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Life Arts

The Freedom of Handcuffs: Retired Air Force Woman Begins Second "Childhood"

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Headlined to H4 11/6/09

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It lasted 20 years, 25 days, 4 hours and 10 minutes for Juliet Doucette Renner--the "golden handcuffs" that synchronously provided a stable income for her two children and suffocated her creative drive. After moving 23 times in 20 years while in the Air Force (the provider and guardian of the golden handcuffs), Renner finally reunited with her home, her creativity, and her field of sunflowers on the countryside in the small town of Millville. Renner's parents, both art teachers, had moved to Millville when she was one year old. Her grandfather, Amie Henri Doucette, had been dean of the Art Department at Edinboro State College (now Edinboro University), where there is a building named for him. Renner says she was influenced more by her grandfather's "legacy rather than his personal involvement." Renner's parents, Robert and Julia Doucette, carried on his legacy by raising her to view life and color in unique way. "I love color. I had all that available to me when I was a kid, and I was always encouraged to scribble outside the lines," she says, "trees can be blue, and the sky can be green."

After graduating from Millville Area Junior Senior High School, Renner joined the Air Force. She says she initially joined the Air Force to "see the world, and experience life beyond the charted course that college provided." However, she quickly realized that along with seeing the world, she also was forced to live her life in a particular way. She says she called it golden handcuffs "because I had all these benefits, I felt like I had to stay in, I couldn't break away." The golden part of the Air Force was her ability to feel liberated in doing jobs that most women during this time couldn't do. She was a member of the military police in Ohio, and later transferred overseas to Personnel. She also worked for the Office of Special Investigation (OSI) for almost four years. "In the military," she says, "there was a regulation for everything and a lack of an avenue for creativity." However limited as it was, Renner says she still found time to satisfy her creative desire by "once again creating curtains and covering an old couch." Renner lived in military housing and would refurbish old things in her spare time. "Dozens of people had lived there before me," she says, "I had to make the best of it."

Renner says her art work is influenced by being in the military and learning to get by with what she had available to her. "I really am drawn now to recycling things," she says, "using old clothes lines, old jeans." Renner goes to Salvation Army about once a week and roots through all their stuff. "I'll chop up a dress or a bed skirt or anything. I try to take everything and give it another life," she says. Some of her artwork includes mop flowers made from denim scraps, denim and felted purses, wine bottle covers, and her most recent artwork, voodoo dolls made of pin cushions. Most of her artwork includes parts of nature, where she draws her inspiration. Her art work almost always embodies some form of a sunflower, which she says is her favorite thing in the world. "I have every kind of sunflower growing at some place on my property," she says. Renner and her current husband, Stephen Renner, live on 21 acres with healthy gardens and a pond nearby. "I love that I can get up in the morning, go outside still wearing my pajamas, drink a cup of coffee and just sort of look around," she says.

During her time in the Air Force, Renner raised her two children on her own. She was married to her first husband and had both children while in the Air Force. When she was sent back to the United States in 1980 and her husband remained overseas, they divorced. "I was 23, and I was already on my second enlistment," she says. At that time, Renner only had a high school diploma and didn't know what other options she had. "It was a stable job with decent benefits," she says. In order to provide a more comfortable lifestyle for her children, Renner also worked part-time jobs outside of the military, including bartending and being a banquet host. Although she says the military almost made her creativity "dry up and die, it was a job and I did what I had to do." Renner retired from the Air Force in 1995 as a technical sergeant.

Renner's self-portrait tells a lot about who she is as a person, rather than an artist. It includes her "flower child" inner self, being forced to play the piano at a young age, a big orange head representing her curly red hair, Cleopatra type make-up that she was not allowed to wear as a child, and the idea of her being trapped behind a pair of thick glasses all her life. Her attraction to the art world stems from the idea that art helps people take the boring things in life and find humor in them. "Everybody else is sort of slugging through life," she says, "artists can kind of get a laugh and see it in a different way."

Now at the age of 51, Renner says she is right where she needs to be. She travels around the area with her sister, Linda Doucette, to exhibit at different art shows. "We think we still want to peddle out the back of the truck, like the traveling sales people who went around selling pots and pans." Her husband works at the Berwick Power Plant in the Nuclear Predictive Maintenance Department. She says she spends time trying to slowly pull her husband away from his stressful job and bring him into the relaxed lifestyle she can now enjoy. "I sympathize with him because being in the military I know there is no room for error, and his job is one of the few I've seen on the outside where there is no room for error," she says. Renner is trying to be a catalyst for her husband and bring out his inner flower child. "He comes home and there's fabric everywhere, and I have the Mamas and the Papas playing," she says, "it helps him remember who he is."

Renner refers to retirement and her current marriage as a "second childhood," which allows her to let go of the seriousness of life, surround herself with the people and places she left behind, and finally take off the handcuffs that she believes not only confined her imagination but also kept her from being herself--a red-haired free-spirit with an artistic touch, a combination that no military could suppress forever.

 

Megan is a sophomore at Bloomsburg University, majoring in Journalism and minoring in Political Science.
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The Freedom of Handcuffs: Retired Air Force Woman Begins Second "Childhood"

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