By Susan K. Elliott
With no formal art training to back her up, artist Teresa Thibault is amazed at where her art has taken her: everywhere from the White House to Rockefeller Center in New York City. As owner of Heart Gifts by Teresa in Kannapolis, N.C., she directs an art studio that observers compare to an old-fashioned quilting bee. Instead of quilts, her team of 10 to 30 artists works together to create hand-glittered ornaments.
Thibault’s art career started in greeting cards when her children were small and she needed to make a living. “I’ve always drawn and been naturally artistic,” she says. “In college, I did signs for businesses.”
She began designing ornaments in 1992 when she couldn’t find what she wanted to buy. Her line now includes some 400 different designs plus another 300 custom subjects. Thibault draws the original designs and picks out colors.
“Made in America” defines each element of Heart Gift ornaments from the glass ball to glitter and gift boxes. Each one sells for $20 to $35 each in editions ranging from a few hundred to thousands.
Business manager Tama Southard describes the close-knit atmosphere created by Teresa. “There are few bosses you can call your friend. She is a warm and caring person who loves the Lord and shows that in everything she does. She has a big heart and cares so much about her family and friends,” says Southard.
“She is a businesswoman who wants to touch people’s lives with her love for the Lord through her ornament designs, and she does just that. I get numerous calls from people all over the country with stories of struggle or loss in their lives just to share and thank her for the inspiration and comfort that her ornaments bring to their lives and those they give them to.”
Teresa is “not about the recognition and doesn’t really like to be in the limelight,” says Southard. “She loves what she does and loves that she can share and bless those around her. She’s a gem.”
In a recent interview, Teresa described her working style.
“We just did a design for the Cherry Blossom Festival for the Smithsonian and sent a sample to them yesterday. We’re also doing custom work for Niagara Falls, Busch Gardens, and Sea World right now.
“We moved into custom work in 2008 when the economy was weak. We’d had many requests before, so we decided to give it a try. Now, we have done work for Billy Graham, the Space Shuttle, Donald Trump, Dollywood, Gaylord Hotels, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Rockefeller Center.”
“We have a technique that puts a pen-and-ink image on an ornament and then it is hand-glittered. First, we paint with glue and then hand glitter each section. We let it dry and then add up to 15 colors, or it may be just decorated with white glitter. Our ornaments are American frosted glass, which creates a matte white ornament.
“I started Heart Gifts at my kitchen table and then it grew. People would come see me in my house and I liked that feeling. When we needed more space we found an old mill house built in the 1920s. It has a picket fence and a big front porch. We paint in the whole house and my office is there.
“We built a breezeway and a have a warehouse behind the house. We also have three other buildings on the property. There are lots of big trees surrounding the building.
“We have an in-house cat, Mr. Whiskers. My Labrador died last year so I’m getting a new puppy. When we interview, we ask if people are comfortable around pets.
“People say our atmosphere is like an old quilting bee. I tried to divide [our employees] up once, but they didn’t like it. Everybody likes to sit and talk as they work. They have their own stations. I’m usually with them. That’s the best part of my job.
“I work at an old schoolhouse desk, but we built a custom table with cubbies for the girls. Our artists range in age from 16 to 75. We work from 10 to 6 every day, Monday through Friday, 365 days a year (except for weekends) to keep up with orders.
“I don’t ever think of this as a factory. It’s a studio. Each artist can tell their own ornaments because they can identify their technique. Factory is a bad word to us.”
“My husband is an engineer and a numbers guy, so [following his advice] we just make what we sell; we don’t try to guess how many to make. I don’t want to try to sell something that’s left over.”
“I love the creative side of my job. I never know who’s going to call and what we’re going to create. Our most challenging project was the Congressional Medal of Honor ornament. We’ll never do anything that will be that special again. I was invited to the White House and got to go to where they were presented to the honorees in Tampa, Fla., about three years ago.”
“On the personal side, it’s being a grandma to three grandchildren, ages six, five, and three. They all live in our town, so I get to see them all the time. They get to come to the studio and make ornaments.”
“I don’t even know how to top this year. This has been the best year I’ve ever had. I never dreamed I’d be in Saks Fifth Avenue. Are you kidding me? I don’t know how it could get any better. That’s stunning to me, with the economy as it is now.”