A veteran’s story: ‘Coming out of my shell and into a community’

This story was originally published on in August 2013.

Venske photo

David Venzke may have left the Vietnam War, but the war never really left him.

Nearly five decades after serving on the front lines of that conflict, the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that followed him home persists. Low self-esteem, anxiety, shyness have haunted him to varying degrees every day since.

“It never really goes away,” said the 64-year-old Athens, Wisc. man. “It’s always in the background. It’s always there.”

In 2012, something changed. Venzke decided to try his hand at a potential new hobby. He took up weaving.

“I never considered myself artistic,” he said, “but my sister says I was born with the talent … the gift … of working with colors.”

With nothing but instinct to guide him, the retiree invested more than $6,000 in a 46-inch loom and materials, and then taught himself — via DVD — a craft that traces its roots back to 5000 B.C.

“It was a lot of studying every night,” Venzke recalled, noting that because of PTSD-related memory loss, “I might watch a DVD 30 times to retain the info. I was at it almost every night.”

Venzke didn’t realize that the more proficient he became at weaving batches of colorful threads together, the more his troubled psyche was knitting itself together, too.

“With PTSD, a lot of bad memories stay with you for the rest of your life, but working with the colors and the fabrics had a good effect on me,” he said. “Working on the loom makes me feel good. I’m calmer, happier. I could cope with things better.”

Somewhere along the way, selecting rainbow blends of color and crafting them into something unique became a blend of discovery and therapy.

“There’s a rhythm you develop when you work on the loom,” Venzke said. “You’re using both sides of your brain. It’s very engaged. It really pushes anxiety away.”

His specialty is rugs — one-of-a-kind, handcrafted mosaics “that make people happy,” he said.

For Venzke — who has worked as a dairy farmer, paper mill logger, meat processing plant welder, electrician and licensed day care provider — his emerging craftsmanship began filling a niche that his diverse working career had not.

“He could work on those (rugs) day in and day out,” said Venzke’s wife, Judy.

She was the one who first suggested that David consider selling his wares at The Talent Shop, a program of Goodwill NCW that provides the opportunity for artisans age 50 and older to produce items for sale. In addition, Venzke’s mother already has some of her own artwork there.

His rugs made their debut at the Talent Shop in Rib Mountain and proved a popular hit almost immediately.

“It’s been a wonderful experience. I didn’t anticipate that at all,” he said. “Lori (Plaza, the Talent Shop’s program outreach leader) will call me every once in a while and tell me how well they’re selling, and it always amazes me.”

“The first time he came in, David didn’t even know if his products would sell,” Plaza agreed. “But we were thrilled! This was a new product for us.”

Venzke’s rugs generally are priced at $24.99 for a 3-footer, $27.99 for a 4-footer, and $30.99 for a 5-footer. He typically produces about one rug a day.

“He’s had fabulous sales,” Plaza added. “Sometimes, David can’t keep up with customer demand. His stuff has been a big hit at area art shows.”

Venzke makes just enough profit on his rugs to cover his materials and slowly pay down the cost of his loom. In a traditional retail setting, his rugs might sell for three times their current cost.

“The effect it has one me is the real reward,” he said. “It’s not about the money. I’m getting older, but I’m content to make something that people will use when I’m gone.

“Coming to the Talent Shop was a first-time experience of coming out of my shell and into a community,” Venzke added. “The loom opened up doors for me.”

Friends and colleagues say they can see an ongoing transformation taking place.

“When I first met David, he was very quiet, almost timid,” Plaza said. “To see him today, to see him able to have that 1-on-1 engagement with people is thrilling. His self-esteem has grown by leaps and bounds.”

Venzke credits his avocation for improving his relationship with his three young granddaughters, with whom he is sharing his weaving skills.

“They like to help,” he said. “And I’m calmer, happier and coping better.

“Working with the Talent Shop has been a wonderful experience.”

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