Once Upon A Pillow
ARTICLE BY GEORGIANN POTTS
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KELLY MOORE CLARK
Rebecca Watson Vizard has spent a lifetime exploring. Although Rebecca’s childhood was spent in Tensas Parish in the tiny town of St. Joseph in northeast Louisiana, her parents saw to it that she had glimpses of the world beyond from an early age. This awareness of people and cultures beyond those most familiar laid the groundwork for a life’s journey that has taken Rebecca literally around the world. Once in college, Rebecca dreamt of living abroad working as an artist. Today, half of that dream has been realized. She is a fine artist specializing in textiles, and her art has made her a well-respected name in interior design worldwide. However, she does not live abroad, nor is her successful company, B. Viz Design, located in Paris. Instead, Rebecca returned home and eventually established her company’s “Global Headquarters” on Plank Road in St. Joseph. Through her work and the work of others dedicated to revitalizing this charming old Delta town, Rebecca and the “downtown team” are helping St. Joseph come alive again. Because of her success in the fine arts, her entrepreneurial spirit, and her leadership in the revival of that special place she calls home, Rebecca Watson Vizard is our April BayouIcon.
Rebecca Watson Vizard admits that St. Joseph and Lake Bruin are her favorite places in the world. That’s quite a statement from someone who has traveled so extensively. Although her life “plan” did not include returning to Tensas Parish in it, life – as it often does – took an unexpected turn. As a result, she and her Uptown New Orleans husband, Michael, moved “north” to become permanent residents in 1987. Michael eventually joined Rebecca’s late father, William Wade “Bill” Watson, at Cross Keys Bank and is now Chief Executive Officer.
Rebecca confesses that moving back to St. Joseph was a struggle after so many years in larger cities. “That was not in my playbook,” she says. “Even so, I think the best part of my career journey was that move. It took me nearly four years to get comfortable with the idea, but I did. My business and that location transformed my mind and my spirit.”
Rebecca was born to Bill and Ruth Harper, her mother a native of Shreveport. Rebecca’s parents reminded her of Barbie and Ken when she was a child, except her parents were brunettes. Rebecca’s parents were younger than most of her friends’ parents because many of her friends were younger siblings in large families. Still, Rebecca had some tangible advantages from being an only child.
Both of her parents had successful careers — Bill was a banker and Ruth was an English teacher. They also both loved traveling, and did so often. New Orleans was a favorite “local” destination, primarily because Bill had gone to Tulane University as an undergraduate and for law school, and Ruth had graduated from Newcomb College of Tulane. They often traveled farther afield, however, with their young daughter in tow. “I remember our family vacations were always to a different place because they wanted me to learn something new,” Rebecca says.
When Rebecca was 11, her mother took her to Mexico to tour archeological finds. When Rebecca was 13, Ruth enrolled in a class in Oxford, England, and Rebecca went with her for 3 weeks. Rebecca admits to pouting about going because she wanted to play for a softball team in St. Joseph that same summer. “What a brat I was!” Rebecca recalls. “I can’t tell you how life changing that trip was even though I didn’t realize it until later in life.” At 15, Rebecca toured Austria, Switzerland, and Germany with her parents. She especially loved Salzburg and Vienna. “I loved the wonderful art there even though I didn’t know much about it. My travel bug had bitten.”
Rebecca’s paternal grandmother, Roslyn Newell Watson, lived nearby and she and Rebecca were very close. When Rebecca graduated high school, Roslyn took Rebecca on a Mediterranean cruise. One stop was Ephesus, Turkey – a country that remains a favorite for Rebecca. “I remember watching a ruin being excavated. The fresco colors were still brilliant at the ground where the archaeologists were digging,” Rebecca remembers. There were also plenty of wonderful things to do back in St. Joseph. Sunday lunches – fried chicken, of course – at her grandmother’s home were always special. Christmas was also celebrated at her grandmother’s home. Rebecca’s uncle and aunt, Phil and Allein Watson, lived on the other side of the Methodist church from Rebecca’s home. Their three sons — cousins Ben, Brooks, and Scott – were like brothers to Rebecca.
The four were inseparable. In the summer, they swam and water skied in Lake Bruin. “I remember our spending many days playing super heroes with pinned towels on our shoulders to make capes,” Rebecca says with a laugh. “We mainly ran up and down the levee and around our yards and the church yard. The faster we ran the higher our capes would fly!”
Two childhood experiences offer a glimpse into Rebecca’s future success as an entrepreneur and artist. Her entrepreneurial spirit kicked in when she was about 5. She devised a way to make money from her father’s habit of swearing (not the really worst words, but swearing nonetheless) and teach him to mend his ways at the same time. Her plan was to take advantage of poker night when her dad and his friends gathered for a friendly game. “I hid around the corner in my little flannel nightgown and ran into the room yelling ‘25 cents!’ each time one of the men swore,” she recalls. “I did very well on poker night. I’m sure it was so irritating that they all stopped swearing – much to my dismay.”
Around the same time, Rebecca’s love of art was triggered. When Rebecca had a babysitter, her mother left an art project for her to do. She looked forward to those nights because she loved the projects. Because her mother had many of her clothes made by a very talented dressmaker in St. Joseph, there were always scraps of material left over. Rebecca used these to make clothes for her Barbies and to decorate Kraft boxes to make homes for them. “I never played with my Barbies,” Rebecca admits. “I just dressed them and created environments for them.”
When she was 9, Rebecca began spending 6 weeks each summer at Camp Waldermar (an all-girls camp in Texas). Waldermar was the first place that Rebecca took formal art lessons. “I won the gold medal in pottery,” she says. “I think this little accomplishment gave me the courage to take art classes in college.”
LIFE LESSONS LEARNED IN SCHOOL
Rebecca attended Davidson Elementary and graduated from Tensas Academy. She was active in both academic and extracurricular activities. Her parents had been good athletes, and so was Rebecca. She was active in basketball, track, tennis, and cheerleading. Clubs filled her time as well working with the school newspaper, 4-H (she loved the gardening and cooking competitions), and the National Society of the Children of the American Revolution (NSCAR). Grandmother Roslyn was a devoted Daughters of the American Revolution member and taught Rebecca the importance of genealogy and history.
In high school and later at Newcomb, Rebecca had teachers who became significant mentors for her. She remembers Betsy Ratcliff James for the warm, encouraging, and inviting smile that never left her face. “I think I got my smile from her,” Rebecca says. Margo Wade taught Home Economics classes and made them fun and fascinating. She taught Rebecca how to sew – a skill that would prove invaluable.
When Rebecca was a college freshman, her English teacher, Mr. Rossi, made fun of her southern accent. When the course was over, he told Rebecca that her intelligence far exceeded her accent. “I could not decide whether that was a compliment or an insult,” Rebecca admits.
Pat Trivigno, Rebecca’s painting professor, was a favorite because of both his patience and his creative teaching methods. “When he wanted me to loosen up my painting technique, he tied my brush to a yard stick and made me paint from 3 feet away!” Rebecca found painting to be therapeutic and calming. The three-hour class gave her a chance to bond with the other art students which brought encouragement to them all.
It was her Louisiana architecture class with Professor Sam Wilson that brought together many of the things that Rebecca loves most about New Orleans. Professor Wilson walked his students through different areas of the Garden District or the French Quarter and explained the distinctive structures. Rebecca was to put this knowledge to good use later.
LIFE LESSONS LEARNED BY LIVING
At Newcomb, Rebecca joined Chi Omega Sorority and made many new friends. Because Newcomb was small, all of the fraternities and sororities were very close. Rebecca, like her classmates, had part-time jobs which Rebecca says taught her a valuable lesson – what she did not want to do for a career! Her plan was to move to NYC after graduation and work in advertising. From there, she hoped to get to Europe where she could paint and take art lessons from European masters.
A job in a frame shop was enjoyable when she was enhancing a customer’s art, but boring because she was alone often. She worked at a wine and cheese shop and loved learning about these staples to the “good life” and meeting people. However, working so many Saturdays didn’t suit Rebecca. A job with a travel agency was disappointing because it was mostly clerical.
After she completed college, she worked for a short time as a stock broker’s assistant. She loved the research, but discovered that a 9-5 office job wasn’t for her. Remembering her Louisiana architecture class, Rebecca took the tour guide course in New Orleans and began working as a tour guide for convention groups. “I loved that job, and it led to my being a concierge for the Sheraton on Canal which was great fun,” Rebecca remembers. “I loved solving peoples’ problems, making dinner reservations, and planning their visit to New Orleans. I felt like an ambassador for the city!”
AN OVERNIGHT SUCCESS WHICH TOOK 36 YEARS
Rebecca’s expertise in textiles and fancy stitchery didn’t develop overnight. Instead, it was a steady journey of discovery. One Easter when she was 5, Rebecca’s maternal grandmother, Maxine Waller Harper, taught her how to sew buttons on a dish towel. Rebecca was mesmerized by the process and quietly stitched each button to the towel while others dressed. When leaving for church, Rebecca realized that she had sewn the button towel to her Easter dress. “I had a fit because I didn’t want to cut it off. My grandmother snipped the buttons off anyway,” Rebecca remembers. “I think that was the first time that I realized you could add something pretty to embellish something ordinary and make it extraordinary.”
hen the Vizards moved to St. Joseph, their daughter Sarah was quite small and son Ross would be born 2 years later. Michael’s bank work kept him very busy. Rebecca was working out of their home and admits that it was nerve-wracking at times. Still, there were perks. For one, it meant that she was able to be with her children when other mothers had to leave them in daycare. For another, Michael was “a country boy at heart.” When they first moved, Rebecca says he would put on his work clothes and then step into a camouflage jumpsuit to grab a quick hunt before work. “I grumbled at the amount of time he spent hunting because the kids were really little, but he cooked the most amazing venison I have ever had,” Rebecca says. “It became so that the only time I was disappointed in him was when he didn’t bring home anything for dinner. Before I had his cooking, I didn’t even like game!”
Perhaps the biggest perk was the time that Rebecca’s children got to spend with their grandfather, “Touchdown.” When asked how her father came to have that name, Rebecca explained. When Sarah was a baby, Bill would always walk into a room to see her with his arms up like a referee. When Sarah would do it, he would say “Touchdown!” When Sarah began talking, she said “Touchdown” every time she saw her grandfather (and threw her arms up, too). “One time we were driving by the bank and Sarah was in the back in her car seat. She yelled ‘Touchdown!’ as we were passing by,” Rebecca says with a smile. “Before long Daddy was called ‘Touchdown’ by the whole community.”
While the Vizards lived in Shreveport before Rebecca’s move “home,” Rebecca began her first business enterprise shortly after Sarah was born — painting baby clothes and socks that she sold to several children’s shops around Louisiana. She then painted some samples and set up in a friend’s booth at the Dallas Trade Mart. After more sales of painted children’s clothes than she could imagine, Rebecca realized that she would need more money than she had to buy the inventory. She made an appointment with her dad and asked for a line of credit. To her dismay, he turned her down because he didn’t think she was “credit worthy.” That rejection set Rebecca on a course for success. “I wanted to prove him wrong even more than I wanted to make money at that point,” Rebecca admits. She then proposed a deal to her sock vendor to see if he would send her the inventory and let her paint the socks for him. Within a month, he sold the splatter paint design to a national retailer. The venture was extremely successful and her sock painting lasted for nearly 8 years.
At that point Rebecca had the funds to decorate her home on Lake Bruin, and soon friends started asking her for decorating advice. Very quickly she was hired by friends of friends and had interior design jobs all over the country. She realized how much it cost to make pillows out of a nice fabric with down forms and trim and thought, “For this amount of money, my clients should be able to get something extraordinary instead of a regular pillow that anyone can copy.”
In the beginning Rebecca sold only to her clients and her mentor, the late Gerrie Bremmermann, a very successful interior designer in New Orleans. Bremermann was the one who encouraged her to focus on her now famous antique textile pillows. Rebecca took her several items – paper mache bows and hand-painted pillows – but it wasn’t until 1994 when Rebecca brought in her first antique textile pillow that Bremmermann told Rebecca that she had found her “calling.” Bremmermann sold Rebecca’s pillows through her Magazine Street shop and helped launch Rebecca’s name in design. Another mentor, Marina Tosini, met Rebecca at a textile booth in Paris in 1999. A mutual respect and friendship developed, and Tosini taught Rebecca both about textiles and how to negotiate at the flea markets. “Marina is a feisty Italian lady,” Rebecca says. “I have seen her every year since we met except for 2020. We have had many amazing adventures.”
With travel comes adventure, and not always the kind one wants to experience. Rebecca was in Paris in January 2015 when the Charlie Hebdo shootings took place. Although she usually took the Metro everywhere, after that incident Rebecca didn’t feel safe doing that. “Fortunately, Marina knew someone who we could hire to drive us everywhere and avoid the major thoroughfares.”
The decades-long hunt for antique textiles has meant that Rebecca has had to travel to faraway places. She admits that traveling was a challenge while the children were young, but Michael and their housekeeper, Belinda Prudhomme, made it possible. “I just look for handmade textiles wherever I go,” Rebecca explains. “Flea markets are excellent places for these discoveries, although the pieces are becoming more difficult to find. I used to always find very thick raised embroideries every trip. Now I find one every 2-3 trips. The really special textiles are getting rarer.” Rebecca has enough inventory for at least the next 5 years which she says is “kind of like oil reserves” and will keep her “ahead of the pack.” These embellishments are all antiques which are carefully removed and then placed on new fabric to give the embroideries a “new life” on a one-of-a-kind pillow.
REACHING A LARGER AUDIENCE
With the worldwide web, Rebecca’s work is now accessible to a much larger potential buyer pool than during the early days when she traveled around selling pillows out of her trunk. Eliza Sartor, Rebecca’s business manager, took advantage of the COVID shutdown to develop a new website (www.bvizdesign.com). She added more products besides pillows with help from Sarah and Bess Hogue, the St. Joseph shop manager. As a result of their efforts, in spite of the pandemic the business had a better year than usual. “I don’t think I could have done what I have done without the internet and easy ability to communicate with people all over the world,” Rebecca says. “It has almost leveled the playing field for designers who don’t live in the cities.”
The downside of web marketing is that people can copy Rebecca’s work from the images they see. “Someone is taking the images from my website and having bad copies made in China,” Rebecca explains. “It is disheartening because I am close to retirement age, but I have 8+ people counting on me for their livelihood. The copies are obviously not my pillows, but I don’t want them to cheapen the look. I think plagiarism is one of the biggest problems in the design world today.”
Ideas for new products come to Rebecca often (about every 10 minutes, she says) and from sudden epiphanies. For example, she was looking at a pile of antique vestment fabric scraps left over after the metallic trim had been removed. She had been throwing each remnant in a box. She noticed that they were all Christmas colors so she had mini-Christmas ornaments made from them. Her popular Fortuny dog collars came from the long, skinny scraps left over from pillows. “I like to keep the dog collars going because my favorite thing is to see a rescue dog in Fortuny. It’s such a Cinderella story!” Both of these items sell so well that she now has to buy the materials to make them.
THE CHALLENGES OF SMALL TOWNS
In 2015 Rebecca published Once Upon a Pillow: A Story of Home, Design, and Exquisite Textiles. The book is now in its 3rd printing and sells not only in America, but also in London and Paris. Rebecca has met many people through her book, including new textile dealers overseas. The book was a major step in bringing awareness not only to Rebecca’s work, but also to her hometown.
One year later, Rebecca took the proverbial deep breath and opened her first retail shop in St. Joseph. Two years later, she opened her second one, this time in New Orleans. She says that if she had stayed in a big city, she would probably have found a job she liked and would never have started her own business. “I never thought that I wanted to have my own line at any time. It just kind of happened from forging on from one thing to another,” Rebecca says.
Rebecca knew that starting a business in an economically depressed area would be challenging. For one, there is a very limited labor force available. When Rebecca would hire someone and spend a lot of time training them, they would disappear when their earnings reached near the point where they would lose government benefits. Rebecca’s salvation came through finding older women who were gifted sewers. She tried a few until she found the most talented among them. Some ladies began making pillows on the side, but increased their production when they realized they could make a good living. Today Rebecca has 3 fulltime seamstresses and 2 part-time ones and hopes to hire more soon.
“Opening the shop in St. Joseph was very stressful at first because I had no idea if it would work or not, but I knew it would be good for the town. After a year I started feeling more positive about its sustainability,” Rebecca says. “After others opened shops in our precious little town I was thrilled. Seeing the town progress and revitalize has been most rewarding. But if it weren’t for the other cute and interesting shops and restaurants opening, I think I would have worn out. Kudos to the downtown team!”
Experience gained while volunteering in NOLA public schools and for a mentally challenged children’s organization while she was at Newcomb changed Rebecca. Both experiences were heartbreaking, but also filled with moments of heartwarming compassion. When she moved back to St. Joseph, she continued that spirit of “helping out” others. She taught art at the elementary school when there was no art teacher. She helped get the local farmers’ market started. “The first summer I sat there every Saturday morning selling $3 seasoning salt that Michael makes,” Rebecca remembers.
One of her more interesting “hometown projects” was the Bottle Cap Project. Through it, Rebecca taught at-risk children how to hammer and string bottle caps to sell to her to make chandeliers. She paid the children by the bottle cap, so they had to learn math before they could get a paycheck. The chandeliers are called “Beer-de-liers.” With this project, as with every job she has had, Rebecca learned something about mankind and the good and the bad. “Fortunately, the good outweighs the bad every time,” she says.
FAMILY, FUN AND THE FUTURE
Michael and Rebecca are a very happy pair, each perfect for the other. Each appreciates the other, and genuinely have fun just being together. Rebecca loves how caring and giving Michael is, and suspects that he has probably sacrificed a lot to help support her dream. “I’ve made him go places he would never have gone, but goes because he thinks I need a bodyguard!” she says. “He has encouraged me every time I have had a setback, and there have been many.”
Their two children, Sarah and Ross, are excellent travelers. Rebecca says they are very flexible and love good food and cooking. Both have red hair, and Ross married another redhead, Brooke Kinbro from Nashville. Ross and Brooke recently presented Michael and Rebecca with their first grandchild, a darling redhead named Vivian Louise. Rebecca hopes to be called “Bizzy” when the little one can talk. Sarah is actively involved in B. Viz Design and will take over the business someday. She even worked for a time in Bremmermann’s New Orleans shop, learning the business from her mother’s mentor.
One of Michael and Rebecca’s funniest travel adventures (among many) happened in Italy. They took a “bus to nowhere” on the advice of the hotel desk clerk who said to go where they were going by taxi would be much too expensive. They rode the bus and were dropped in a large field through which they hiked to get to the market Rebecca was seeking. Sweaty and dust-covered, they found so many textiles that Michael became concerned about how they would get them back to town. “I told him not to worry, that if the taxi cost 3oo Euros it would be worth it,” Rebecca explains. “Our cab back to the hotel was about $11. Clearly our biggest challenge is the language barrier!”
What does the future hold? Rebecca hopes that more grandchildren will be born, and that Sarah will become more the face of the business. She would love to travel more “for fun, not work” with Michael, and to also spend time creating things from her many ideas without the pressure of selling them. Golfing with Michael is a possibility, and creating topiaries. Rebecca would also love to create collages from antique textiles with painting and perhaps try crafting jewelry from textiles. Those ideas are obviously still coming every 10 minutes!
The little town of St. Joseph was very fortunate when hometown girl Rebecca moved back bringing with her enormous creative energy, a deep-seated love for home, and an unselfish heart that she has used to help bring hope to others. But Rebecca was very fortunate, too. After she left home to find her way in the world, Rebecca learned her most important life lesson — that the world had been right there at home all along.