Occupation: Designer and Author
Website: Tera Leigh
Biography: Tera Leigh is the author of The Complete Book of Decorative Painting (North Light Books). She is spokesperson (and co-developer) of the Paintability line of painting products, and the Robert Simmons Sapphire brush line. She also writes columns for four painting magazines, and has had her designs published in many craft and home decor magazines.
What do you do and how did you start?
My first book, The Complete Book of Decorative Painting, was released in October 2001. I currently write columns for PaintWorks and Decorative Artist’s Workbook, and will be adding columns in Quick and Easy Painting and Tole World magazines. I also freelance for many other magazines.
I committed myself to becoming an artist in 1999. My first creative goals were to create a product line and write a reference book to make it easier for people to learn how to paint. I have a real passion for creativity and I want to create products that encourage people to use and explore their own creative potential.
During the transition between my “grown up” job and my dream of being an artist, I wrote a “personal manifesto” of sorts about creativity and living the life you were meant to live. I did it as a way to think through what I really believed about what I could be and what others expected of me. That became a website called “Tera’s Wish” and I continue to explore the topic in a free quarterly newsletter.
My personal motto is borrowed from Virgil, “Fortune Favors the Bold”. I believe that means that if you put your honest intention out to the universe and are willing to follow it up with work, God will honor it. Within six months, I had a book deal with North Light books (for the largest book they’d ever produced) and a product manufacturing deal (with a business partner, Tracia Williams) for a line of painting products. That product (Paintability) won the 2001 Product of the Year award from Craftrends at the Hobby Industry Association convention.
In 1995, I started an online group for decorative painters. That experience connected me with some of the pioneers of the decorative painting industry and they were incredibly generous with their time and knowledge of the industry. It was that online “networking” that gave me the industry support and knowledge to get started.
How old were you when you realised you wanted to do what you’re currently doing and how old were you when you actually began/What jobs did you have before you went out on your own?/How steps did you take to create your own business?
There is a joke in my family that my father told me that I could be anything I wanted to be but that I misheard him and thought he said “everything” I wanted to be. My first job was as a make up artist, then I became and Esthetician, then a secretary, then a law clerk, then attorney.
I loved being a make up artist but my mom wanted me to get my license so that I could work in a salon (which I did not enjoy). I was not very confident as a teenager and pretty much followed what my parents wanted me to do. Eventually I went to work in my father’s law office and became an attorney myself. I loved school – but I hated being an attorney. Living in a world that was all about confrontation and argument was really not healthy for me. I felt myself becoming more and more aggressive.
Happily I met my husband and he wanted to start an internet firm and I quit law and used my business knowledge to help him run it. That gave me flexible hours to explore my own creativity again. He also introduced me to Photoshop and web design. I had discovered decorative painting in 1993 and really fell in love with it. I was blessed to find a man who was more interested in my personal happiness than the money I could contribute to the relationship as an attorney. He encouraged me to take more time for my art. He is a rare gem and I thank God for him everyday.
The real turning point for me was the death of my best friend. In 1998, Debbie was diagnosed with cancer. She had been visiting me when she thought she had an infection. None of us ever dreamed she was seriously ill, and within six months she was dead. She was 42, I was 35. It was devastating. Throughout her illness she kept telling me that I should not take my life and talents for granted but I just didn’t want to hear it. When I got the news of her death, which was from complications of the chemo and was unexpected, I suddenly heard her loud and clear.
I had been in the habit of doing a “goal setting” workshop with myself three or four times a year. About two weeks after her death I sat down and reviewed my goals, and realized that I had been making goals that would make the people in my life happy. After all, I couldn’t just walk away from my law degree and leave “business” for “art”, could I? Well, it turned out that I could, and I did. The irony is that I probably use my law degree knowledge more now than I did answering the same questions over and over in a law office!
After a lot of tears, I sat down and wrote out the first “real” set of goals I probably had ever written. By “real” I mean goals that truly resonated with me – not things I thought would make the people in my life happy. I took them to my husband – and I was really nervous because I knew what I was proposing would mean that I would eventually leave the business we had started together. He could not have been more supportive. When I told him I wanted to write a book he took me to a big book store and together we went through all the craft and home decor books to find a list of three publishers that would be my “first choice” for my book.
From there, I wrote a book proposal and told everyone I knew in the industry that I wanted to write a reference book. (I mean it literally when I said “put your intention out there”!) On the day I was ready to send my book proposal out to my first choice – North Light Books, I got a phone call. It was from an Editor at North Light. They were looking for someone to write a reference book on decorative painting and my name had come up. I asked for her fax number and sent her the outline I had already written. It was a magical day!
What kind of formal education, training or experience do you have that applies to what you do?
I have very little art training. I studied make up at Joe Blasco in Hollywood. That was an amazing experience and much of what I know about art came from the many talented teachers at the school.
I do believe that my doctorate in law is helpful in terms of my business success. When you are an artist, issues of copyright, intellectual property rights such as licensing, contracts, etc. come up on a regular basis. In general, I have been able to negotiate better contracts for myself simply because I understand business and contract negotiations. As much as I did not enjoy being a lawyer, I would not trade that experience for anything.
How did you first begin to sell/market your work?
“Fortune Favors the Bold!” If you want to become known, you have to be willing to put yourself out there. That can be extremely daunting because as artists and writers our work is so very personal. Just the other day someone said to me, “I wouldn’t give you .50 cents for that!” referring to a table I had painted. Yikes! Happily, just a week or two before I had been offered $8,000.00 for the same table. You have to take the good with the bad and not take it personally. (To that end, I recommend reading Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” and Don Miguel Ruiz’ “The Four Agreements”.)
The first step to marketing is to get your work seen. I go to the Hobby Industry Association and Society of Craft Designers conventions. I have a website that showcases my writing and artwork. I create and send out visually interesting and unique press kits for the HIA convention and anytime I have a new book or product to promote. I write to and follow up with magazine editors and television producers after I meet them at the shows. I keep good notes of my conversations and use Microsoft Outlook to create reminders to follow up when I say I will. As a result I’ve gained a reputation for being reliable and for making my deadlines.
I personally think you have to be fairly aggressive with your marketing. I don’t mean obnoxious – that will get you nowhere – but you can’t assume that your publisher or manufacturer is going to make sales happen. You have to take responsibility for the success of your product and work with those companies to maximize the PR that you get. One of the best things that I did early on was to hand-write a short letter to people I met at conventions. I would recap our conversation and tell them how much I enjoyed meeting them, etc. People get so few hand-written letters anymore that they made an impact. Being aggressive means putting the time in to follow up with every lead you get. Many – maybe even most – will go no where, but occasionally you will get a “hit” and that is what starts a career.
What is the most rewarding aspect of what you do?
Getting an email, or meeting in person, people who have read my book and/or column and felt encouraged by them to get moving with their own creativity is an awesome gift. Knowing that you are making a difference is the best reward I know.
The most frustrating?
I find it very frustrating when people do not value or respect art. Sadly, most freelance designers make little money. (There are exceptions, so hang in there!) It is even more frustrating to see the copyright infringement that goes on online!
What has been your biggest struggle(s)/challenge(s) with your creative career?
My biggest struggle is dealing with both the business and art side of work. I spend as much or more time on dealing with paperwork, accounting, and PR than I do on my art. My solution to this has been to hire a virtual assistant (we work together online and she is an independent contractor.), an accountant, a literary agent, etc. Although it was scary at first to pay the money out (or share my percentage), I am actually making more money now that I have more time to do what I do best, and let others do what they do best as they can do it faster and more efficiently. It also takes an emotional burden off my shoulders, and that helps me be more creative and productive!
What kind of work environment do you have?
I have a home studio for my design work. I like to write in bed using my laptop, with lots of pillows behind me, and dogs and cats strewn about all over my reference books and papers.
Have you encountered any financial obstacles, and if so, how did you overcome them?
There is no way I would be doing what I am doing without the financial support of my husband. I went “full time” as an artist in May of 2000. This year will be the first that I make a profit.
What is your definition of success?
An experience is a success if I learn from it. I believe that successful people are those who make a difference with their lives.
Who or what are your inspirations?
I believe that success is like a path. Every person down it tramples down the foliage a bit making it easier for the next person to walk down it. I am inspired by the stories of Tracy Porter, SARK, Mary Engelbreit, Queen Oprah. I am also inspired by my mother, Marie Gemmil, who is the most generous person I’ve ever met, and my sister, Tonya Mills, who has followed in my mother’s footsteps. Priscilla Hauser (“First Lady of Decorative Painting”) has been my creative mentor since I entered the painting industry and is one of the most incredible women I’ve ever been blessed to meet.
Favorite books: The Artist’s Way (Julia Cameron), The Four Agreements (Don Miguel Ruiz), How Much Joy Can You Stand (Suzanne Falter-Barnes), 12 Secrets of Highly Creative Women (Gail McMeekin) . . . I could go on and on. I love to read!
Words of advice for those pursuing their creative goals.
I hate to sound like a broken record, but . . . “Fortune Favors the Bold!” If you ask for something and the reply is “no” you aren’t any worse off than you are right now without it. There is no reason not to get started.
Make a difference every day. The best way to survives the inevitable creative slumps is to do something that makes a difference to others. One of my projects was to start a memory box program to provide boxes to for infant bereavement in hospitals. I learned that many hospitals don’t even have a counselor on staff and women were being sent home with their babies effects in a bio-hazard bag! I believe that the best way to repay what your creativity gives to you is to turn around and use it to benefit someone else. I also believe that people who are using their creativity are among the most generous on the planet. We started in 1998 and to date we have provided over 30,000 boxes – free of charge – to hospitals.
My father used to tell a story when people would talk to him about wanting to go to law school. I’m sure it is an old story with lots of variations, but this was his. “A woman wanted to learn piano but after her first lesson she was very frustrated. She told her instructor, “do you know how old I will be when I finally master this?” The response was “the same age you will be if you don’t.” You are never too old, too young, or too anything to follow your dream. Tenacity and passion are generally far more important than talent and skill. How many brilliant people do you know that are working menial jobs? How many successful people do you know that you wonder how they ever got where they are? Put your intention out there, follow up, and keep at it.
Finally, don’t get stuck in a rut. If you are doing it right, you are going to learn along the way. You may find that what you initially wanted isn’t what you thought it was once you learn more. Give yourself permission to be flexible and alter your dream as you go. Every experience will help you in the future if you learn from it. When I started, I thought I wanted to be a painter. Today I know that painting and design is just one of my skills. I think of myself more as a communicator through speaking, writing, and painting. If I had held myself rigidly to being a painter, I wouldn’t have been any happier than I was as an attorney in the long run.