Solving the Puzzle of Affordable Housing

Vernon Thornsberry
Artist Vernon Thornsberry photographed at the Habitat for Humanity thrift store on Barber Street, Athens, GA

How local artists, entrepreneurs, and hobbyists are helping to fund the building and renovation of homes for low-income residents in Athens, GA

It all started in the summer of 2017 while Brian and Paige Dixon were staring at a shelf full of jigsaw puzzles, searching for something besides the same old seascapes, landscapes, balloon races, and piles of jumbled objects that dominate puzzle boxes across America. “No one makes puzzles for us,” Paige said. And that’s when they thought, “Hey, wait a minute… why don’t we make them then?”

The next day, they mentioned the idea of a line of art puzzles to a friend, Athens-based artist Lou Kregel. “Before we could finish she said ‘I’m in’,” says Brian. And that’s when their business, Very Good Puzzle, started to become a reality.

Lisa Freeman's painting "Chemtrails"
Lisa Freeman’s painting “Chemtrails”, one of Very Good Puzzle’s initial 14 designs

But the Dixons weren’t just out to make cool-looking puzzles. “It was a subversive way of getting art into the hands of people who aren’t into art,” says Brian. “We really thought of this as an art project, a way we could help spread art. And we started with the artists we were already collecting, with what we thought was cool.”

Jigsaw puzzles were the perfect vehicle for their project, because assembling a puzzle makes folks look closely at every facet of an image. “You notice all those tiny details you may not see just walking by [a painting] in a gallery or a museum,” Brian notes. And to make sure those details were properly rendered, the Dixons insisted on local printing of the puzzle image so they could “keep an eye on the quality” before sending the prints off to be glued and cut into puzzles and boxes. But there was still (pardon the pun) one piece missing.

“We also realized, this is a community project,” adds Dixon, “the idea of community was built-in, so we asked ourselves how we could expand on that.” They liked the model of 1% For The Planet, which guides a share of profits from member businesses to non-profits doing environmental work, and were also inspired by the volunteer work of muralist David Hale (whose “Water’s Edge” had been added to puzzle project) with Conscious Alliance, an organization that uses art to support food banks across the country.

Jigsaw puzzle box
Jigsaw puzzle of Lisa Freeman’s painting “Vigil”

In the end, they decided to let each artist choose a non-profit charity as a beneficiary, receiving a percentage of the proceeds from the sale of their work in puzzle form. Three of the 14 puzzles in VGP’s initial lineup will benefit Athens Area Habitat for Humanity, the only charity to receive that many selections.

“They help the community,” said contributing artist Vernon Thornsberry of his selection of Athens Area Habitat, “and community is the art.” Growing up in New Orleans, Thornsberry became fascinated with painting while frequenting museums as a high schooler, and began training himself to sketch and paint from memory. “I’d sit on my steps and watch, that’s the way I’d learn,” he recalls. “People would go by and I’d have to sketch them real fast, then fill in the rest. I had models, but they wouldn’t want to hang around very long, so I developed that method of working from memory.”

Vernon Thornsberry's painting "The Grit"
Vernon Thornsberry’s painting “The Grit”

His Very Good Puzzle selection, “The Grit,” was painted using this method. Thornsberry likes the choice because “it represents the community,” not only because it portrays a classic Athens gathering place, but also because of The Grit’s longstanding support of local artists and their work.

One of the many artists to display their works at The Grit is Lisa Freeman, who also chose Athens Area Habitat as the beneficiary non-profit for her two designs, “Chemtrails” and “Vigil.” Freeman was on board with the Very Good Puzzle mission as soon as she heard about it. “Athens has an incredible art scene,” Freeman notes, “and getting that art out there is a way to identify Athens with more than just football.” And although she’s not a jigsaw aficionado herself, she is just as enthusiastic as the Dixons about using puzzles as a medium for serious art.

Artist Lisa Freeman with one of her assemblage pieces
Artist Lisa Freeman with one of her assemblage pieces

“A puzzle makes you slow down,” Freeman says. “Details are very important, and fitting the puzzle together you’re paying very close attention, so you’re constructing meanings in layers as you go. Because you see, a painting doesn’t mean what I intended it to mean, what the artist intended it to mean. It means what the viewer thinks it means.”

Freeman chose Athens Area Habitat as her non-profit beneficiary because of the importance of home in her life and work. “Home is where I can rest and where I feel secure and safe, and I feel everybody should have that. Everybody deserves a home.” She also has a professional connection with the local Habitat thrift stores where she shops for some of the raw materials for her assemblage pieces.

To learn more about Very Good Puzzle, you can visit their website,, or you can support them by ordering puzzles, tote bags, surprise packs, or the entire 14 puzzle collection on VGP’s Indiegogo page. And be sure to check back as more designs are added. Word has it that 2 designs by Terry Rowlett have recently been added to the collection. Given the quality of work going into the design and production of these puzzles, we anticipate a very good future ahead for this new Athens enterprise.