The notion that we can do whatever we want in life — and that it’s never too late to get started — has never proven more true than when you meet someone like Xima Lee Hulings. Born and raised in Atlanta, GA, Xima attended Vanderbilt University, where she studied mostly fine arts, and she received her master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University before embarking on a successful career in architecture design that spanned more than 20 years. When she felt a sort of imbalance, however, she cashed in all of her hard-earned career chips and embarked on a brand new path. At her husband, Willis’s, urging, Xima signed up for some classes at the School for the Museum of Fine Art (SMFA) in Boston and thus began her second career in the arts.
Today, Xima’s work can be found on Walking Papers Studio, her thriving venture that allows her to pursue both artistic and financial fulfillment as she sells her work both direct to consumers and to retailers nationwide. She’s also had her work featured in exhibitions throughout the United States. Rewarded for her willingness to take a leap, Xima is enjoying a second round of success and we’re thrilled to introduce you to her as today’s FACE of the South!
Making the leap from architecture to fine art couldn’t have been easy. How do you keep the fear of the unknown from holding you back?
Being willing to embrace the mistakes that occur as part of the forward motion has been a real life lesson lately. I have a cute cousin who reminds me that ideas are generally not the problem — it’s the follow-through that gets us. We’re all scared; we’re all in a constant state of “Should I? Could I?” and all of that. And I tell you: I really have come to feel that my most redeeming attribute is that I’m a doer. So these poor hands of mine haven’t been properly manicured in quite some time and it’s just because they’re always into stuff. I’m always trailing around with extra little bits of this and that to put together in new ways — and it’s the accidents, I think, that prove to be the most interesting and fun of all of it.
What are you working on now?
Since I shifted from being focused on architectural design work to being an artist full-time, I’ve only in the past three years, I’d say, found a place in the market for a part of what I do. So I have two series of work that I’m focused on. Both are painting-based and one of them is focused on this wonderful, quirky, vintage photographer that I happened to discover when I was in Boston. I found a book of his — his name is Mike Disfarmer — and the imagery from his old photographs found their way into a lot of my thinking. So he became kind of a muse and I was just off and running and it remains interesting and constant.
But along the way, I participated in a wonderful non-profit platform that helped to raise money to support a part of the homeless community in North Carolina and my way of helping was to paint these animals from the farm. And in the midst of all this, our family made a big move from Boston to San Francisco. I closed my studio in Boston to move there and was no longer focused on the animals but I started to get phone calls from people saying, “I went by your studio and you’re not there. Do you have any more pigs?” So I ended up spinning out the animal inventory and ended up calling it Walking Papers Studio.
For many artists, there is a difficulty in finding balance between creativity and commerce. How have you managed?
Well, Walking Papers Studio is the name of the entrepreneurial endeavor that’s based on my artwork. I take those animal images that I’ve painted and I apply them to different home décor items and sell them at wholesale markets. So now, what started in an organic way has become, for me, a fairly thriving endeavor. I go to the wholesale market and retailers around the country place orders. It’s interesting when you think about all the different shifts that we take at different times and I somehow didn’t see this kind of thing coming. But it’s been so fun to begin to think about how to be creative in business.
What has been your biggest challenge in merging your creative and business sides?
The hardest thing is time management, period. Being my own boss means that I have to really be disciplined about when I do things. For me, this business, in my mind, is only successful if I treat my customers the way I’d like to be treated. So if somebody calls me or has a question, I want to be able to respond. And it’s a difficult thing, as a creative person, to be on a creative path and have to interrupt it to manage that. So how do I design my day to allow for the important creative work, while still managing my customers? And that has proven to be a challenge but the interesting thing is that it’s almost been as much fun to think about how to make that balance as it has been challenging.
What advice do you have for a reader who is on the cusp of a major change in life or business and wondering whether she should make the leap?
I used to belong to a network of artists in Boston — we all participated in this program presented by the Arts and Business Council and it encouraged networking. Naively, I used to feel very uncomfortable asking for help. And there was a point at which, in the context of networking for this artist group, that somebody said to me, “No, no, no; you’ve got it wrong. Networking isn’t about asking for help. It’s about giving help and, along the way, accepting it from others.” And that made it a lot more palatable to go out and say to my group of artist friends, something as simple as, “How do you process credit cards in your studio?”
I would suggest that most people are far and away more interested in your success than they are in your failure, so I would suggest being willing to share and open up to others. I’ve been so pleasantly surprised by how willing people are to contribute to your success. And by virtue of that, you should be as willing to contribute to others and to say, “Gosh, I’ve had that problem.”
You travel so much — from Boston, to Atlanta, to New York, to Nashville, TN. How does that affect your creative process? Is there a place where you find it easier to work than others?
Being on the go has become my default. I don’t know how we got into it but I love change — of course, there is a tipping point, though. But I do love change. I think, for me, I’ve gotten so used to working on the fly that it’s almost my preferred method. I know that sounds crazy but I’ve always got my sketchbook; I’ve always got my certain pens and papers. I’m not a shopper by nature but I can do an art supply store — oh my gosh!
Speaking of shopping, what three items can you not live without, aside from faith, family and friends?
I love anything from this store called Muji and they have the best pens. I always have a couple with me. And I have a particular sketchbook I love; it’s German and it’s called a Leuchtturm1917. They come in all these different forms but I always have one of those. And the third thing would be walking shoes. I’m training for the marathon right now and it will be a walk/run — probably more heavy on the walk — so, these days, they go everywhere with me, too.
Thank you to Xima for sharing a peek into her world. And thank you to Leila Grossman of Grannis Photography for today’s beautiful photographs.
Meet more inspiring women in our FACES of the South series. Click here to get started!