Chattanooga's new funny girl finds her voice through art and comedy

Photo contributed by Josh Newton / JJ Barrows performs at the Laughing Gas Comedy Club in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

Jennie Joy "JJ" Barrows was 28 when a therapist asked at what point she perceived she fit the middle-child syndrome.

"Well now," she realized.

Since middle school, she'd struggled with insecurities and doubt, feeling unheard, unseen and unable to find her own self-worth. She hopped from city to city and therapists and rehab as she dealt with depression and eating disorders. She was dog-paddling through a choppy sea of emotions searching for an anchor in life.

She found it through art.

Mining her life experiences for material, she wrote comedy that was not only funny but relatable. She began showing her abstract art, which had previously been only a hobby since childhood. Next, she published a motivational book that confirmed life is hard but that there is hope and healing in setbacks. Now the middle child was seen and heard.

LIFE IN THE MIDDLE

Growing up on Pawleys Island, South Carolina, Barrows was one of four children - all of whom had names that started with a B, except hers.

Her grandfather was Cliff Barrows, the nationally known song leader who traveled the country with the Reverend Billy Graham. It comes as no surprise, then, that her father followed him into the ministry and became a Southern Baptist pastor.

Barrows describes being a preacher's kid as "confusing."

"I didn't like it because the church expected you to be perfect, and public school expected you to be a rebel. I know my parents really loved me so I can't blame them for my insecurities. So much is expected of a pastor, and my mom was raising four kids under 5. I feel like the strain came from expectations of community about what a preacher's kid should be. I saw my parents busy, and I think I just went inward. I looked for communities where I might fit, and I hopped around a lot."

After high school, she attended the College of Charleston, then moved to Chicago to enter rehab for depression and an eating disorder.

"Since Chicago was where I turned my life around, I just stayed," she says. But after four years of hard winters, the South Carolinian needed a climate change and she moved to Portland, Oregon, for art school.

"Everyone said I couldn't make a living doing art, so I took a job in graphic design," she says. When she dropped out of art school, she moved to San Diego, California, to help a friend working with high-school youth.

Saying she "fell in love with the West Coast and the beach," she also fell for Josh Newton while living in Santa Barbara. After the two married, they decided to move due to the "insane cost of living" in Santa Barbara and the frantic pace of life there.

"We had visited Chattanooga and really thought it was cool. Also, it was closer to home in South Carolina, but not TOO close."


HUMOR IN EVERYDAY LIFE

Barrows says she had no idea what she was getting into when she signed up for a stand-up comedy class in San Diego.

"The first day of class the teacher had all of us get up and say why we were there. Everyone had legitimate answers - like they were inspired by Robin Williams - but me. I said, 'I needed therapy but couldn't afford it.'

"Everyone laughed. I realized then I could be myself. I could be real about my life, and people could relate to it. It was very therapeutic for me."

The class spent the entire six weeks writing material for a graduation showcase. She found it to be stressful, cathartic and "super fun." Some dropped out along the way, but not Barrows - and she apparently aced graduation.

"There was a guy there who had been on 'Last Comic Standing.' He asked if I wanted to open at The Comedy Store in San Diego for him. When I realized these were strangers, and they still thought I was funny, I knew I was onto something. But I still thought of it as a hobby, not a career."

Her life experiences from being a preacher's kid to her admiration for her 98-year-old aunt who lives in a memory-care facility but is still sharp as a tack ("That's Jedi," she quips) provided a lot of wealth of material from which to draw.

She started booking shows, getting the opportunity to do showcases. About two years into it "I realized I'm actually a comedian," she says.

Shortly after moving to Chattanooga last November, she booked a guest set at The Comedy Catch.

"She just wowed the audience!" recalls Michael Alfano, co-owner of The Comedy Catch. "She is a very good writer and has high energy. Her comedy is clean, and she has a great Southern flair," he says, likening her to Karen Mills and Leanne Morgan. "My audiences love her and we are going to try to move her up the ladder as quickly as possible to perform as frequently as her schedule allows."


SPEAKING OUT IN ACRYLICS

"I was the kid who got into trouble for coloring on walls," Barrows laughs about her propensity for always drawing, never dreaming she might do it professionally.

After finding graphic art too confining for her creativity, she continued expressing herself through her art, gravitating to acrylics in splashy, vivid hues and portraits. She also combines the two styles in some of her work. When she was 30, a friend asked if she wanted to hang her work in a show at a coffee shop.

Her first show was terrifying.

"I could not stand in that room while people were looking at my work. I felt like I was putting my journal on the wall," she explains.

"But art helped prepare me for entering the world of comedy. Art is how I get feelings out without having to use words. It's how I express myself when I don't have the words."

Having just moved here in November, getting settled in a new house and traveling for comedy shows, she says she is only now beginning to explore the local art scene. The couple discovered the Hunter Museum of American Art while on a walk downtown over Easter weekend.


HER NEXT CHAPTER IN LIFE

Barrows spent five years writing her first book through different seasons of her life. It was published in fall 2019, only to have her book tour canceled five months later due to the COVID pandemic. That might have been the final chapter for some aspiring authors, but not Barrows. She's already started her second.

She calls the first, "It's Called a Spade: A Collection of Hard-to-Tell Stories," the impetus for her life motto: Tell it like it is. Call a spade a spade.

"It's a collection of short stories celebrating some moments, and grieving others as you go through the seasons of life. I want people to know 'you are worthy, you are loved' because I didn't. And I made some really poor decisions because of that.

"As I got older and went through different types of therapy and realized my voice was valid, I realized so many of us are saying, 'I'm fine,' when we are not. I didn't know it was OK to not be OK. It wasn't a reflection of your faith if you weren't fine. As I wrote about this on my blog, I found more people could relate. So now I call it like it is: Life is beautiful, but also really hard."

Find JJ Barrows' book and more at jjbarrows.com.

JJ's Jokes

* On her career: I'm a full-time artist, which also means I have four part-time jobs. Four years of college - and I got a job for each year. * On being raised in the Baptist church: One woman told me she put me on a prayer chain. Let me tell y'all something, I believe in prayer, but that's THE LAST place you want to be is on a Southern woman's prayer chain! Because all that means is "I will tell everybody your business." Amen! * On favorite Southern colloquialism "Bless your heart:" If anyone ever says "Bless your heart" to you, they are not being nice to you. No, they feel sorry for you, but they are being nice about it. When people from my hometown heard I had moved out to California and got involved in things like yoga, they were like, "Oh my word, she's done gone to the dark side..bless her heart." * On her expectations if she dies before her husband: I am not the type of woman who, if anything ever happened to me and I passed away first, would say, " I just want my man to be happy and I hope he moves on and meets someone new." No! I said it in our vows, "Til death do us part." If I die before you, get in the casket. We gotta go. We're meeting Jesus at the same time! Reprinted with permission from JJ Barrows