Welcome to the latest edition of our Virginian of the Week series. This week, we interviewed Elizabeth Gray, a Lynchburg-based designer who specializes in hand lettering. Her work can be found on her Etsy store, Instagram, and Facebook.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. Are you from Virginia originally?
I’m actually a Georgia-born gal, but my family moved here when I was 10 years old and Virginia is definitely home now.
Where do you live in Virginia? What brought you there and what made you decide to stay there?
I currently live in the Lynchburg area. My dad’s job is what brought us to the area in 2003, and I met my husband here. Nearly everyone on both sides of our families live in the area as well, so it makes sense for us to live here at the moment.
What’s your favorite thing about living in Lynchburg and what are some of your favorite things to do there?
Lynchburg is a fairly quiet place to live, but has an up-and-coming restaurant/downtown scene, and offers a wide range of outdoor activities – all set against the gorgeous backdrop of the Blue Ridge mountains. When I’m not lettering, I enjoy hanging out in a good local coffee shop or biking on local trails.
You design original lettering. Tell us a little bit about how you got your start.
I was obsessed with letters before I even knew that I was. In high school, it would take me more time to pick out a font for my essay than it took to write the essay, and I couldn’t put into words why it was so important to me. I would spend hours drawing on Microsoft Paint and researching artsy looking quotes on Google Images without even knowing what typography or lettering was.
Several years ago, I remember receiving a book about creative lettering for a gift and realizing that other people were just as obsessed with letters as I was.
It wasn’t until people started asking me to make things for them that I realized it could be more than just a hobby.
You’ve managed to turn this into a successful business on Etsy. What was the process of getting to where you’re at now? Do you work on your Etsy store full time now?
Not only did people start ask me to do their wedding envelopes and create signs for them, but I began to notice mugs and other products with lettering on them increasing in popularity. It only seemed to make sense to create an online shop, not only to fulfill my customer’s wants but to financially support my growing hobby-turned-business. Things have shifted over the years as my interests and long-term goals have changed, but I have multiple revenue streams at the moment, one of which is my Etsy shop. I also create custom art for businesses, make social media content for brands, license artwork, and paint murals – just to name a few.
I see you also produce mugs, candles and pins. Do you plan to expand into other products, too?
I do plan on it, especially since I’m starting to work with a company that will help me with order fulfillment and customer service as my online audience grows. I also have an interest in teaching others what I’ve taught myself and recently released an online lettering class that’s perfect for either the total beginner or for someone who wants to take their lettering skills from basic to so-much-better.
What’s the most exciting thing about your work?
That it’s never the same each week, or even each day. I do my best to stay organized with a flexible daily routine, but every client is different so that means the work is always varied and that keeps things interesting.
What’s the most challenging thing about your work?
I’d say one of the challenging parts is not having a steady paycheck that you can expect each month, but I really enjoy the challenge of searching for new clients and projects and working hard for the money. But the most challenging thing for me would probably be the day-to-day maintenance of the business, such as the accounting. I’m not a numbers person at all, and things like spreadsheets and columns of figures can quite literally put me to sleep and drain all my creative energy.
What’s something people wouldn’t expect about your day-to-day?
That I get up almost every day at 5 AM and hit the gym with my husband. It’s not something I share a lot about because it’s not my favorite thing in all the world, but it’s an important part of my routine because so much of my work is done sitting down and I need to balance it out.
What influences you and your designs? Talk to us a little bit about how you get your ideas and turn them into reality.
Whether it’s an artist’s work that I really admire, or even something that doesn’t really speak to me, all of it is influencing and contributing to and honing my artistic voice. I try to cultivate an attitude of curiosity and wonder, and to pay attention to things that most people might overlook. I listen to things my friends say and write them down, pay attention to colors and patterns, and just draw things that make me happy. Sometimes ideas will randomly hit me, and sometimes they come about during the creative process through trial and error.
Do you have a personal or professional accomplishment you’re particularly proud of?
That would have to be my first-ever mural, which was for Love Letters; an interactive art exhibit encouraging guests of all ages to use letters, words, and art to tell their story. Becca Clason, a widely respected and accomplished artist in the lettering world, asked me to be a part of the exhibit and that basically validated my entire artistic journey.
It’s made of over 60lbs of sketchbooks, was planned and created on my living room floor in Virginia, shipped to Salt Lake City, and reassembled by the Love Letters team. I flew out there for a lettering conference and put the finishing touches on the mural.
What do you do when you’re not working?
Thinking about work. Don’t laugh, it’s true. I do my best to cultivate a work-life balance and actively disconnect from work, whether I’m hanging out with friends or trying out a new restaurant with my husband.
I’m not great at that balancing act, admittedly, because my work is so fun and it’s sometimes hard to turn the creativity off.
But it’s good to have activities that aren’t related to your work to help you relax and create just for fun. Often, my best ideas happen when I’m not trying to brainstorm at all and am completely engaged in crocheting or biking or baking.
This interview has been lightly edited.