ABINGDON, Va. — With everyone stuck inside during the pandemic, an Abingdon stay-at-home mom has found a way to keep the family a central part of her daily life while also managing to bring in a few extra bucks.
During the day, Rachel Lester is chief cook, laundry attendant, schedule keeper and playmate for her two young children — all rolled into one. But by evening, she retreats to her artist work station, carving out a chunk of time to refuel.
Lester has found her creative niche, making clay keepsake ornaments that look just like your own house.
The handmade polymer clay creations are tiny versions of people’s houses, barns and other structures. Most of the ornaments measure a dainty 3 by 4 inches.
What first started out as a creative outlet for the busy mom has turned into a business that’s growing faster than she ever imagined. People are ordering the clay ornaments as gifts for Mother’s Day, birthdays and anniversaries, she said.
Lester learned about the handcrafted houses when she commissioned Holly Litos, a Christiansburg, Virginia, sculptor, to make a replica of her house before she and her husband, Derek, moved to Abingdon.
“I absolutely love the ornament. It hangs up year round so I can look at it every day,” she said.
This past Christmas, Lester tried her hand at making a custom house ornament for her parents.
“The best gifts are those that are handcrafted and don’t come from big-box stores,” Lester said.
“I went to Hobby Lobby and bought a variety pack of clay and basically just read the directions. I had so much fun being creative and exploring the different colors of clay.”
When she posted her first clay houses on Facebook, she was overwhelmed by the number of responses she got.
“I’m getting orders left and right with about 25 ornaments to complete now,” Lester said.
Finding a space
With remote work on the increase due to COVID-19, there are more stay-at-home moms working from home these days.
Like many of those moms, Lester is finding a space to be creative, balancing the responsibilities of raising a family with a passion for letting her imagination roam.
“We all express creativity in different ways. For me, it’s working with my hands to mold the clay into something artistic,” said Lester, who believes her artsy nature is fueled from being around a family of artists.
She is honing in on the creative genes she got from her artist father, Edward Young, who is known locally for his pencil, oil and acrylic paintings, and her mother, Alicia Young, who’s always had a “clever imagination.”
Her husband, a student pastor at Highlands Fellowship Church, is also an inspiration after recently starting his own woodworking business, “58 Woodworks.”
“I’ve grown up around creativity. It just comes natural to me,” said Lester.
Molding a business
The clay artist was inspired to transform her hobby into a viable business she named Rachel Lester Clay Works.
She’s already completed clay replicas for a variety of structures, including a Cape Cod house, an apartment building and a barn.
Glade Spring photographer Whitney Copenhaver commissioned Lester to create an ornament from an old barn on her farm.
“The barn was destroyed in a tornado in 2011,” Copenhaver said. “It was my favorite barn on the farm. I wanted to support a friend starting a new business, but I also wanted a keepsake to help me remember the old relic. I was very impressed with her work. The ornament looks just like the picture.”
Ashton Dye, of Lebanon, Virginia, has commissioned Lester to create ornaments of all of the houses where she and her family have lived. In addition to creating a tiny version of Dye’s current farmhouse, the artist will make ornaments of their three former homes in Lebanon, Ohio and Pittsburgh.
Dye plans to display the replicas on a shelf by her fireplace until it’s time to pass them on as keepsakes for her young son.
Making the clay creations is fairly simple but time-consuming, said Lester.
The artist works from a photograph of the structure, tracing the lines of the house on top of a smooth slab of clay and marking where windows and doors are located.
“It’s like painting with clay,” she said. “After I remove the tracing paper, I smooth on more clay to form the shutters and the roof. I use an X-Acto knife to add small details where needed.”
The artist works four to five hours transforming the pieces of clay into replicas that are as close as possible to the real-life structures. The finished product is completed once it is baked in her oven at home.
Lester and her husband left their jobs at Virginia Tech about two years ago to be closer to family in Southwest Virginia.
“I left my dream job as an inventory assistant to be a stay-at-home mom in August 2018, and my husband left his Virginia Tech athletics position in September 2019, after accepting the student pastor position here in Abingdon,” she said.
“I think it’s a privilege to be a nonworking mom. Not everyone has this opportunity,” she said.
She’s thankful to be at home, especially since her older child started kindergarten this year with most of the instruction at home through virtual learning.
“This creative work gives time for me to be me,” said Lester. “I don’t want to lose my own identity as just a mother of two children.
“I’ll always love being a mom, but it’s nice to have a little Rachel time, too.”
Carolyn R. Wilson is a freelance writer in Glade Spring, Virginia. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.