My husband and I had a business for seventeen years. It wasn’t scalable or glamorous. It was just him and me in painter’s clothes working in houses. We painted murals, did faux-finishes, and glazed all of Scottsdale in a warm Tuscan gold or medium taupe.
It wasn’t fine art or anything I studied. It was a job. It kept us nicely middle-class, and for two twenty-somethings, that seemed pretty rad. But in 2008 the luxury real estate market in Arizona was hit hard, and our work dried up completely. We had a son, and a baby on the way, and our lives suddenly got tough. My husband’s father died and our two-year-old needed chemotherapy for a rare disease. My husband numbed through drinking and ended up in rehab for five weeks just after our baby was born. That year was an emotional blackout. Therapy kept me only mildly patched together. Gratitude saved me.
And then we moved on. We went back to ordinary life. But we still didn’t have a business. We would have lost our cars and our house without the financial support we received from our families during those years.
Within the first year of my husband’s recovery, I took a class and fell in love with the modern sewing and quilting movement. My art background ensured that I made artful things. I was encouraged by my local sewing shop to sell my sewing patterns. My mom and I attended our first retail craft show in 2010 in Long Beach, California, and then went to the International Quilt Market trade show in Houston where we found lots of support. I came back home to print and fulfill orders.
I quickly realized that this business was different from our last one. I used to show up, paint for a day, and earn a thousand dollars. Now I could work for weeks to make that. But I’d grown weary of only selling a luxury and embraced the chance to inspire more people with my designs. I finally offered something for the everyman, like Ikea.
It felt good until I realized that I couldn’t teach people to sew because I didn’t actually know how to sew—but I did know other things. I am a Rhode Island School of Design-trained abstract painter with a nerdy affection for art history and color theory, and I love unlocking interpersonal strength through creativity. But how do you turn all of that into a business?
I began designing quilting fabric for Windham Fabrics. I wrote a book for C&T Publishing, The Little Spark–30 Ways to Ignite Your Creativity. I also started offering corporate creativity events and teaching local workshops synthesizing creativity, yoga, and meditation. I had a full schedule, and I was selling my original paintings all the while.
My husband started over, too. He was urged by his therapist to become a therapist. He went back to school online to get his master’s in counseling and landed a great job at a local practice where he could use the crucible of his life to become the wounded healer. But ten years after the recession, we still weren’t on our own two feet. Our families continued to help pay our monthly bills. The gratitude one feels from receiving handouts fades substantially after protracted years of gifts (not to mention burning through our children’s college funds). Despite mindfulness meditations, that gratitude slowly turned to shame. With every check, we were more emotionally disabled. To be 45-years-old with two children and not be able to pay our way for ten solid years left me feeling sad, bitter, and angry.
I tried daily to promote myself on Instagram and to sell my art, offer giveaways, pitch workshops and anything I could do to generate more income. It worked—just not enough. Every year I thought I was getting closer to “making it.” My fabric sells way above industry average, and royalties from Windham Fabrics have been my primary source of income every year for six years. I’d think if only I could double or triple this, we’d be okay.
Over the past two years, I finally knew that it was never going to work. The angst, resentment, and emotional turmoil behind the scenes in my house because of our financial situation was intense. My husband and I were leaking rafts—patched together with tape—trying our very best to stay afloat. We never really had a chance to be just average. Just people who go to work and make money and come home. We weren’t sailing in a boat of our making. We were slowly sinking.
I fantasized about getting a job, but it became clear to me that I had no real employable skills. I’ve never had a boss in my adult life. I can teach creativity, but how do you employ someone with a passion for mothering and art history?
In a particularly dark moment this past winter, I told my best friend that things weren’t improving—weren’t seemingly ever going to get better—and we may have to sell our house. She burst into tears because that’s what besties do.
Two weeks later she said to me, “Hey, my daughter’s art teacher is on an extended absence because of a health issue and wouldn’t it be great if you could be the art teacher for them for the rest of the year?!” I can’t describe what happened next other than to say all the molecules in me began to rearrange; everything inside me ran at full speed at the opportunity.
I hadn’t made a resumé since I was 21, but I knew how to market myself from years of trying. I created probably the most hippie-dippie resumé the world has ever seen. Under my long list of work skills, I led with “openheartedness.” I put all my many hustles on there, and it looked good. Within 24 hours of our scheming, my resumé landed on the desk of the head of middle school. My whole family said a prayer over it before I sent it out.
I did the phone interview with a great deal of sparkle and courage and sweaty armpits, and a few days later I was brought in for a meeting with eight faculty members. I showed up with a rolling suitcase full of my fabric and books for everyone and a heart full of longing and optimism. A day later I heard back. It was a yes! I was hired as a middle school art teacher at a private school. They were thrilled to have me on their team. I cried and cried. They offered me an excellent salary and full benefits for my family and me. Our insurance, in that one moment, went from the chokehold of $1,900 a month to nearly half of that.
I interviewed art teacher friends for their wisdom and guidance. I prepared and made lists and bought books. I cleaned the art room for two weeks solid so that I could have a fresh start. I purchased an Eileen Fisher linen dress second-hand because it seemed to me that all art teachers needed to wear boxy linen dresses and clogs, right?
I stepped in that first day, April 2nd, nervous as heck, and I did it. I stood there with my beginner’s mind, at age 45, in front of rooms of fifth and sixth graders, and I spoke about all the things that spill most easily from my soul—color theory, drawing techniques, the big-picture why’s of art making, and the importance of expressing oneself and cultivating an inner emotional life. And it’s good. And I am new. I don’t have to hustle or post on Instagram to prove my worth or make my way. I show up, and I am enough every day. I get to help students build bonfires in their souls, and then I go home.
I’m still designing fabric for Windham during my summers off, so stay tuned—I’m designing my sixth collection now. But find me in two years and ask me how I’m doing. I can promise you I won’t want to quit teaching to start a handmade greeting card company or a DIY lifestyle brand or return to selling my art in tents. I did that for twenty-four years. So many creatives want to quit their day jobs to follow their heart. I had to stop hustling and get a day job to follow mine.