Talking with Tera Leigh

Memory Box Project

Interview with Tera Leigh by Kara L.C. Jones

Q: Can you tell us what the Memory Box Project is and how/why you started it?

Tera: The program acts as a facilitator between volunteer artists and hospitals. Specifically, we provide boxes for hospitals to give in the neo-natal unit to the families who lose their children through
stillbirth, SIDS, congenital birth defects, etc. while in the hospital so that the mother does not go home empty handed.

We learned, at the time we started the program in June of 1998, that only about 20% of the hospitals in the US had any kind of bereavement counseling. The families were being sent home with their child's belongings (clothing, handprint, footprint, lock of hair, birth and death certificate, etc.) in a trash bag. The hospitals did not have funding to get anything better to give the families.

In early 1998, a woman wrote to a mailing list I moderated about a one-time program her painting chapter had done for a local hospital. I did some research and saw the need for something bigger. I came to my mom and asked her if she would help me contact hospitals and develop a program that would enable us to take the program throughout the US and Canada. Of course, today the program is around the world. People came to us and asked, and they keep the ball rolling.

I have a fundamental belief that people are good and want to help, but most of us just do not know what to do. That is why when you hear a story on the news about a food bank being robbed, or a family's Christmas gifts being taken, people flood them with gifts. When you tell people what they can do to make a difference, they want to do it. The truly amazing thing about the program is how many people it takes to keep it going - and it does keep going.

I also believe that it is important that we use our gifts to help others. I get so much joy from my creativity; I feel it is my duty to use my creativity to give back. We started the program with painters,
but it is now expanded to any kind of crafting. We don't want to tell people how to do the boxes (we do provide basic guidelines based upon feedback from hospitals and bereavement counselors.) It is important to me that the artists in the program feel that their boxes are a very personal gift from themselves to the families involved. We want to stay in the background, do the administrative work of tracking boxes and box needs.

To date, with a 100% volunteer effort we have provided over 35,000 boxes to hospitals since June of 1998.


Q: I've seen your boxes, journals, writings, all of which are stunning. Can you say something about where you started? What art form came first?

Tera: Thank you.

I never took art lessons in school that I can remember. I think I was creative, but I didn't have anyone in my life who was an "artist", so I didn't know what that was. My first year of college, I took a theatre
class in which they gave us a 200 page sketchbook and we had six weeks to fill it. You weren't graded on the quality of the art in the book, you just had to have someone on every single page, and the overall assignment was that it communicated about your life. That was probably my first independent creative project. I have continued to do them to this day. (Although I no longer give myself a deadline.)

In terms of an "art form", I guess my first foray into art was being a make up artist. I signed up for a class at "Sunset Gower Studios" (known best as the place the "General Hospital" and "Days of Our Lives" were filmed (separate parts of the lot because they were different networks.) I trained in various types of make up - from monster make up to beauty make up - and graduated as the "Best Make Up Artist" of my term. The course was six-months long. I did it because I thought it would help me
learn about the film industry because I wanted to be an actress at that time in my life. I think I was about 18 or 19 at the time.


Q: Was there a decisive moment when you thought, "I am an artist"?

Tera: Yes. It was about five years ago, I guess. I was running an online mailing list for decorative painters. Many of them really struggled with the concept of being an artist vs. being a crafter and this thread came up from time to time. At one point, I decided to write a message to the list about what I thought an artist was, self-esteem issues, etc. I wanted to encourage them to think of themselves in terms of possibility and not let someone else tell them what they could be.

Having a background as a lawyer, I tend to think of words very literally. An artist is someone who creates art. What art is can is a subject up for interpretation because, like beauty, it is often in the
eye of the beholder. When I had written this message to the list, I reread it and realized that I was talking about me. I am an artist. It was a big moment emotionally for me.


Q: Do you find that you are often pegged as "a writer" or "a box artist" or "a bookmaker" rather than having your experiences in all forms recognized? If so, how do handle that?

Tera: Yes and No. Because of "The Complete Book of Decorative Painting" and that I write continuing columns for several painting magazines, I am most often "typecast" as a painter. I generally refer to myself as "artist and author". However, when someone asks me "what kind of art", I tend to stutter because I never know what to address first!

You tend to be known in certain circles for what you do with that particular group. As a result, some people know me as a bookmaker, many know me because of the Memory Box program, some know me from writing in art magazines, others from writing in painting magazines, etc. From a publicist's position, I am a nightmare because I wear so many create hats!

My new book, "How to be Creative if You Never Thought You Could" is due out next Spring. In it, I take on book making, rubber-stamping, papermaking, mosaics, floral arrangements, painting, metalwork, etc. I hope that it makes people see me more as I see myself - as a creative artist with a lot of potential!

That said, of all the problems I could have . . . That is a pretty small one!


Q: What was it like to publish your book "The Complete Book of Decorative Painting"? Did you have experience publishing before the book? Was the process of publishing like learning another art form for you?

Tera: "Complete Book" was a dream to publish. I worked with an amazing editor and we just "clicked". North Light Books treated me exceptionally well. I worked like a maniac putting the book together, but it was worth every moment. I am very proud of the book and I am so excited that people are discovering painting because of it.

Prior to the book, I had written a column about the internet for PaintWorks magazine. I had never published anything about painting, except on a website I kept at the time called ToleNet. I think I had
been contracted to have a design published, but at the time the contract was signed I had not even had my first design published in a magazine. It was an incredible leap of faith for North Light.

How the book contract came to be was something of a miracle. I had been telling people for quite a while that I thought I could write a good reference book on painting that would fill a gap I thought existed between other books currently available. About that time, a dear friend passed away at age 42 from cancer. I was devastated. She had been encouraging me for quite a while to get to work on my dreams.

About four times a year I do a "goal setting workshop" (the one that I do is actually available on my website free under the workshop link). That was the first time that I admitted to myself that I really wanted to do this book. I guess I should say that in retrospect it is easy to see that I had wanted to be a writer my whole life. No matter what I did - from make up artist to lawyer - I would write book outlines. This was the first time I decided to take the risk of seeing it to fruition.

My husband suggested that we go to the bookstore and check out all the art and craft books. We went to a big chain store and pulled out dozens of books, sat on the floor, and compared merits of photography, layout, content, etc. We left with a list of three publishers. North Light was our first choice.

That week I completed an outline, wrote a query letter, etc. This sounds fantastical, but it is true. I was printing the letter to mail to North Light, and my phone rang. It was an editor from North Light Books. She said that they had been looking for someone to write a reference book on painting and my name had come up. I asked for her fax number and faxed over the outline that day. I had to provide quite a bit of info for them before the final decision was made, but ultimately they signed the
contract. It is the largest book NL has ever published (in terms of number of pages), and a British publisher picked up a contract for a European version. It was an amazing journey.

This is why I tell people that "Fortune Favors the Bold" (a favorite quote from Virgil) and to believe in the possibility of your dreams. I know something about it!

I would not say that publishing was like learning another art form, because truthfully, I don't know much about publishing. I know writing and I know creativity. I know enough to let people who know more than Iabout things like photography, indexing, page layout, etc. do their jobs. I just followed directions in terms of how to provide the manuscript, and what to do in the photography, and let them do their jobs to make me look good!



Q: Your journals are stunning from what I can see on your site. Those are marked at "unpublished" and I'm guessing they are "one-of-a-kind" pieces. But do you help others to make these kinds of works? Can you say a little about what it's like for you to sort of "take stock" or "review" life by journaling in this way?

Tera: Thank you, again. The journals on my site are my actual personal journals. I put them there because a couple of years ago I discovered - much to my astonishment - that there were a whole lot of other people out there doing visual journaling. I honestly had no idea.

In the Tera's Wish newsletter I often talk about journaling, and include a section on journaling prompts. Many workshops and teachers out there do this on a regular basis. I have not yet taught a workshop on art journaling, but I would love to, at some point. When I found out that other people did visual journaling, it was like finding out you had a twin sister you never knew about. My own art journaling has gotten much more visually interesting because of my interaction with others who do

I recently read Frida Kahlo's published journal for the first time. In an essay at the front of the book it says something to the effect that Frida did not journal to chronicle her life, she journaled as a sort of
ongoing negotiation with herself. I love that. It is probably the best statement about the kind of journaling I understand that I have ever read.

I should explain that I work in two journals simultaneously. One is a private written journal that I share with no one. I write in it most nights; sometimes just a couple of lines, sometimes pages, and pages of thoughts.

The art journals are also a reflection of my life but again, not as a chronicle. The certainly reflect the issues, events, and people in my life but they usually do so in a collage of scrapbook-esqe materials
surrounded by writing and art. I use the art journals to try new art ideas and techniques. Sometimes the art is relevant to my life; sometimes it is just about expression. They have no rules, they follow
no standard, they are each unique.

What is important about my journals - is that they are my voice. I am a communicator, and the journals give me a place to think and experiment and learn. If no one else ever sees them, that would be fine. As I said, the written journals are private. I often write things in them that I only mean the moment they are written. Like a mirror, writing reflects myself back to me and I often see that those things are not true. I don't necessarily go back and write my new ideas in the books because it isn't about having an accurate account of my thoughts. It is about having a place to get the thoughts out when I need to. The art journals, however, are open to anyone. In fact, I love it when people contribute
to them. I often glue in art and postcards I get from other artists.



Q: Have you used your art specifically in times of grief/bereavement? If you are comfortable doing so, could you tell us a little about how you feel the process of working with art helped to get your through some of the tough spots?

Tera: I believe that creativity gives us our voice. Whether you write or paint or collage or stamp or make books . . . The media doesn't matter. The communication of our spirit - whether it is pain, joy, or the everyday cacophony of life - is what is important.

I used my journals intensively during the day and weeks following 9/11. Recently I looked through my written journal of that time and something HUGE jumped out at me. Each day, I started with "no new survivors found". It wasn't intentional; it was just what was on my mind. Looking back, there was nothing more "artful" I could have included that would have been a better representation of that time. The desperation of that line communicates a lot.

In the visual journals, I kept an ongoing dialog with the media and myself. Each day I printed and cut out the "bullet point lists" from the CNN website of what happened that day. I also printed many of the photos of Ground Zero, the people involved, etc. After gluing these onto the pages in my journal, I wrote about my own experiences, fears, and pain. At some point, I was ready to let go but I think I kept it up for about ten days. I did pages for the three month and six month anniversaries of 9/11 as well.

My grandmother passed away in October. I created a page with a rose from her gravesite and the funeral bulletin. I did not want to write about my feelings at that time in my art journal, so instead I painted a beautiful page in pinks and reds - her favorite colors. It was an art tribute to her memory. I didn't want those things to just be tucked in a drawer and lost forever. In my private journal, I wrote about my feelings where I did not feel like I would have to censor what I wrote.

Many of the women who are participants in the memory box program have lost children. They tell me that they create the boxes so that the women who receive them will know there is someone who understands; that they are not alone. Although my husband and I have not been able to conceive
- or perhaps because of it - I believe know how I would feel if we finally did get pregnant and then lost the child. I don't have the bravery to be a paramedic, or the skill to be a doctor, but I can help these women in a small way through my art. It gives me my voice, and lets me reach out to them even though I will probably never meet them.



Q: We've found from our Kota-work that if we just give and share our work, the ideas shared will take on a life of their own and people will create amazing things for themselves. I wonder if you could tell me a bit about Tera's Wish which seems to be founded on that philosophy? Or am I not quite getting it there?

Tera: I wrote the initial articles that became "Tera's Wish" at a horrible moment in my life. I had been attacked by a group of people online and accused of some ugly things. None of it was true - and I knew that - but some people love gossip and suddenly this small thing became a very big thing. I made a decision that my life had to stand for itself. You can say anything, what counts is what you do. Either people would look at my life and know that what was being said was not true, or they would choose to believe the lies. Either way, it wasn't going to do me any good to add fuel to the fire by responding.

During that time, I decided that I needed to get very clear on what I believed about integrity, being an artist, sharing, etc. When we came through the storm, and happily found that the majority of people did not believe the lies, I took those articles and started the website. For several years, I wrote a monthly newsletter. Today, I write it quarterly. It is about encouraging people to find their passion and live it. It is about helping people to be kinder to themselves.

You can't control what other people do. Nor can you control everything that happens to you. What you can control is your response to it. I chose to respond by creating a written "manifesto" of sorts about creativity and the good in people.

Looking back, of course, I understand that I was always writing it for me. In As the newsletter progressed, I was writing to clarify my own position for myself so that I would have the courage to quit my job, and make a go of being a full-time artist. Most of the articles I write now are in response to mail from the site. If several people write me about a problem they are experiencing, I figure it is worth addressing in the newsletter, and ultimately on the site. I hope that people come away from the site feeling encouraged, with a new way to look at their life. Chances are they aren't going to agree with everything I write. Heck, I no longer agree with everything on the site! The idea is to create a place where people can explore their notions about themselves and creativity and make their own choices.

I have written on the website that my personal metaphor for the site is that of a lighthouse. I don't want to lead, I just want to help guide others on their own journey; make their passage a bit safer and easier.



Q: Your articles are really inspiring! In particular, I really identified with the "You don't need Yoda!" Could you share with our readers your thoughts about how "the Force is with us"??

Tera: Thank you very much. (I'm beginning to feel like Elvis!)

I believe that God gives us everything we need the moment we are conceived. It is already inside of us, powered down and quiet, but there. Our society teaches us; be quiet, don't make noise, be a lady, "shhhh", don't be demanding, who do you think you are??? Eventually, society doesn't even have to say it. We tell ourselves or our "inner critic" does it for us.

Well, who DO you think you are? You are God's creation. Do you really think he created you to be a mouse when he gave you so much talent andenergy and ability and potential?

The many people out there who are living lives of "quiet desperation" have become so skilled at telling themselves to "shhhh" that they have almost forgotten the voice at the back of their mind that says "Make NOISE", "Be all you can be", "You are needed", "You are wanted", "You can do anything". That force helped you see your bed as a stage and a hairbrush a mike. That force that got you through the horrible night when your darkest fear came true, yet you keep living. The force is there, it is just waiting foryou to flip the power switch to "on".

I believe that the voice that is purist in us is the one from our childhood when we believed at EVERYTHING was possible. Unleash your limitless creative powers and watch what springs forth from you. Unleash yourself from what other people told you in the past, and ask yourself what you really believe. God put you here to touch others and heal them with your love. He put you here to create magic and beauty. He gave you everything you need and to gain access to your own personal "force" you need only have faith in yourself and God and then go out and get started.

Now, just because you have finally remembered that the "force" is in you doesn't mean that Michelangelo will spring out of you whole. You are going to be a bit creaky, rusty, and need a bit of work. However, individuals can create miracles, changes lives, and change history. They never do it, however, believing that they are small and powerless.


Q: Somewhere along the line, you must have learned the business of your art, too, because you have so much going and "all your ducks seem to be in a row." How did you learn the business of your art? What was most surprising about the business side of it?

Tera: I took a circular journey by starting as a make up artist, ending up an attorney, and then coming back around to being an artist again. I don't believe that anything happens by chance. Becoming an attorney gave me unique knowledge about contracts, intellectual property, copyright, etc. I also know what skills I do not possess. My biggest business limitation is math. I need to use my toes to count past ten. For that reason, I know that I have to use an accountant.

For me, the business side of art is separate from my "art". I do them at separate times and approach them uniquely. It can be hard for an artist in business because our "product" is very personal. You have to separate yourself from that. I am blessed to have a tremendously supportive husband who has an excellent business mind. He has pushed me into trying things in business I would have resisted because I was nervous at appearing "pushy". He reminds me "business is business".

In terms of learning, I ask questions of people who are doing what I want to do. Very rarely has the person declined to answer. Most successful people are generous with their knowledge.

As far as what is most surprising, I guess what surprises me is when people do not value my work. When that happens, I hit the door. There are enough people out there willing to pay that I do not waste my time with anyone that wants to nickel and dime me. (I guess I should make the distinction between people who do not value vs. people who do not like your work. Not everyone is going to like your work aesthetically. When I refer to value, I mean people who want to own your work, they just want to pay you 1/10th what they should.) You have to believe in the value of your art or there will be those who will take advantage of you.


Q: I know you firmly believe in sharing, sharing, sharing. I'm wondering about times when you must have been given something in return that surprised you. Was there ever a time when in the process of sharing, you discovered or were given something that surprised or shocked you?

Tera: I hope this doesn't sound hokey, because I mean it sincerely. I am surprised every single time anyone acknowledges my work. I work alone in a studio in my house. My main connection to the outside world is through the internet, at conventions, and an occasional book signing. I get used
to being alone and sometimes forget how many people own my book, or one of my products, etc. That probably sounds strange, but my world is pretty small! I never cease to be amazed at the generosity of the human spirit and I treasure every letter, email, and gift I have ever received.


Q: I know your mom works with you on the Memory Box Project. That must be an awesome endeavor to share in your relationship. How did that come about and what it is like to work together?

Tera: My mom, Marie Gemmil, is the most amazing person I know. She has a generosity of spirit that absolutely glows from her. When we decided to do the program, she was the first person I told about it. She immediately volunteered to help. Frankly, if I'd let her, she'd be doing ten other things for the project as well. I am the brain and brawn behind the program, but she is its heart and soul. She puts an immense amount of time into the program on a daily basis. Without her, there
would be no program.

Our family has always been close. My sister, Tonya, is also involved in the program. I can remember many situations from my childhood in which my mom set the example for sharing. My father was an attorney, and his office would put together "Christmas Stockings" with food and warm clothes, etc. for some of his clients that were suffering financially. The office would get a "letter from Santa" and adopt a family for the holidays. My mom has been active in a charity group called "Child Guidance" for many years. She paints items for their yearly auction. The proceeds go to fund a medical facility for children. My sister is also a very generous person.

I think my mom set an example with the way she lived her life. I can't remember her ever telling me I needed to do things for other people. I just watched her live a life in service to others, and as a result, I wanted to live my own life in that way.



Q: I've seen your drawing of your cat Sinatra in several places. Does that drawing act as a logo for you? Can you tell us about Sinatra -- he seems to have truly inspired you!?

Tera: My mom is allergic to cats, and I love them. When I moved out of my parent's home when I was 21, I adopted six cats! Sinatra was among them. He just passed away last November. My husband and I held him in our arms as he died.

The drawing of Sinatra is not really a logo for me, but I do try to include it in all of my illustrations. I did one design of flowers in a large vase, and if you look carefully, you can see that one of the
flowers is in that shape. It has become something of a challenge!

That said, I think the drawing of Sinatra is a way to include my pets in my work. We now have two cats (the last remaining of the original six), and two dogs. Having not been raised around animals, as an adult I am delighted by the joy that they bring to our lives. I consider it a privilege to have animals living with me, and I work very hard to make sure they have the best life I can possibly give them. Probably because I didn't have them around my whole life, I am consistently amazed by their intelligence, sense of humor, and joy of living.

As an artist, a whole new world has opened up for me through my dogs. We go for walks, and we go to dog parks on occasion. (A dog park is an "off leash" area for dogs. When we lived in Northern California, we went to one in Richmond and on the weekend, it was not uncommon to see hundreds
of dogs there!) We will be walking along and Keeley, our Lab-"ish", will stop and become complete fascinated with a rock, a flower, or some dumb thing. When I really focus, I find that she has found a lizard or some other "thing" that I would have missed without her. Our other dog, Bandit, lives for playing catch. The muscles in her shoulders are huge from running and jumping. I can spend hours trying to sketch her as she runs, catches, flips, and dives. She is amazing.

Our cats are just the coolest. Bailey is a Himalayan and thinks she is the Queen of the Planet. She could just be the poster child for cats. She has a skill for finding sunlight. I will come upstairs from my studio to get a drink and find her laying in the one pool of sunlight in the living room. I have to stop and pay attention to how the light plays off just the tips of her fur - making it glow.

I think Precious, the other cat - who also happens to be Sinatra's biological sister - knows I am writing about them because she just came up and is demanding attention. All our pets are spayed (all girls at present), and were obtained from Animal Rescue groups.

By the way, my niece recently came to live with my parents - and brought her cat. My mom is still allergic, but she has learned to love cats. She calls my dogs her "grandpuppies", and lets them come visit if my husband and I have to be out of town at the same time.


Q: Is there anything you want to do that you haven't tried yet?

Tera: Oh my gosh, yes! Frankly, the list is so long I wouldn't know where to start telling you about it. I am curious about everything!


Q: What do you see for yourself, for Tera's Wish, for the Memory Box Project in 5 years? 10? 20?

Tera: Personally, I hope to continue to be a wife, and I hope someday a mother. My husband and I are currently looking into adoption opportunities.

As far as the Memory Box Program, we hope to go non-profit this year. After that, I hope we can get funding, expand the program, and perhaps bring on a qualified administrator to help grow the program.

I intend to keep writing for Tera's Wish for the near future.

Professionally, I am expanding my artwork into licensing. I am also looking to bring on a business partner in the next 24 months. Look for more books, more products, and more fun!


Q: If someone is just starting out, just discovering their artistic desires, what would you tell them?

Tera: Listen to yourself. Trust yourself. Let yourself be a beginner. Treat yourself as you would treat your child if they were learning something new. Believe.

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