Meet Kelly Sullivan Joyner
Native Knoxville, TN | Owner Willow Cottage Weddings
“There’s something in the water in Macon – if you have any kind of artistic ability, any little glimmers of creativity in your soul, this town’ll bring it out of you,” says Kelly Sullivan Joyner, paralegal at Nelson & Smith by day, wedding officiant/planner at Willow Cottage Weddings on evenings and weekends, and full-time artist and lover of life. Kelly’s only been a Maconite since 2010 – she was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and her father’s service job relocated the family to Warner Robins in 1975, where she moved in down the street from and became fast friends with Moe Dyer, who would become her lifetime compatriot. Kelly majored in Fine Arts in college and went on to hold a fascinating array of jobs, among them Montessori teacher, graphic artist, and police officer; she even went to FBI training for forensic art, a job which has sadly since been taken over by computers, and she has drawn hundreds of composite pictures of witnesses/suspects.
Although Kelly had been working in Macon since 1993, her husband’s job as a firefighter in Warner Robins kept them rooted in the small military town; when he switched jobs, they moved into Willow Cottage in Macon, a charming 1917 Tudor in Vineville’s Historic District, and almost immediately Kelly felt inspiration nudging her to pick up her paintbrush. Portraiture was her first love, but she also enjoyed the lively signage and buildings Macon had to offer, so her artistic repertoire expanded, as did her love for this city and all its vibrant beauty.
On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality, and couples all over the country ran to their local courthouses, excited to make their love legally bonding on such an important day – but two of Kelly’s friends, Debra Ford and Kristy Clark, were disappointed to find that none of the judges in Dodge County would marry them. In fact, the judges had stopped doing all weddings in protest of the new law. Undeterred, Kelly and the couple came up with a solution. Kelly hit the internet and got ordained as a marriage officiant, then called around and found a location – Parish on Cherry in downtown Macon – and the longtime couple ended the day by having a wedding that was even better than they’d dreamed.
“At that point, I realized this was something I’d always wanted to do,” says Kelly. “I’ve always been an advocate, and I wanted to be able to offer the service I’d offered my friends to others too.” And that’s how Willow Cottage Weddings was born. Some additional team members were added – Moe Dyer is available as an officiant, and Koryn Young works as a planner and coordinator as well as an officiant. “I couldn’t imagine a better person to work with in this capacity,” says Koryn of Kelly. “She is a bright human in a gray world.”
Willow Cottage Weddings performed 20 ceremonies in 2016, and they’re on track to surpass that number in 2017. “We’ve done about as many straight weddings as we have gay ones,” Kelly says. “One couple picked us because the bride’s mother was gay, and their minister wouldn’t let her stepmother walk her down the aisle. I’d never even thought about that kind of ripple effect of judgment before. It’s sad. That feeling has no place in somebody’s wedding day.”
One look at the reviews Willow Cottage Weddings has received online thus far, and you’ll see that Kelly and company are doing an amazing job of bringing joy, acceptance, and love to these couples on their special day. They were recently honored with the Couples Choice award on WeddingWire due to their impeccable five-star rating and glowing reviews. Responsive, accommodating, warm, welcoming, delightful – these are all words clients have used to describe them; words that should be a part of any wedding day, ideally. Willow Cottage Weddings is doing their part to make wedding equality – the idea that all couples deserve the wedding of their dreams, free from judgment and condemnation – an integral part of marriage equality, as it should be. “Clients will get in touch with us and say, ‘You’re always laughing and smiling in the pics of you at ceremonies,’” laughs Kelly. “That’s because we come to it with joy, and we feed off the joy in the room. I always apologize in advance at the beginning of every wedding for crying – I can’t help it! Weddings make me happy-cry.”
Willow Cottage Weddings offers a variety of options for creating your special day – everything from simple ceremonies performed in the couple’s choice of venue to all-inclusive, intimate packages performed at Willow Cottage (a romantic, charming, newly-renovated space in the building that used to house Kelly’s art studio). The content of the ceremony is also tailored specifically to each couple’s wishes, with Kelly and the other officiants’ input and guidance – “it can be as religious or non-religious as you want,” says Kelly. The best bet for couples looking to plan a wedding is to check out Willow Cottage Weddings’ website, then contact Kelly via phone or e-mail and go from there.
“This is bittersweet,” says Kelly, “but of all the same-sex weddings I’ve done, only one of them had both sides of the brides’ families present. In every other wedding, one side of the family refused to support the relationship, so it was so beautiful to be here for this one. They held it on a farm in south Georgia, and both brides’ mothers were there supporting their daughters. It did my heart good, because there’s a little heartbreak in any wedding with half a family missing.” Despite the unfortunate, misguided judgment and disapproval that can come along with being a nontraditional couple, Kelly and company see the future as hopeful for same sex couples. “It’s a lot different than it was when I came out,” says Moe, who has been an out gay woman for the past 32 years. “The road has been paved. The younger generation – our hope is in them. They’re nonjudgmental. They see that we’re all just people. Love is love is love, and that’s the bottom line.”
And everyone involved with Willow Cottage Weddings agrees that Macon, in sometimes stark contrast to surrounding areas, is “a kind of blue bubble in the center of a very red state,” as Kelly puts it. Moe says “Macon’s a pretty eclectic place – where there’s music and creativity, there are usually more people who are openminded and accepting. I’ve been out for 32 years, and my partner and I have never had a problem here.” In Kelly’s case, her easygoing, all-inclusive advocacy – and appealing sense of humor – comes to her naturally. “My family’s pretty liberal,” she says. “Our holiday arguments are all about who can out-liberal the other. And my mom’s so cute – she’s 80 years old, and when she hears that I’m doing a wedding, she’ll ask me ‘Is it boys? Or girls? Or one of each?’”
For more information, check out Willow Cottage Weddings on Facebook, or visit them on the web at www. willowcottageweddings.com