The artistic journey of a Madison financial consultant

After a recent art show in his Michigan hometown, Jay Handy hopes to continue honing his practice and perhaps bring something similar to Madison.
Jay Handy during his artist-in-residence in Bay City
Courtesy of Jay Handy
Jay Handy during his artist-in-residence in Bay City

Journeys can be taken by the body, mind and soul, and as Madison financial consultant Jay Handy heads to Bay City, Michigan, this week, all three seem certain to resonate.

Four years ago, Handy, 59 — who attended Harvard Business School and once managed Merrill Lynch’s Madison office — decided to get serious about the art that had been a passion since his troubled childhood and adolescence.

Handy rescued a 1,200-pound printing press from a scrap metal dealer outside of Chicago and with considerable difficulty got it installed in his Madison basement.

Handy worked hard, took classes and found he had talent as a printmaker. His prints have now been shown in galleries as far away as London, and he was recently accepted into a prestigious biannual exhibition in Florence, Italy.

But it will likely be a long time before Hardy has a more meaningful showing than the one that concluded May 14 in Bay City.

It was an exhibit imagined by Handy and embraced by Bay City, where he grew up. Last July, after consulting with community leaders, Handy put out a call to residents for photographs of their lives in Bay City, moments of significance or poignance. The response was overwhelming with hundreds of submissions. Handy used his work with color, contrast, hand dye, tissue paper and the printing press and turned the photographs into works of art. The exhibit opened in March and Handy did an artist-in-residence weekend during which he taught a class. His Bay City trip this week is to retrieve the few pieces of the 37 in the show that didn’t sell.

Jay Handy piece with two men with arms draped over each other

A piece by Jay Handy (Courtesy of the artist)

Handy loves Bay City and his family has deep roots there — a high school is named after his great-grandfather. But his own upbringing was difficult. His parents were absent, beset by addiction and mental illness. Handy was in and out of foster care, often alone, but telling no one.

“It was shameful,” he says.

For all that, he was class president, an Eagle Scout. The father of a friend insisted Handy take a college entrance exam and eventually he received a scholarship to Michigan State.

From there, Harvard, where he met his wife, Kim. She’d attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison and on Easter weekend 1992 the couple, looking to live in the Midwest, visited Madison.

“I’d never set foot in the city before,” Handy says. “We came out on a Thursday. We bought a house that Sunday.” They’ve been here ever since.

Handy had worked for Merrill Lynch in Boston and arranged a transfer to the firm’s Madison office. In 2009, with a couple of partners, he formed an independent registered investment advisory firm, which is ongoing.

Even before his recent move into printmaking, Handy had side adventures of note. He hiked in the Amazon rainforest, walked into China through Pakistan and engaged in extreme sports.

The latter — including a 105 mile, one-day bike ride through Death Valley — has often been to raise money for the American Diabetes Association and Junior Diabetes Research Foundation.

Handy was diagnosed with the disease at 13. When he ran his first marathon, in 2000, he talked to his physician, who said, “I wouldn’t recommend it.” Others put their opposition more bluntly. Blood sugar levels can be affected by extreme exercise.

Handy has since done four Ironman triathlons and says, “With new diagnostics and insulins it can be managed more safely now.”
It was July 2018 when Handy says he asked a profound question of himself.

“What is it you think about when you’re not thinking about anything?”

In other words, when your mind is free. For Handy, the answer was easy: Art.

little boy holding a cat

Piece in the Bay city exhibit (Courtesy of Jay Handy)

“My whole life,” he says, “it has always been art.”

Handy, as noted, soon found his printing press.

“I fell in love with it and what I was doing. I kept working it and working it.”

He went to Omaha to take a week-long workshop being taught by UW–Madison associate professor of printmaking Emily Arthur. The irony of traveling to Nebraska to study with someone who lived less than a mile from him in Madison was not lost on Handy.

Yet the class, and Arthur, were a revelation.

“She called me the baby of the class,” Handy says. He was likely the only one without an art degree. “She’s ended up being a major mentor for me.”

A few years after Omaha, it was Bay City, but this time, Handy was the teacher.

“It was incredible,” Handy says, of bringing his art to Bay City. “It was a moving experience for me. To be able to come back and artistically hold a mirror up to the community I love was really powerful to me.”

So powerful, in fact, that he’s hoping to do a similar show in the fall — this time in Madison.

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