Mississippi transplant Christian Lee shares how unexpected struggles led to beauty and hope in the life of her family

Photography by Jason Stephens & Tina Sargeant

Christian Lee has lived a life of many contrasting experiences, all of which have culminated to bring her to this place: a single mom, business owner, and textile designer. Born and bred in Mississippi, she grew up knowing from an early age that the arts held her calling. In 1992 she and her husband moved to Lakeland with their three boys. After a number of years, she found herself alone and responsible for the care and well-being of her three now-teenage children. This is the story of what happened next.
The Lakelander: Christian, on your blog [christianleedesigns.wordpress.com] you speak of that moment where you looked around and realized you were alone, unemployed, and responsible for the sustenance of your family. A crushing reality for anyone, and one that many women have in common with you. What got you through those dark hours? Can you say
that any beauty has come from your own struggle?

Christian Lee: First and foremost, my faith saw me through those difficult years. I held close to my belief that God had a plan for my sons and me. There were many days, weeks, months, years I did not know what the plan was, but we always kept our heads just above water. I can dog paddle with the best of them. My faith, my family, and friends (too many to mention) lifted us up. I still look back on that time and am amazed how good people are to those in hard times. I’m not special or worthy of the many blessings we received during that period, and I will never forget the blessings we received. We lost our house, car, health insurance, and any sense of security we had previously possessed. Let me be the first to say our hardships were financial. No one had a terminal illness. My boys did not become rebellious or bitter. They are the real heroes, and I look up to them. Our family motto was: “Divorce and hard times do not define you.” This is something we will get through together. We did survive, and we are a better family today.

Walls should reflect the story of your life. On my bedroom wall I started with a larger piece of art, a gift from my dad that I’ve had since I was a child. Two of the smaller pieces to the left are notes from my sons. The black-and-white photo is from New Orleans. I always include a piece of folk art. Every wall needs a nod to whimsy. Also, art of a small scale always looks more powerful when grouped together.

Part of God’s plan was for us to move nine months before my husband filed for divorce. I had gotten my first job in those nine months at an interior design firm called Town and Country. A new client came in because she was building a home and needed my help. This client became my second mother, and she nudged for us to visit her church. We did, and joined the church in those nine months. How could I have been more blessed than to have a job, my sons’ school, and our church all in walking distance from home? The boys could get to me, or wherever they needed to be, at any time. This gave me a strong peace of mind. To this day it still makes me emotional. God placed us in this cocoon of love. Our community has been, and continues to be, a safe haven for us.How do you ever express that gratitude we have for so many?
Do I believe design creating comes from those difficult times? Absolutely. We all have to go through hardships to find and see beauty. If it was always easy we wouldn’t be able to see the good stuff — magic, hope.
TL: What do you think is so magnetizing about the arts for you? What inspires you to create?

CL: Creating and designing is something I have to do. It’s the air I need to breathe. We all need to remember that life is never all good or all bad at any one time. It seems it’s always a little bit of both. I can use both joy and pain to create. I bet most artists would say the same.
TL: On your website [christianleedesigns.com] you mention Ann Jacob, who owns and operates the Ann Jacob Gallery in Highlands, North Carolina, as a dear friend and mentor who has greatly influenced you as an artist and lover of art. What do you think is her greatest legacy in your life? How does the impact of that relationship continue to inform your choices today? Or does it?

CL: I am the daughter of an artist; I come by it honestly. My father is a photographer who had great success in his art. I grew up in a photographer’s studio and darkroom. It was a very cool playground, and there was magic being created. I wanted to be there and be a part of it. At times I’m sure I drove him crazy always wanting to be included in his work. Those are some of the fondest memories of my childhood.
During my high school years I attended Academic and Performing Arts High School (APAC). It was the first of its kind in Mississippi, and it was really a special time. I was in the drama department and loved every minute. To be in an environment where your art, talent, and your strengths are celebrated is priceless.
After I had my first son, I painted a rocking chair for his nursery. I had painted this whole scene on the chair. I had never seen anything like it before and neither had my mom. Everyone seemed to like it, and my mom spoke to an art dealer, Ann Jacob, in Highlands. Ann asked to see some of my work, and she put it in her art gallery in Highlands and in Atlanta. She took a chance on me and believed in my work. It was fulfilling a need in me I wasn’t even aware of at the time. But three kids later, it became too much trying to balance both. These different life experiences were the stepping stones of my career in design and textiles.
From Christian’s blog

This for most of us is the most difficult task when decorating your home. Take the time to collect pieces that speak to you. You can hire an interior decorator, but why? This is the time your house needs to reflect you, not the designer. 

TL: So from stay-at-home mom, to dabbler in DIY, to an interior designer with clients all around Central Florida, to single mom of three teenage boys, and now, a textile designer. Whew, what a ride. Can you tell us what inspired you to get into textile design?

CL: I’m always passionate about my home and designing. How can you make it work? How can you make it better? How can you make it reflect you? I dream about homes, decorating, color, fabrics. Design is never far from my thoughts. Always looking and wondering what you can do with a piece of fabric, furniture, or a house.
I do believe the hard times have influenced my tastes with the textiles and the repurposed furniture. Everything I use and work with are often times things people overlook or are not able to see the beauty in that is waiting to be uncovered. The things that are beaten up and tattered usually speak to me the most. Probably because I relate to those pieces that have had a hard road, and I see hope of what it could become. There were people who could see me when I was broken and beaten up. Those are the moments that fill my heart with joy.
Life happened to me, and that was how it all began to create something more than hanging drapes in a living room, and I knew I had a voice. Something from within me I needed to share. Every piece gets a piece of my heart, my life, my journey, and my faith.
TL: How did you achieve work/life balance as a single mom with three kids at home? Or is work/life balance just a myth?

CL: I say we can not have it all. There is always a part you will have to sacrifice. But we can have it all at different moments in life, which I don’t see as a negative. For most of my adult
years I chose my sons, and then a career had to come and I sacrificed my sons to provide for their needs. Now the boys are out of the nest, and I believe it’s my time to give to art,
design, and my dreams. None of it is easy for any of us, and we all come to this life broken. What we can hope for is to be our best, ask for grace, and never stop dreaming.
TL: Your newest collection is called “Family Beginnings.” Clearly, family is a huge part of your life, and the boys have been there right alongside you throughout your journey. What role has family played in your business? How have your sons helped spur you on to pursue your dreams?

CL: My entire family has played a role in this journey — with love, financial investments, photography, scouting locations, web design, setting up the bookkeeping — you name it and they’ve been supportive. You asked how the boys have inspired my art. They believe, and gave me their support to dream. My Tinker Bell coffee cup was/is everything.*
Portrait* From christianleedesigns.com: “Sitting in my living room one day, contemplating life and looking at my settee with my Mississippi pillow on it and knowing that I could create
something better to go with that pillow, started me thinking about designing and making pillows. I went to North Carolina to visit a friend and started purchasing fabric to make some pillows. I thought that my pillows would at least make great Christmas presents for my family and friends. I knew I was on to something when I saw the look on all three of my sons’ faces when they saw my creations. At Christmas my youngest son gave me a Tinker Bell coffee cup that said DREAM, and I knew at that moment that I had to make my dream turn into a reality.”
*Editor’s Note:
Christian has recently been selected to participate in the new artisan marketplace by One King’s Lane, called Hunter’s Alley. Part Etsy-style marketplace, part curated storefront (think West Elm’s collaboration with Etsy or Domino Magazine’s online shopping publication), it combines the experience of shopping a high-style environment with a social
component — you can get to know the sellers personally.
Check it out at: www.huntersalley.com
Christian’s storefront can be found at: www.huntersalley.com/profile/3156-christian-lee