We had the good fortune of connecting with Jennifer McKay Higgins and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Jennifer, have there been any changes in how you think about work-life balance?
At the beginning of my career 20 years ago, I was a new mom and I was painting custom murals and faux finishes in private residences. I was often permitted to bring my daughter with me until she was a toddler, at which point I had to take her to day care while I painted for often 7-8 hours a day. I was a completely solo parent. As she got older it became harder to find after school care, so I tailored my work day to her school day and tried starting an Etsy store in 2010 to supplement. At the time I had all fine wall art and some photography for sale; I kept the store there despite basically non-existant sales. When my daughter was 11 she began experiencing pain in both knees, and over the next few years other symptoms developed, and the pain never stopped. I found my work hours becoming more limited due to increasing numbers of doctor appointments. Four or five hours a day became my average. Then when she was 15 she was finally diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome and Fibromyalgia. As the years went on I kept painting houses and fine art when I could, around doctor appointments and treatments, chasing any kind of pain and symptom relief we heard about. About four years ago I learned how to make floorcloths, and began adding them to my Etsy store. My parents helped me set up at a historical show once or twice a year, and I found my sales were pretty good. And it was really fun to be out and participating in living history more often. Decorative house painting began going out of style with the gray trend, so I kept making them. My daughter’s condition continued to get much worse, and we found ourselves needing to relocate for new medical options in 2018. After that move my daytime became devoted to doctor appointments all week. I transitioned my business to all floorcloths, which I painted at night and weekends. I found every show I could, and discovered modern shows were fun too; I enjoy educating a new market about their history and use. My online store has continued to see an increase in sales, and at the moment I have a nice list of custom orders to fill. While I don’t like how I ended up working at home, I feel very fortunate to have what we need- a schedule in which I can be a caregiver and still be employed doing something I love to do.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I’d say I am a unique painter because of the variety of subjects and patterns I have learned to paint, and the surfaces they are on. While I am currently mainly painting on canvas, my career began with wall murals and faux finishes, stripes and diamonds in entire rooms. I once painted a landscape on a train box outside. My specialty is trompe l’oeil, which I don’t get to use as often on floorcloths, but I do still incorporate the technique on occasion. I still paint everything from marble checkerboards to rolling block patterns, animals, and flowers. The transition worked well from walls, and is more enjoyable on a smaller scale. I was painting up on a ladders all the time in the beginning, which made me nervous most days at work. One of the most difficult was a landscape up an extension ladder and onto two levels of scaffolding. That and a mural of a ’57 Chevy up on a 10 foot ladder onto cinder block. As I got older I stopped working on ladders higher than 6 feet, it just wasn’t worth the risk anymore. I don’t miss the ladders. I am also a bit different considering the living history aspect of several of the shows I have began to participate in over the last few years. Those are my favorite now, but the challenge was acquiring all the 18th century period correct set up required, and how to get it there. I have been very fortunate to have help from family with all of it, from the colonial clothing to the tent. My shop name at both modern and historical shows is Chadds Ford Canvas, which references the historic area of Pennsylvania I grew up in. This journey has been rather difficult, but worth it, and I hope that people can understand and respect that it was not just handed to me. I work really hard to please my clients, and I still am a caregiver for my daughter with her medical condition while I fill orders and try to paint masterpieces. I hope people enjoy both historical and modern designs of my current work on floorcloths, and I look to a future where I can paint trompe l’eoil murals again on canvas.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
This area has a lot of great historical places to visit, and wineries. I’d definitely plan a visit to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello for an afternoon, and be sure to visit James Madison’s Montpelier too. The best wineries I’ve been to so far were Barboursville Vineyards and Mount Ida Winery. I also really enjoy Albemarle Ciderworks, and have had the pleasure of setting up my floorcloth booth at their fall festival. My favorite restaurant is Al Carbon, a Peruvian place where we’d have to get the chicken, yucca fries, and spicy corn with cheese. And a Rum Chata to wash it down. A little side trip over to Maymont in Richmond would be fun too, I’ve been wanting to take a carriage ride around the Victorian property. If the butterfly room is open at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in that area, that would be a must as well.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I would like to dedicate my shoutout to my mom and daughter, who are both named Pam. They have both encouraged me in different ways to keep trying, and have been there to tell me I’m doing a good job when I am not sure that I am. They are also really good at giving constructive criticism of my paintings. My significant other, Chris, also deserves a lot of credit with his support and the space he has given me to redevelop my business. I would also like to recognize my mentor in floorcloth making, Jennifer Frantz of Americana Floorcloths. Her work is an inspiration; she works in sizes I still cannot fathom.
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