almost killed me

On August 26, 2001, Jay Asquini decided it was time to remove a tree from his yard, but he wanted to do it in a way that wouldn’t damage the pine tree below. After considering carefully, almost obsessively, where he should place the ladder, he secured it, climbed up, and began trimming back the over-hanging branches. Then the tree broke and sprang free. Asquini grasped the ladder. But the blow knocked him from the ladder and on to the back of his neck, pulverizing five of his vertebrae.

Thankfully, Teck Soo, MD, a spine and brain surgeon Asquini calls “my beautiful human being,” put him back together with titanium rods and screws. He says, “I was one millimeter away from being a quadriplegic.”

For Asquini, the worst day in recent American history was also one of the best days of his life. On Sept. 11, 2001, he learned to walk again.

“With the aid of a walker, I took three steps to the TV and watched the towers collapse,” he says without joy.

A few days later, Asquini was home and looking forward to resuming his work. “Doctors couldn’t see why I couldn’t just pick up where I left off.” But cameras can be heavy and Asquini couldn’t seem to hold one easily. Neither could he maneuver the camera or his head so he could see through it properly. The rare times he could operate the camera the way he wanted, he found he could not simultaneously hold a conversation with his subject.

A recent sketch of Jay Asquini by Rachel Holland

A recent sketch of Jay Asquini by Rachel Holland from Asquini’s collection.

“The banter is what helps to dissolve the camera and makes the camera disappear so the subject doesn’t feel like a hunted beast of prey,” Asquini explains. “You feel collaborative with the photographer. But I could only do one or the other, look through the camera or engage.”

Oddly, Asquini understood how to talk and shoot photos, market himself and do everything necessary to run his business; yet he couldn’t actually perform the steps, and no one could explain why.

A year later, Asquini realized his skills as a photographer weren’t coming back. “It was something I had to give up.”

Putting down the camera, picking up a brush

Asquini says he slipped into a deep depression and found himself “in a dysfunctional space.”

“I couldn’t even manage to say the right things to get an appointment with a psychiatrist. As a guy who was never at a loss for words, I found myself becoming one of those frustrated, irate people because I couldn’t figure out why they didn’t understand what I needed, because I didn’t have the capacity to explain myself properly.”

A friend insisted they start painting and Asquini agreed. To his surprise, he fell in love with the process. Years of photography work and watching his mother, a painter, gave Asquini a solid understanding of what light and composition do.

“It was liberating from a creative side. I could paint whatever I wanted and wasn’t bound to my subject. I could use any color I wanted and any lighting I wanted without having to actually use lighting. Now all I had to do was visualize what I want. No one would go about painting the way I do without being a photographer first. Every dimension is used.”

Asquini says he looks for dynamic compositions within a scene rather than the whole scene and makes small four-by-six or five-by-seven sketches that he stores the way he would old negatives.

“As a consequence, I have hundreds of little gems. I don’t need them to be large because I spent years looking through contact sheets. These are the frameworks for things I paint out larger.”

Of two minds

Except he wasn’t able to sell his work. Though he knew from his experience as a photographer what needed to be done to market himself, he collapsed each time he tried to implement those strategies.

“I couldn’t complete things,” he says. “This is where I realized I was dealing with a different brain.”

Three years after the accident, he finally got an appointment with a psychiatrist. After testing, the doctor helped Asquini understand that in addition to damaging his spine in the fall, he also suffered a closed-head injury to his brain.

Now he has what he calls a binocular mind. “I remember what my old mind was capable of performing and now I have this ‘de- tuned’ version that just cannot do the things the old one could do.” He says being able to remember his old brain while dealing with his new brain can be simultaneously irritating and enlightening. “Now I say I have two different perspectives on life.”

He also has learned to redefine his identity. When asked, Asquini can now say he’s a painter without prefacing it with “I was a working photographer for 20 years.” If people press about his new calling, he says he adds “hobbyist”.

“I don’t make an effort to sell my work. I remember how much effort it takes from my old brain, and I don’t have that. Painting is the joy.”

Because he enjoys engaging with other artists and subjects, Asquini began attending a figure drawing class at Eastern Michigan University in 2004. “I love people and find figure drawing subjects.” Every month, he heads to the Carr Center in Detroit to interact with other artists in an artists’ group he co-founded.

“It’s not perfect. I have physical limitations. I wish I could stand up in the park and paint like others do. But if you’re an accountant, you have real limits…

“When you’re a photographer, you witness the world. When you’re a writer, you celebrate the world. When you’re a painter, you f****** see the world! This is what painting did for me.”

© Copyright Leslie Green and Wildemere Publishing LLC. 2016. All rights reserved.

IDENTITY: a series…

Scott Norman wearing a uniform and holding a gun in "The Wars of Other Men" by Mike Zawacki.Story 1: Two artists uncomfortable with the “actor” label share their views on identity because they are both so much more.

"Small Great Things" by Jodi Picoult book cover "The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead book cover

Story 2:
Authors Colson Whitehead, who’s black, and Jodi Picoult, who is white, address notions of identity in “The Underground Railroad” and “Small Great Things,” painfully convincing novels focused on race and racial injustice.

This story: See more of Jay Asquini’s paintings on his Tumblr page.

Story 4: Life, not production, makes an artist.

Coming soon: The advent of digital photography forces a difficult decision.

How do you keep moving forward after a setback? Share your views. Comment below

From the Masonic Temple to Mojo’s Mothership, Prince marked Detroit – and a life

This article was first published by Crain’s Detroit Business.

By Leslie Green

Some rock and a whole lot of funk, that was “Soft and Wet,” a track from the 1978 album “For You” that put Prince on the cover of Right On magazine. That cover was my introduction to the aFor You album coverrtist I would romance in my dreams for the next 30 years.

Over the course of his career, one cut short too early, the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist had many names and no name at all. He was Jamie Starr, Alexander Nevermind, The Purple One, and a symbol we replaced with The Artist Formerly Known As. He started bands, refreshed flagging careers, created cult classics and brought us to a new level of understanding when it came to creativity.

He wore guy-liner, a term that hadn’t been applied when started, frilly purple threads and platform boots; but he oozed a manly cool that had me plastering his photos — posters, album covers, magazine tear sheets — on every flat surface of my bedroom, windows included. Every year, I would walk the mile or so from my University District home to the record store on Curtis just west of Livernois to buy the latest Prince album. This was the only reason I ever saved my allowance.Prince_at_CoachellaWhether he was in costume singing in falsetto on “I Wanna Be Your Lover” or taking it deep and serious in a T-shirt and jeans on “4 the Tears in Your Eyes,” on the “We Are the World” benefit album, his music was charged with unrivaled passion and a freakish level of originality.

Prince’s first “Saturday Night Live” appearance (1981) marked the first time I stayed up long enough to watch the entire show. The performance was epic. He and the band that became The Revolution played “Partyup,” from his “Dirty Mind” album, then Prince kicked over the mic stand and the group stormed from the stage. Prince did everything on his terms. And for this rebellious teenager, that marked the picture-perfect epitome of defiant nonchalance.

While those national visions of Prince added to the artist’s heft, it was the Electrifying Mojo — a renowned Detroit radio DJ (WGPR, WJLB, WHYT and WCHB) whose real name was Charles Johnson — who revealed Prince as both human and otherworldly. Despite comparisons to Jimi Hendrix and James Brown, Mojo made it clear Prince was an artist unlike any other.

The DJ’s devotion to Prince’s music and Prince’s obvious appreciation lured MMadhouse8ojo’s followers into becoming die-hard fans. Mojo not only played the A-sides heard on national radio but also those B-side tracks, long versions and records under Prince aliases no other DJ played. “Madhouse 8” anyone?

Often, Mojo pitted music by Michael Jackson against Prince’s music, playing songs from each artist (and only those artists) throughout the night and asking listeners to call in and crown the real king. On Mojo’s “Midnight Funk Association,” he featured Prince far more than the other favorite funk artists (Parliament, Rick James, Teena Marie, Gap Band…) that he played.

While it took NBC another 20-plus years to get Prince back to “SNL” and talk show hosts spent years trying to coax more than a few words from the reclusive artist, Mojo didn’t have to lift a finger to have a conversation with the Purple One.

At least twice during my youth, Prince called Mojo out of the blue and expressed his love on air for his Detroit fans and thanked us “purple people” and “motor babies” for our support. I recall Mojo asking Prince why he wasn’t out partying and Prince laughing, saying it wasn’t his style. Instead, the artist who broke rules throughout his career said he was watching an Eddie Murphy movie. That was Prince. He was all about the business of making good music and putting on a show you couldn’t stop talking about.

There was another time, when Prince said he was going off to watch “Purple Rain,” again. Mojo then called on his fans to do the same. We did.

After I paid to see the movie (released June 25, 1984) at least five times, it came to a little discount theater called the Norwest, on Grand River Avenue just east of Southfield. Saying we had a dozen viewings is probably conservative. Plus, a friend worked there, so my boyfriend and I got free popcorn. We repeated this scene a couple of years later when he released “Under the Cherry Moon.”

Prince’s love for Detroit resulted in numerous concerts here, including his concert last year at the Fox Theatre.

The most memorable concert for me happened in 1982. I was about (mumble)teen years old and doing chores in my pajamas — vacuuming, I think — when a WJLB DJ announced tickets were going on sale for Prince’s “1999 Tour.” My brother yelled, “Let’s go,” not giving me time to dress. We jumped in his truck and headed for Northland Mall.

I waited in the car — remember, I was wearing pajamas — while my brother went to the Hudson’s ticket office. Soon, he was back outside with tickets in hand and a couple of girls trailing behind him. He had purchased tickets for all of his friends on a whim but didn’t have enough money. The girls, strangers, had loaned it to him. My brother then reached in the truck, scooped out mounds of loose change and handed them their payment. Prince would have been proud.

A few months later, on Dec. 1, we were looking down at Prince, Wendy, Lisa and the crew as they performed on the Masonic Temple stage. It was beautiful. I still recall the way Prince flipped himself over the sports car for “Little Red Corvette.” On the way home, Mojo continued the concert by playing Prince and only Prince for the rest of the night.

On June 7, 1986, his birthday, Prince played one of several sold-out shows at Cobo Arena in Detroit. After the “Around the World in a Day” concert, Prince and Mojo talked again. Have a listen here and here.

“Money is one thing, soul another,” the king of rocking funk said, adding why he continued to return to Detroit. “You can feel the love in the room. That means more than money.”

Until his death Thursday, I didn’t realize much of my life was measured by Prince’s music.

“Controversy” marks my father’s irritation during a family road trip from Detroit to New York and Niagara Falls when my brother and I were singing lyrics to the album’s less-than-wholesome songs. My high school class song was “1999,” despite having graduated many years before that. In my first summer as a camp counselor at The Roeper School in Bloomfield Hills, my 7-year-old charges performed Prince and the Revolution’s “I Would Die 4 U” in the talent competition. Radio play of “Kiss” marked whether I was late for classes in my sophomore year at Wayne State University. “Kiss” in the parking garage meant I was on time, on the freeway, egad, I was late. “Batman” marks me as a happy newlywed; “Sign of the Times,” a short while later, as grieving divorcee; and “Diamonds and Pearls” marks my foray into publishing. That’s when I met and interviewed Maurice Brandon Curry, the man who choreographed the Prince and The New Power Generation “Diamonds and Pearls” video. “Let’s Go Crazy”? Who hasn’t sung that at karaoke?

I recently started a new career that likely will be marked by yet-to-be released gems, old Prince songs and movie re-releases.

The seven-time Grammy Award winner released four albums in the last 18 months, including two on the streaming service Tidal. Which was unusual. Prince had a habit of shunning streaming services and making sure his music never stayed on YouTube for long.

He also became a less reclusive in recent years. Earlier this year, he began performing at more intimate venues — in Atlanta last week as part of his “Piano and a Microphone” tour, he put on a stripped-down show that featured a mix of hits like “Purple Rain” or “Little Red Corvette,” and some B-sides from his extensive library. Recently, he held several late-night jam sessions where he serenaded Bay City native Madonna, celebrated the Minnesota Lynx’s WNBA championship and showcased his latest disciple, singer Judith Hill.

Last month, Prince surprised all by announcing Spiegel & Grau would publish his memoir The Beautiful Ones in fall 2017. A news release about the memoir said: “Prince will take readers on an unconventional and poetic journey through his life and creative work” with stories about his music and “the family that shaped him and the people, places, and ideas that fired his creative imagination.” Now, it’s unclear if we’ll ever read it.

Regardless of what we read about Prince in coming weeks and months, there is no doubt he has affected the course of music.

Remember “Starfish and Coffee”? Prince proved, singing about school days and breakfast on “The Muppet Show,” that his creativity was innate and he could make music out of anything. As a result, we all have higher standards.

– The Associated Press contributed to this report.

©Leslie Green [2016] and Crain’s Detroit Business.

Beware the one-legged chair

Enter a lecture hall on any university campus and you might find a left-handed desk — two if the college is particularly prestigious. Though left-handed and clumsy, I typically sought the desk (left-handed or right) that provided the most cover. There, out of the line of scrutiny, is where I sat throughout my undergraduate years.

Sit in the back, and the professor’s is sure to call on you. Sit in the front, and you’re expected to know the answer to his questions. The second-to-last row? Now, that’s where the action isn’t.

Perhaps I’m giving the impression I am shy. I am not. I am what “They” call an introvert with extroverted tendencies: I enjoy the company of colleagues, friends, and family — the jokes, the chatter, the affable (usually) debates, the dinners and movies, and, sometimes, the attention… until I don’t. My extroversion gives way like a chair with one leg that collapses on itself, and suddenly I need to fade into the background or out of sight.


Earlier this month, I learned just how many legs uphold my chair.

I said “yes”

A little more than an hour after the meeting for a spectacular cultural organization in town, the lovely and highly capable publicist was asking if I could, in nine days, stand in front of roughly 300 influential business and community leaders to introduce a video presentation by a man of local prominence. Breaking routine, I said, “Yes.” What the heck, I thought? The organization does good work, and I’m still riding the waves of change.

No big deal, right? At least not until I hung up the phone. My heart embarked on a marathon for which it had not trained. I stood up, turned in a circle, and sat back down. Then I told one friendly acquaintance after another, looking for…? I don’t know. Maybe I was looking for excuses that could release me from my hasty acceptance. Yet none were given. They only encouraged me.

Days later, I told family, friends, and members of my small church group, where I received more blasted encouragement and the advice that whatever I write be authentically me. Sufficiently inspired, I set aside a few minutes the next day to write my little intro speech.

Over the next few days, I tweaked and practiced and prayed, practiced, prayed, and tweaked, until the very lengthy video I was to introduce arrived in my inbox. Again, I tweaked and practiced and prayed all the more.

Rehearsals were the afternoon of the big event, but there was no need for me to attend, the publicist and I agreed, as my introduction was short enough that it would be fine….

Fine… my phone rang two hours before I was to speak. Rather than introduce the video, she asked, can you do the entire presentation?


I said, “yes.”

Solid foundation

It was 3:40 when I arrived for the 4 p.m. event, talking to my brother (a minister) and my pastor along the way. One prayed with me. The other promised to pray.

At 3:53, the capable publicist and I finished updating the presentation. At 3:55, she showed me to my seat, pointing out a bathroom as we went.

That is where I glanced over the newly crafted work prior to presenting it before the media and those who put years and considerable assets into the organization they so loved. There is where my emotional nerves turned physical. Where my bowels churned and my lunch backed up my throat, but there wasn’t time to release the distress. It was 3:59. I had one minute to be in my chair where I would wait for VOG (the so-called voice of God) to introduce me.

Thirty-six minutes later, he did.

Over the prerequisite clapping, I heard the type of high-pitched whistle that could only come from a friend. I walked up to the podium and prepared to stutter. What happened next surprised me.

I knew the speech

by heart. Not all of it, of course, but enough to look about the audience with seeming confidence as I spoke. What I saw were friends: The colleagues that refused to provide excuses; the family who told me they loved me; the friends who saidhelping-a-friend they expected nothing less than success; the church group who prayed. Spread throughout the crowd, there were there in spirit. They were the legs to my chair.

They held me up.

Balancing act

A couple of years ago, a friend learned her chair had only one leg. This pronouncement from a therapist was a warning that she was in peril of collapsing. The prescription? Build her cache of friends and confidants.

Now look down. How many legs are on the seat on which you’re sitting?

One Leg ChairAre you in peril of falling? Three or more, and you’re doubtless confident the chair will sustain you. Anything fewer and you’re performing an acrobatic feat.



©Leslie Green and Wildemere Publishing LLC [2017]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is to Leslie Green and Wildemere Publishing LLC with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Moving People: An Exploration of Inspiration and Human Nature

Image of guest blogger Maureen Batty

By Maureen Batty

Being deeply moved by the written word always seems like a bit of a hijacking.

I am comfortable, usually in my own home, when someone suddenly takes over my heart, my breath and that feeling in the pit of my stomach from an entirely different location — where the author first put pen to paper or fingertip to keyboard.

It happened months ago when I read John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” and cried so hard I thought I was pregnant.

It happened again just a week or two back when I was editing a gorgeous piece of writing that ended suddenly, perfectly and unassumingly with a man changing his mind. Doesn’t sound like a big deal, right? But the writer had so completely sucked me into this man’s firm mindset that when he surrendered it for the love of his child, I felt the importance of his change of mind.

“Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.”
― John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

Sometimes the effect isn’t heart-stoppingly dramatic but memorable. It happened when I was reading “Unbroken,” that incredible story of an Olympic athlete whose plane went down during World War II. Author Laura Hillenbrand just dropped the slightest mention of Edith Frank tending her infant daughter Anne Frank and I was absolutely enchanted by her way of providing context.

But it doesn’t have to be the written word; anything that puts a finger on the pulse of human nature — movies, music, photography, architecture, theater and even a television commercial or a comic strip — can take you completely away from your present moment, whether it lifts you up or weighs on your heart.

From time to time in this space, I hope to explore what moves people. To kick things off, I asked three very different people this question: When you think of how human nature and the arts collide, what inspires you?

Here is what they had to say:

Eno Laget

Strawberry by street artist Eno Legat

“I don’t think of collision, ever. It’s more like human nature and arts mixed is a colloid (I am suspended in a continuous phase of another component). Here, I am fog, or I am paint — body and spirit mixed by a source I cannot see, yet I know is real. I have been made and set into motion for a purpose I do not understand because my mind is too puny. Yet, I choose to believe in the driving force that created me for some duration that is beyond my control.

“I am foam rubber. No matter how often depressed, I return to my original form to be in service of my purpose. The tension of this continuous suspension is inspiring. Maintaining balance is a challenge I embrace. To be neither swallowed, nor spit out by the dominant culture until I wear out is the goal.”

Eno Laget is a Detroit-area street artist. He is featured in “Canvas Detroit” by authors Julie Pincus, Nichole Christian and 25 other inspired photographers and contributors. Eno Laget exhibited the above mixed-media image of a woman called Strawberry, who reportedly was killed for knowing too much, at Red Bull Creation in summer 2014.

Michelle Jimenez

Meghan-Trainor-All-About--Bass image

“These days, it’s Meghan Trainor’s song “All About That Bass.” This catchy, fun tune is an instant pick-me-up and an unexpected source of inspiration for a serious soul like me. Though the song encourages a positive body image for all, its message of self-acceptance helps ward off my never-ending and very human drive toward general perfection that goes beyond just trying to attain that perfect number on the scale. To name a few items on my list of elusive perfection: Perfectly clean house, perfectly fed, groomed and happy child and perfectly energetic and engaging wife.

“As a new and first-time mom, I’m still adjusting to the work-life balance, and I welcome any message out there that, after a day at the office, makes it a little easier not to cringe at our atrocious kitchen floor or beat myself up that my toddler’s sharp nails again didn’t get clipped before bed or that I won’t be able to keep my eyes open long enough to watch my husband’s and my favorite TV show. It’s all about that (self) acceptance.”

Michelle Jimenez is a wife, mom and professional communicator who lives in San Antonio, Texas. She most enjoys spending time with family and friends, romping around with her toddler and engaging in creative expression.

Tara Michener

Image of Tara Michener

“So many opportunities to grow, learn, change and develop exist in simple works of art. As humans we see ourselves in paintings, we express ourselves in crafting, we find ourselves in our ability to write a story.

“I specifically think of my own journaling and thought sketching and how my therapeutic creative writing details my own personal experiences from a fiction perspective.

“While human nature and the arts collide in many ways, I am most inspired when I speak to someone who shares their thoughts with me about how my children’s fiction has allowed their child to have a deeper perspective on bullying, diversity and/or self-esteem.”

A counselor, writer, consultant and more, Tara Michener of Novi, Mich., is the founder of “Professionals Against Bullying,” which supports those who have been affected by relational, social and physical aggression. She adores her husband and son, and enjoys running.


Maureen Batty is a Detroit-based writer, editor and lover of how human nature and the arts collide.

Learn more about Maureen at

Inspired to share your own thoughts on the topic human nature and arts?

We’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

©Maureen Batty and Wildemere Publishing LLC [2014]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is to Maureen Batty and Wildemere Publishing LLC with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 2014