Back doing what she loves
Pittman designing through her store in Ridgeland
A school teacher with no formal art background, Jackson native Gail Pittman began painting at her kitchen table nearly three decades ago. She later found herself running a large manufacturing operation and traveling nationwide as a major product salesperson for Southern Living. Now she has returned to her true love of designing through her new store, Gail Pittman Designs, which opened in Ridgeland in June 2010. Pittman is married to her husband John and has two children.
Q — How did your business begin?
A — I started at my kitchen table about 30 years ago. I mark that as the beginning of my career and that was a career that happened by accident.
My background was in elementary education. I was a school teacher for several years, and then I had two children. Thirty kids got the very best I had to offer every day, and I would come home and there was nothing left. It’s a tough job. And so my husband, John, and I decided that we would give up the extras we already didn’t have so I could stay at home. And then finding that I had no outlet for my creativity, and finding that I needed one – I saw a bowl one day in a store called John Simmons. I had no art background at all, but the bowl really made me think. It was a really big, pretty bowl and I thought, “That bowl – you could decorate with it, or you could use it to entertain.” It had a dual function, and that appealed to me. And so I bought the bowl and then I thought, “I wonder how you make that bowl.” I went to a ceramics shop and said, “How do you make this?” And they didn’t know. I bought this smooth bowl and I brought it home and I was just going to paint it at my kitchen table. And the only thing I could find to make it turn – so I could paint the stripes on it was my Rubbermaid spice rack. And the funniest thing is, after I did it, it just kind of made me happy. Teaching never really made me that happy. It kind of made my heart sing. And that’s kind of a rare moment. And I truly believe that everybody has that in their heart that God places this one thing that is the gift for you. I just couldn’t get enough of it. I wanted to paint stuff. I had never painted anything.
My kids were little, and I would sit at the kitchen table. And neighbors would come in and say, “Can I buy one of those?” All of a sudden I realized I could make a contribution to my family’s income and stay home with my children.
Q — Words of wisdom to entrepreneurs?
A — I had no business degree, which was probably a very good thing. Because I think if I had had any business sense at all I would have never taken the first step toward business. I would have known too much. I would have been afraid. Hopefully entrepreneurs don’t know enough about business. They have to be fearless. I never knew I was entrepreneur until about 10 years into what I was doing. Somebody told me that, and I thought, “What is that?”
My husband, John, who is in the insurance business, instead of making fun of me, he would encourage me. And that, to me, is the secret: Having someone around you that encourages you. He would say, “You know, that looks really good, Gail.” We would go to a party and he would introduce me and say, “This is my wife, Gail. She paints bowls. Would you like to buy one?”
In reality everything is work and dedication. Show me easy. There is no easy. Everybody’s looking for it. There isn’t an easy. Opportunity comes when you’ve done the work. And you don’t get the opportunity until you have achieved what is necessary to have it. People always want to skip all the hard stuff and go to the top, and that doesn’t happen.
Q — Transition from home to factory? (Pittman painted at home for eight years, getting up around 4 a.m., then taking kids to school, dancing lessons and soccer practice and painting again after they went to bed.
Her husband saw that the business had grown and encouraged her to get studio space. She got a $10,000 loan, 1,000 square feet, a commercial kiln and two employees.)
A — All the sudden you’re responsible. That put it at a whole other level for me.
In the late 1980s, the business had grown into a 50,000 square-foot factory. It grew and grew. We had great rides, great mountain tops. I never meant to have a manufacturing business – ever. We were doing 10,000 pieces a week. And you know those kind of things are great. And the mountain tops – people in the public see all the achievements. They never see the valleys you go through when you’re running a business like that. Manufacturing is a tough business, and to stay on top of that kind of business, you have to constantly be recapitalizing plants to stay current. We started making the decision two years before we closed that plant that we would. When it starts costing more to make a product than you can sell it for, that’s not a hard choice.
Q — Specific economic reasons why you closed the factory?
A — Transportation, energy. We saw leading economic indicators of projects. We had big projects like entertainment industry, restaurants, things like that. All the sudden they were beginning to be put on hold or canceled. Those are leading economic indicators of what’s to come. When you start seeing that then you know that we’re going to be in for a hard ride. You can’t be responsible for that many people, their jobs. Making the final announcement was hard. I knew that it was going to be an opportunity for me to go back to what really made my heart sing in the first place – and that was designing.
Sometimes you get into a situation when you’re managing. And also I had been working for Southern Living for 10 years as the creative director for their direct sales company, which was products. I started doing that in 2000, worked until 2004 as a designer for them, then in 2005, I became their creative director. And we’d been doing a lot of work across the country for private label that a lot of people didn’t know we did, that didn’t even have the Gail Pittman label on it. Such as projects for Paula Deen. But it was time for me to be able to have a chance to just come back and do what I wanted to do. And interestingly enough, God has the way of taking you on a journey. And you start at a kitchen table and you go through the valleys and mountain tops, because you have to to gain the wisdom, and then he takes you right back to where you really need to be.
I know that people were upset when that plant closed, but they’ll get over that. They have to walk a mile in my shoes. At the end of the day, the responsibility was mine to be a good citizen, pay my bills and make sure that we left everything in good order.
Q — You signed a Gail Pittman licensing agreement with a large manufacturer?
A — A company in Nashville, Sidco Worldwide, whose owner and president grew up in Greenville, Mississippi, came to me and said, “You know, we really are interested in your brand.’ And so I signed a licensing agreement with them. And with that partnership — they have facilities here and abroad, and so they are in charge of all manufacturing and distribution. My job is to design and sign.”
Q — Your new store in Ridgeland’s Olde Towne Center is a larger operation than it appears.
A — “While it’s a full retail store and bridal registry, (Gail Pittman Designs) could be anywhere. It could have been in Nashville, it could have been in Atlanta … it’s also a show-room-type situation because we sell wholesale across the country and still take on big projects that we design for … But I wanted it to be here. I wanted it to be in Ridgeland. I wanted it to be where it always had been.”
Q — What’s your motivation to keep painting and designing?
A — “We’re all given gifts … It’s never really about you. It was never about that bowl. It’s about whatever positive impact you make on other people’s lives with what you’ve been given. … If you can do anything that makes life better for someone else, that’s a big deal.”
Q — What did you learn about non-Southerners while selling nationwide as Southern Living’s creative director for product sales? Why are your products so popular?
A — “They don’t understand hospitality. I took that on as a personal mission, and I still have it as a personal mission to teach people about hospitality and about a culture that we are losing – about sitting around the table and knowing people and knowing your neighbors. …
“There’s just no place like Mississippi. … I go to places and see that they’re longing for it. I go places like New Jersey … They want it. That’s why Martha Stewart has been so successful. She shows them a life that they would love to have. They just don’t know how to get it.”
Q — Words about last week’s MBJ Q&A, Sweet Potato Queens books author Jill Conner Browne:
A — “She was my trainer at the Y(MCA). And I’m walking around the track with her. I didn’t know she was a writer. I had no idea. I thought she was funny. And so, you know, everywhere I go, I’m telling her stories from the road. She writes the book. Then, everywhere I went, across the country, I’ll be standing there, and they’ll go: ‘I read about you in that book.’ … She told every story I ever told her walking around that track at 4:30 in the morning in that book. I told her one day, I said, ‘You oughta be so thankful I love you.’ … So stand by! … She better watch out. I love her, though. She’s a good friend.”
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