The Story Behind Shelby Leigh Designs


Life Crisis

​In November of 2016, I had a complete meltdown about what I was going to do with my life. I was 21 years old going to school at William Carey University, playing on the women's soccer team, and studying biology. I was at a place where I hated what I was learning and had absolutely no interest in it. My whole college career I had always put my education on the back-burner. I made good grades, but I was never invested in what I was learning, because I was 100% invested in soccer. I was approaching my last year playing collegiate soccer when it finally hit me: "I can't play soccer forever." I realized in that moment that I had to figure out what in the world I was going to do with my life.

I started trying to think of jobs that I might enjoy doing. I realized that I didn't enjoy doing much besides playing soccer, but I didn't really want to be a coach. I was studying biology, but I didn't want to do anything related to biology. The only other thing that I thought I might enjoy doing was interior design. They didn't have that major at William Carey, and I didn't want to transfer schools, because I was about to start my senior season of soccer. Unsure of what to do next, I went and talked to an awesome adviser, Mr. Bonner, and he showed me some classes that I could take that would transfer and go to towards a degree in interior design. After that, my plan was to take all the classes I could, finish soccer, and then transfer to a school that had interior design.

My Start as an Artist

I started my first art classes that next trimester. I hadn't had an art class since I was in 6th grade. I loved to draw when I was younger, but as I got older, I began to think I couldn't draw as well as my friends, got self-conscious and basically just stopped all together. I was super nervous going into these classes, but I couldn't have found a better art department to walk into. All the professors were warm and inviting, they didn't focus of the skill of drawing, but rather on teaching what art is. Not long after my first class, I was completely invested in the art program at William Carey, and I had no plans to transfer to get my degree in interior design. I was going to get my Bachelors of Fine Art from William Carey.

An Idea

In May of 2017, I participated in my first art show at William Carey. I had a painting and a print I knew I wanted to show, but I had another idea. I wanted to make a couple of pillows to show. I ran this idea by my professors, and they were so skeptical. They told me to make them and bring them in, but if they weren't up to par, they were not going to let me put them in the show. I just went for it. I brought some fabric and some acrylic paint, got out my mom's sewing machine (I had no idea how to sew) and got to work. It took me all day to make 2 pillows, but I got them done, and they looked pretty cute! My professors agreed to let me show them in the art show as "soft sculpture." There was something about creating on media other than paper or canvas. Designing of fabric was something that I personally resonated with. It was familiar to me, unlike paper or canvas, because fabric is something used to decorate, and I have always been interested in decorating (hence why I want to be an interior designer).

Fast forward to September 2017, I was in a design class, and we got to design our own problem for the last part of the trimester. I was explaining my idea to my professor. I wanted to design pillows, but I wanted the design to be a part of the pillow, so that it would be soft and comfortable. The pillows I made for the art show in May were cute, but they weren't practical or comfortable. The acrylic paint on the fabric made it stiff and the color would eventually fade.

(A photo from my very first art show and my first pillow I ever made!)

Designing Textiles

My professor, Mrs. Kemp, had taken one fabric dyeing class when she was getting her masters. She introduced me to Shibori, which is a Japanese technique for dyeing fabric and more specifically for Kimonos. It involves binding the fabric to create beautiful patterns. We called a company who sells fabric dyes and figured out what I needed to get started. My professor showed me what she remembered, but the rest was up to me to do my own research an experimenting. I probably dyed about 200 fabric samples in 2 weeks using a variety or Shibori techniques. I even experimented with painting with the dye. I was in love. The whole process was so interesting to me, and I was honestly consumed by it. This was something I knew that I would continue to do, and I wanted to turn it into a career and turns out, there are people who have done it!

My friend Haylee showed me this Brooklyn-based textile designer name Rebecca Atwood on Instagram. She owns her own business, where she hand-dyes her own fabric using Shibori techniques and also has her watercolor designs digitally printed. She makes pillows, napkins, wallpaper, bedding and more. I also met a man named Adam Trest, who lives in Laurel and runs a successful business. He gets his original paintings digitally printed on pillows, totes, coffee mugs, etc. He helped me source where to get my designs printed on fabric. Both of these individuals have been people that I look up and have inspired me to start my own business.

From about October 2017 to March 2018, I made pillows, napkins, accessory bags, and scarves by hand-dyeing fabric and sending in digitally printed original designs.

(Some of the first pieces I ever dyed!)

My Own Artistic Voice

At about the same time that I was loving the dyeing, I was hating the painting. I would pick up a brush and immediately become frustrated. I didn't know what I wanted to make or how I wanted to make it, and I was just stuck.

One day, I got out a sheet of watercolor paper, watercolor paint, ink, colored pencils, sharpies, oil pastels, pens, and more, and I literally just scribbled and let out all my frustrations. I started with the watercolor and would work my way using all the different media. The drawings I made were pretty ugly. I brought them to class, and my professor at this point could literally see my frustration being taken out on these drawings. She went up to them with a sheet of white paper and covered up the parts of them, and what was left showing would actually be an pretty good drawing. Then she would say, "You don't need all that extra stuff, it's taking away from the beautiful things that happening in these drawings." She also pointed out how me I layered the drawing using the different media, instead of just one media. Doing that turned my drawings into this step-by-step process, which really wasn't all that different from the step-by-step process I used to dye fabric.

Suddenly everything was starting to make sense to me, the reason I wasn't getting frustrated with dyeing fabric was because I set my own rules and had my own unique process. When it came to painting, I thought I had to do the process that everyone around me was doing, which was one media layered and layered.

I realized that I didn't have to create painting or drawings in the same way everyone else does, I get to do it in my own way. If I like to scribble and use 10 different mediums, then I can. The next paintings I made were like the ones I brought to class that day minus the frustration, and they were much like the ones I create now. I finally understood what it meant to have my own style, problem area, and artistic voice.

(Final painting critique my senior year!)

It's Just the Beginning

With everything seeming to fall into place, I was ready to start chasing my dream and start my own business where I would see both my paintings and textile designs. I participated in my first ever art show in March of 2018 as Shelby Leigh Designs.

(Photo from my first art walk in downtown Hattiesburg)

With the one year anniversary from the launch of my business, I can't help but just reflect on how I got to where I am now. I've had so many people pour into me and help me along the way from advisers to teachers to parents to my friends to my fiance to so many others. I know that God had his hand in all of these from the beginning, because there is no way it could have turned out how it did without Him. So much has changed in a year, and I can't wait to see what's next for Shelby Leigh Designs on year 2!

Thanks for reading!

Shelby Leigh


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© 2018 by Shelby Leigh Designs

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All paintings are original works by Shelby Leigh Kizer

Mississippi Watercolor Artist 

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