By Elizabeth Sturgeon
Photos by Mary Fehr
About a year ago, Claire Jordan ended up in Birmingham on accident—but not without her very own on-paper traveling zoo. Flocks and herds are joined by the mystical, the tropical and even the extinct. The colorful band of animals has moved with Claire from Asheville, North Carolina, to Franklin, Tennessee, to her newest home-turned-art studio in Vestavia Hills, where they’re now lined up from floor to ceiling in her closet.
The animal faces Claire paints and prints onto greeting cards and children’s clothing come alive in a way she never expects. “Their eyes all say something different, and they have distinct personalities,” she says. “I call them my kids because it’s all I’ve done day in and day out for five years.”
She first launched Claire Jordan Designs while working at The Grove Park Inn in Asheville and began with the original six: her cow, duck, fox, lamb, bunny and deer. These first few prints have led to more than 100 animals and other designs on cards—which double as prints if you frame them—as well as children’s T-shirts, onesies and masks.
Claire never thought she would be painting for a living, though it gets closer each day to her childhood dream (and just her forever dream) to be a fashion designer. Growing up in the small town of Yazoo City, Mississippi, she always dreamed big and saw herself better fit in somewhere like New York or Paris. As Claire puts it, she’s the pink zebra rocking fuchsia lipstick and Balenciaga in the sea of neutrals and Louis Vuitton.
Though she was always good at art—she took a few lessons as a child, painted goal post signs, and did other creative things here and there—Claire never saw “artist” as a profession she could work toward. She received her degree in business administration from Mississippi College and thought she would find a career in the oil and gas industry before returning to art.
Claire picked up little projects that first got her into creative work. She helped create wedding decorations, she renovated furniture, she faux finished walls in houses around Mississippi and other parts of the Southeast.
Eventually, she ended up at a family farm in Carter, Mississippi, as she cared for her dad throughout his terminal cancer diagnosis. “God shut doors for me,” Claire says, “and when my dad got sick, silly things didn’t matter anymore.” After her dad passed away in 2015, Claire decided to move to a place she didn’t know and where she didn’t know anyone—Asheville—and it’s the place that changed everything for her, once her boss at The Grove Park Inn saw her work and convinced her to start printing cards.
After her first sales in the hotel’s art gallery, stores and boutiques around the country started carrying her work. Business grew quickly from the little creative spark that Claire has always seen in herself, even when she was too scared to show anyone her work.
When she felt like she’d lived her life in Asheville and, at the same time, fell in love with Franklin’s Main Street, Claire moved to Tennessee and brought Claire Jordan Designs with her. She painted more animals, printed more cards and explored more clothing options while also working at a boutique in Franklin to learn more about children’s clothing.
A large part of her art and business is reprinting her designs on paper and reproducing them on the fabric, which she heat presses herself in her kitchen. When she’s not ordering prints or ironing on designs, she’s painting new pieces, both the magical ones that are plucked straight from her imagination and the welcomed inspiration from real animals she’s encountered. Her niece’s hamster, a camel from her friend’s safari in Mississippi and even just the butterflies that float by her all make appearances.
On canvas, Claire works with acrylic paint, only one or two brushes, and her fingers. “It blends better,” she says. “I like to feel the paint and get it to do what I want. It needs to flow, so I like to do lots of ombre and shading.” She works between both bright and pastel shades with a technique that she’s perfected over the years as a completely self-taught painter.
And then came the curveball of COVID-19. The pandemic pushed Claire to move back home for a few months until she decided to move closer to her mom, sister and brother, who are all in Birmingham. Throughout that transition, she designed her first children’s masks with her animal designs, and in two months, she sold more than 4,000 masks and began carrying with more than 150 new boutiques. Despite the massive changes in her life, she was able to make a difference and help keep children safe and healthy.
The masks were more than practical too. Kids could name their favorite animal, no matter how strange or ordinary, and Claire probably has it painted and printed on a mask. She also donated children’s masks to schools around the Birmingham area and made some for teachers so children wouldn’t be so scared of seeing a masked face.
Her giving heart is something that, in many ways, COVID amplified, but it’s nothing new at the same time. “I would give everything if I could,” Claire says. “God gave me this ability, and if you’re lucky enough to find it, you have to use it and help. And everyone deserves something nice.”
Claire has also donated prints and clothing to countless organizations: women’s prisons and recovery centers, schools and classrooms, hospitals and nonprofits. In particular, she has connected with Think Pink campaigns to raise money for breast cancer awareness and with Mustard Seed Communities, an organization for children and adults with developmental and physical disabilities.
As the end of 2021 comes into view, Claire is still putting her dreams onto paper, and she’s still dreaming of creating her own fabric or writing her own children’s book. And between Jackson, Asheville, Franklin and now Birmingham, she’s still the same deeply caring, talented, self-proclaimed pink zebra.
“For so long, I thought something was wrong with me,” she says, “but I was just creative. And I found my way back to art and into the world I wanted.”
Follow or shop Claire’s designs at clairejordandesigns.com or follow her @clairejordandesigns on Instagram and Facebook.
Fashion Made Fun
As Claire grew her line of children’s wear, her goal was to make something both kids and moms would like. She has done years of research to find the best comfortable, super-soft fabrics for her onesies, T-shirts and masks. Plus, she is always painting new designs based on what she hears from the kids she knows. Beetles and planets have recently been added to her long list of critters and other creations.
Claire has also introduced bib aprons, or “baprons,” which are long bibs with open backs like an apron. Some even have ruffles on the sleeves because “we’re still in the South, honey.” You can find children’s clothing with your favorite of her designs and can expect high quality pieces from her. She is an aspiring high fashion designer, remember.