Xima Lee Hulings and Walking Papers Studio
Showing me around her meticulously organized and overflowing art studio, I have a hard time keeping up with Xima Lee Hulings. Amidst pens and paints and textiles and even a blow torch, she talks about her life and paintings and projects in her rapid-fire, exuberant way. Inspiring and educational, she motivates me to make a mess and create something. Because, as Xima laughs out loud and says, “Life is an experiment!”
The Atlanta native thrived as an architect in New York, Tokyo, and North Carolina for over 20 years. When her husband’s career took the couple and their three children to Boston, Xima floundered a bit. She explains it was hard to leave the roots she had set down in Charlotte. She remembers the transition to a new city being a tough one for her – “getting the kids settled in a different place, the sadness of 9/11, my dad passing away, some other personal issues. I was experiencing a disconnect.”
Xima grew up in an artsy family and always dabbled with paints. Willis, her husband and “biggest cheerleader,” suggested Xima take a watercolor class to meet people and have some fun. After a trip to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts, she was all in. An excited Xima, returning home with a stack of brochures, announced to her family, “Look what I can do!” Xima took all kinds of classes – painting, jewelry, sculpture, photography, installation art. She couldn’t get enough. “After my difficult period, art and creating really sparked me,” she explains. The art classes made her happy, and her family realized it.
Living proof it is never too late to begin anew, Xima began carrying a sketchbook and pens wherever she went. She spent her days painting and experimenting in a studio in an art-centric part of Boston. She discovered tea bags created nice washes of color. And, if you mix parts of an egg yolk with pigments and then grind it with fun tools, you get a lustrous, long-lasting egg tempera/paint. Her painting projects escalated and evolved and turned into a business.
“I am lucky what I do really makes me happy.”
Her Walking Papers Studio animal prints and paintings are representations and reminders of the animals on her grandfather’s farm in middle Tennessee. The horses, pigs, cows, and dogs with names like Pippa, Edwina, and Finnegan make me smile – they are happy pieces. Showing off my favorite, Milton the cow, Xima describes how the glicee prints (higher quality, longer lasting printing process) are complemented with gold leaf. Trunk shows, at one of the 80+ retail stores across the country selling her art, are fun and special for her. “That’s where I get to engage with clients and gather ideas,” she remarks.
Now that Walking Papers has a rhythm, the Nashville resident is turning new ideas and thoughts back to The Disfarmer series she began painting several years ago. Stumbling on a book of 1920’s photographs by Mike Disfarmer, the images and the quirky photographer still intrigue her. With no narrative in the book, Xima paints and concocts her own stories about the individuals in the photos. “A story helps me visualize and draw inspiration,” she points out. Along with watercolors and pens, gouache (opaque watercolor) and gold leaf help her paint the stories.
As she continues to show me paperweights and trays and custom pet pieces, I have to ask about her name – pronounced Zi-muh. Born and raised as Lee, this first name caused some problems for her growing up. She tells me she was frequently assigned to boys’ groups and classes and even assigned to a male dorm at Vanderbilt University. At age 21, as a Christmas gift, her father legally changed her name to Xima. Lovingly proud of her name, it goes back four generations, to around 1860. One family theory as to the origin of the name involves a possible ancestor named Ima. Perhaps, unable to read, Ima was asked to sign her name by the “X.” It’s a plausible idea and certainly one inviting lots of family discussion.
Remembering she started painting during a challenging time in her life, I ask Xima how her art fulfills her needs and checks her boxes. She responds with one word – “change.” She tells me each day brings something interesting and different and fun. “Looking back, I bet I did not welcome problems before. But if my mistakes are smart ones, I yearn for them now,” she says. Although she insists she truly likes change, she admits she may be finished with certain forms of change – “I don’t want to move again!”