Late to a Fabulous Party: Retired Teacher Finds Her Voice In Color
Sep 30, 2020 11:41AM
By Lisa Lukecart
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Lisa Worrall opened the door to reveal an explosion of color. The retired teacher blushed and stepped back, revealing triangular, multihued, painted, and papered steps leading up into her world. A person might squint at the dazzling brightness of it all, like being exposed to the sun after staying too long indoors. But this is her indoors, a brilliant array of playful pinks, steadfast blues, and psychedelic purples.
“I found my voice in colors. It’s who I am,” the self-taught artist explained.
Worrall, 65, arrived “late to this fabulous party.” She always thought of herself as a teacher, working with special education and first-grade students for 36 years. Even so, Worrall once dressed up in her grandmother’s red beret and her father’s denim apron on Career Day at Westside’s Prairie Lane Elementary School.
“I’m going to be an artist someday,” Worrall quipped to her students.
Worrall’s creative side surfaced when she inherited her grandmother’s antiques. The furniture ricocheted drab vibes in her space. Paint and décor were costly items on a teacher’s salary. Instead, inspiration emerged in the form of fun papers. Elementary school students cut, glued, and created with the same beautiful results. A flower, for instance, pasted onto a pink background with yellow star-shaped petals added vibrant hues to her classroom.
Colleagues and friends noticed her talent and soon asked her for portraits, murals, and illustrations. Worrall, at that time, had few spare hours in the day as a single mother with a full-time job.
All of it changed in 2010. Worrall designed a Christmas card for friends and family. She loved how her students wore mismatched hats, coats, and scarves in the winter. Worrall drew her vision on tracing paper then cut out a final version. Four children gazed at an evergreen tree with a yellow star on top. White-painted, dotted snowflakes drifted down in night sky, adding a simplistic touch of nostalgia.
Friends thought the cards could sell. Deborah Conley took a bundle with her to Methodist Hospital where she works as a senior executive. Another friend headed to The Bookworm.
“I have seen her totally blossom ever since then. It just exploded,” Conley said. “I think as people grow older they have more life experiences to determine what they want to do next. I always say, ‘you retire to something, not from something.’ It opens up avenues.”
Worrall still seemed unsure of her artistic abilities but didn’t want to waste the opportunity. She strode into the gift shop at Joslyn Art Museum and showed them to retail manager Jane Precella. Rather than rebuffing the cards, Precella asked to see more work.
Worrall felt like an imposter. What did a special education teacher know about logos, pricing, and packaging? She didn’t even know how to create an invoice and had only a couple of weeks to figure it all out before her product needed to be delivered. After school, ideas poured out of her. Her confidence grew as she sketched faces with her pencil, snipped paper with scissors, and patiently placed small details with her tweezers. The logo became a girl walking on a tightrope in a red beret just like she wore all those years ago in her classroom. Worrall delivered her cards by deadline.
“I felt like a total imposter, but I did it,” Worrall said.
Dundee Gallery called the next day. Forty of her cards sold in one day and a new order was placed for a Valentine’s Day line. She moved holiday to holiday that first year while working over breaks, nights, and weekends. The business, Iddy Biddy Boo Design (named from her brother’s nickname for her, “Iddy” and her sister’s, “Boo Boo”) took off. Worrall figured close to 50,000 cards have been purchased over the past 10 years, and her confidence increased along with it.
The myriad array of colorful cards on display in her basement is a breathtaking mix of emotion. Old photographs are sometimes used as concepts. A photograph is re-created on a card of her son Jeff on his first birthday in a devil’s costume. Another of her grandmother Mimi in a wedding dress from the 1920s era. Or a lesson learned about letting go from her school days when a caterpillar was released from the cage after changing into a butterfly. Others contain poignant messages. A breast cancer survivor with flowers on her bald head is opened to the words, “Strong is the new beautiful.” A card with a mother and daughter dressed in flowing red superhero capes strongly suggests, “Behind every girl who believes in herself stands a mother who believed first.”
“The other day a lady came in specifically to find a sympathy card because someone she knew died of COVID in his 40s…it was sold out. Lisa had it to me within two hours,” said House of J owner Patti Van Buren, who is collaborating with Worrall on an open house on Oct. 21.
It’s true that the cards don’t appear as if created from cut paper.
An original work stands striking and immense before it is printed. Worrall saw a tightrope walker at the circus fall to her death as a child. The piece titled “The Tight Rope Walker” showcases risk-taking just like her stepping into the art world. All of it is made from paper, except the face, which is drawn with a pencil. She made the tight rope walker’s petticoats from women’s literature, editions of the 1937 New York Times, a Braille book, and musical notes. The skirt is white vintage with gold dots, the vest two-cent stamps, and the cuffs chocolate wrappers. The blonde clinched some of the tightrope in one hand, showing the last resource, as she walks over a town in her fishnet stockings and boots. The other hand holds a parasol. Around the edges of the frame are curled signatures of all the women in Worrall’s life who surrounded her. Even her great grandmother’s ancestors make an appearance since she photocopied original letters from that time on the Oregon Trail.
“She is on a tight rope coming from somewhere, but still going,” Worrall added.
Even her darker works contain some light. The “Marionette” contains a sinister faceless puppet master controlling a dancer. At first, the ballerina looks frail but on closer inspection a pair of scissors are held in one hand while a smirk rolls across her face.
Iddy Biddy Boo Design has been seen in museums, bookstores, and art galleries. The company branched out to puzzles, wall art, ornaments, and needlepoint. Worrall needed to know if a national market was out there. It was time to cut the ties and move on to bigger endeavors. A breaking out point came two years ago at AmericasMart in Georgia. Two women approached her stand and mentioned their boss specifically told them to see her booth. It turns out they were retail buyers from the Biltmore Estate and wanted her to re-create a scene from the movie Titanic for their current costume exhibit. The deadline was a tight two weeks, so Worrall designed Rose in her black and white dress as soon as she returned home.
“I was so excited and wanted to show them I was serious about working with them,” Worrall said.
The Biltmore Estate also commissioned her to re-create the Vanderbilt home. This project seemed a bit more daunting. Sure, she had designed her mother’s house, but nothing this elaborate on such an architectural scale. After being flown out in June 2018, she spent the rest of the summer constructing it. Some windows required almost 50 bits of paper. It was finished by September for the Christmas exhibit. The artist’s goal, though, has never been to make money, but to do something different with her life.
“I’m like Donny Osmond is to music, but not like a Beethoven,” she explained. “People relate to it and respond. If I make a connection, I’m happy.”