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December 27, 2007   Email to Friend 

Decking The Halls of Justice
Kellie Henderson

Sheila J. Hull of Livingston
While it seems more and more people are getting an early start on their Christmas shopping and decorating, Sheila J. Hull of Livingston has been working for months on a special set of ornaments for a tree that stands more than a hundred miles away from her home.

This holiday season, the Christmas tree twinkling in the Heflin-Torbert Judicial Building in Montgomery features 67 hand-painted ornaments created by Hull depicting each of Alabama's county courthouses, and she says it was a job she never envisioned seven years ago when she rediscovered her love of painting.

Sheila says she loved to paint and draw as child, but after she married and became a mother, she found time for painting had grown scarce. Shortly after the death of her mother, Sheila says she was asked to provide an item to auction for a fundraiser the women of her church were planning.

"I dug out my paints, sat down in the floor in my garage and started painting a snowman on a clear glass ornament," she says.

And from that one ornament, Sheila's life took a creative turn. "After the auction, several people asked if I would paint an ornament for them. September of the next year, people were reminding me of the special ornaments they wanted. The next year I had people asking about them during the summer. I started praying about whether or not I should start a business, and a women's seminar I attended was the answer to my prayers," says Sheila.

"I knew I'd have to make a large investment to order the supplies I needed to get started, but within a month I had enough orders to pay for everything I'd bought. God really blessed me," she says, humility trailing her every word.

As the orders came in for custom ornaments, Sheila developed several signature ornament designs. She developed a particular fondness for old church buildings that eventually led to an order to paint two ornaments for Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb.

"My mother saw Sheila's ornaments at a festival in Pleasant Hill," says Scott Mitchell, staff attorney to Chief Justice Cobb, "so she sent me a link to Sheila's Web site, and a couple of ladies from the office, and I asked Sheila to paint two ornaments for Judge Cobb - one of the former Conecuh County courthouse where the chief justice started her career and one of the Justice Building here in Montgomery."

"The chief justice had the idea of a set of ornaments depicting county courthouses across Alabama, so I contacted Sheila to see if she would take on the project. She seemed willing and pleased that we had asked, and the Supreme Court justices and other judges in the building agreed to commission the ornaments as a gift to the building and those who work here," says Mitchell. Soon photographs of Alabama courthouses began finding their way to Sheila, and she began the process of recreating the structures in orbs of clear glass.

Sheila paints the courthouse ornaments following the same style she has used to create ornaments featuring old church buildings and homes, an idea Sheila had after seeing round ornaments with photographs inside them.

"I paint both sides of a transparent plastic insert as well as the back of the outside of the clear glass ornament to give a three-dimensional look to the piece. When the insert is dry, I roll it onto a special tool, place the tool into the glass ornament and pray it does right," Sheila says.

If the insert doesn't unroll properly, it can't be retrieved without damaging the ornament, so Sheila has to break the glass to try to save the painted insert.

"It takes four or five days to complete an ornament because of all the drying times involved, but I may have as many as 100 ornaments going at one time. Last year I painted over a thousand ornaments in about five months time. I've put some other projects on hold, but I feel so honored and blessed to receive the courthouse ornaments commission," Sheila says.

Since Sheila paints ornaments in her home studio, her husband Keith and their daughter Tiffany became accustomed to seeing the artist surrounded by multitudes of drying ornaments and dripping brushes long before she undertook the courthouse collection of ornaments.

"I love a challenge, and my family is used to the way I work. I'm a night owl and the kind of person who can't be still, so I work late into the night painting ornaments," says Sheila. In addition to her penchant for old country church buildings, Sheila has a special affinity for hummingbirds and dogwood blossoms as well. She also creates custom-designed specialty ornaments to commemorate weddings, anniversaries and other special occasions.

"I have done a lot of ornaments featuring old home places for family reunions or anniversaries, and I enjoy that. Most people have touching stories to tell about their family homes and the people and events that made those places special, and sometimes they give me details I can incorporate into the paintings," she says.

And, she says, those are the ornaments that even get the men of those families choked up.

Sheila also paints on more traditional canvas, and has given fine art lessons for two years now. Recently, she's begun renting space from Pamela Lambert of Pamela's Fitness and Nutrition in downtown Livingston, where Sheila conducts classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She also provides patients at Sumter Health and Rehab with art therapy, a project her daughter, Tiffany, and several of her art students have volunteered for as well.

"We love to work with the patients there, and it has totally been a God thing. He's blessed us with donations for the needed supplies, and it's a wonderful experience to see what creative expression can do for people," Sheila says.

Sheila is offering additional courthouse ornaments along with her other artwork for sale through her Web site www.handpaintedornaments.homestead.com. Her work also is available from The Queen and Company, a shop in Livingston and at Black Belt Treasures in Camden. The To Kill A Mockingbird Museum of Monroeville commissioned her to design and paint an ornament for that group several years ago that is sold at the museum's gift shop.

Small and full of sparkle like the ornaments she creates, Sheila says the reasons she continues to paint ornaments are simple. "I enjoy doing it so much, and I hope people who see my ornaments enjoy them. I hope they'll bring fond memories and be given with warm wishes," she said.

For more information, visit handpaintedornaments.homestead.com/alfa.html.


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