We first met Debbee Thibault over 25 years ago at one of the preeminent folk art events in Southern California, and what a fateful meeting it was. Debbee Thibault's first Santa was made in 1985. Her collectible line was made of a paper composition that was poured into molds taken directly from her original paper mache designs. Each piece was then hand painted and the pressed paper charms added. All pieces were signed and hand numbered, and very limited. Her workshop was located in Southern CA. Traditions carried many Debbee Thibault items, including glass ornaments that were many collector's favorites from her line of folk art decor. We decided it would be fun to catch up with Debbee and see what she had been up to to, since retiring from making her fabulous folk art.
Debbee, since there is probably a new generation of collectors out there that may not be lucky enough to know who you are, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a collector first and believe that it is important to surround yourself with the things that you love and whatever moves you, especially in times like this where folks are at home a lot more.
l think my love for holiday decorating is what started me on my career path.
Let's go back in history a little bit. Tell us what your younger life was like! Where did you grow up, and were you always creative?
I have had some college education but really never had a direction. I worked at Disneyland for 5 years in my teens and had jobs with sales. I loved working for a company called Lasting Endearments. They were a collectibles manufacturer with famed designer, Lynn West.
My biggest job was becoming a mom.
Debbee, how did you get into creating art? Did you grow up drawing characters or figures that inspired you?
l did sketch when I was young but l was not that great at it. I was not moved in the way l was when making something completely out of nothing. I always sketch a design first, but my art was always changing while in the process of creating.
l was also fascinated with antiques at a very young age, probably because I grew up in a Southern California neighborhood with homes that were built between 1900 and 1955. Every house was unique in its style and oh how l loved the differences. Some were mansions and some were modest like mine, but with lots of charm. My neighborhood was the best, especially around the holidays. Fall was always my favorite season and when we were getting ready for trick or treating, my dad would take me down to Newberry's Department Store. I loved seeing the wide array of wonderful Halloween items on display.
Those great memories encouraged me to carry on with my family’s traditions and as a young mother l really did not have a lot of extra money to spend on things. But, l would see antique Santas here and there and was always touched by the age of the items and the expressions on their faces. I wondered how they survived with such care over the years. I also thought about the people who might have made the little paper mache, glass or chalkware holiday figures, as well as the stories of households where these little goodies might have lined up on a bookshelf or fireplace mantel. I wanted to one day see my figures decorate people’s homes, and possibly inspire traditions too!
We got to know you when you founded Debbee Thibault's American Collectibles in 1995, just one year after we opened Traditions! When did you know that you wanted to start your own collectible line?
I started my line totally out of desperation, because I was a young single mom with two kids and I needed to support us. I knew that l could sell my art because I had done so for stores in the 80’s, and they were so popular then that l could not keep up with the demand. So, I started my fledgling little company, but it grew so much that I actually had to incorporate in 1994, and the rest was as we say is history! Going to work was a daily delight. l had a great team of people to help me. We went on for 20 years turning out new designs twice a year. Each item had the look of an antique but with a contemporary twist.
One of our favorite things about your line is that you designed figures for every holiday. What is your favorite character and/or your favorite holiday to create figures for?
I guess the Spirit of Good Cheer is my favorite, because he is great to display anytime and he had such character. My favorite time of the year is the fall going into the winter months. Fall was always my favorite season, because those paper jack o' lanterns left a big impression on me. But Christmas would come and it was always festive and full of fun with wonderful decorations that my folks and others would use to decorate their houses, inside and out. More than likely, they were from the five & dime, but they might as well have been jewels to me.
I bet it was fun to design your fabulous figures, create something you love and then receive such critical acclaim from fans and critics. For decades you were at the top of your field. Was it all you expected?
l have to pinch myself when l think about how truly surreal it was to own a successful business for so many years. When I first started l was clueless, but maybe that is why it was so great (naivete!). The next phase was figuring out how to turn it into a real business, and I did! l had joined the Small Business Administration and one of the members of this group mentored me through my first year. l was very lucky to have his guidance from. It was fabulous and everything l had hoped and thought it would be... although there were, of course, just a few bumps in the road!
Where do you think the trends are moving?
I have never been one to settle on a trend, but I know what I like and what makes me feel happy and warm. I love many different looks and when I have the chance to visit the homes of friends, it's neat to see the way they decorate, whether it be modern, mid century, or furnished with relics of the past. To each his own, l say. We are all unique! You can always add different things to your collection but hang on to the things that you love. They will always inspire you and make you happy.
At Traditions, Debi and her family are invested in learning about what the customer likes and they make it a point to carry the full gambit of the collectibles we all love. There are very few people that are in the know like they are at Traditions. Even now I still peruse and shop the Traditions site. They have such a full range of decorations and feature the newest artists that are creating products we all love.
Trends will always come and go, so be true to yourself and collect what you love!
One of the best memories of owning our business, Traditions, was the in-store signing events we used to host for our artists. Your events had 100's of people lining up around the outside of our store to meet you and have pieces signed. Do you miss those signing events and do you still hear from collectors that you met at those events?
Debi and her family from Traditions would put on a terrific day for me! The signing event would, of course, feature my work and allow me to meet with my collectors and sign figures they had purchased. One of my favorite parts of the day was that Debi’s dad, Gary, would make his famous chili to share with those who came to visit. There was never a dull moment at these events, as well as the occasional movie star that might drop by!
Did you keep one of everything you have ever created? And if you did, do you decorate your own home with them?
Yes! l did keep the originals and l do bring them out at different times of the year to decorate for the holidays. People who visit still marvel at them, which is nice.
I think it seems logical that you would want to grow your business and add a glass ornament line created in the likeness of your figures. Was that fun working in another medium?
The glass ornaments were a great addition to my line. Unfortunately, l got into the glass ornament game a little late. The economy was off and I was competing with so many other wonderful manufacturers. I would still like to be making the ornaments in Germany, but many of the factories have closed now.
In 2014, you made the decision to close your business. Was that a difficult decision?
Closing was a very difficult decision for me. There are different reasons why. I was on top at the time, but I invested everything I had into the business. I did not want to sink another dollar into Debbee Thibault’s collectibles, so l felt it was time to close. Many of my little stores were also shutting their doors and not enough new ones were popping up. But Traditions is one of the very few truly GOOD ones still left!!!
Another one of the other reasons I decided to close my business in 2014 was because l realized that I could no longer compete with items coming from overseas. We made wonderful things to tickle people’s fancy and I wanted it to remain that way. And, l was actually in need of a rest, so the timing was great and l went out with a bang.
So that begs the question... How is retirement?!
I have a very full life. I was lucky to have such a wonderful business and l met wonderful people, both here at home and worldwide. l really do miss the gift shows as well as the hustle and bustle of things in the early 2000's, with the signing events and such... They were just the best!!!
One final question: Do you miss Debbee Thibault's American Collectibles enough to bring the line back?
I ABSOLUTELY LOVED THAT LITTLE BUSINESS but l would not want to work that hard again. Believe me, it was blood, sweat, and tears, as well as a true delight!!!
I just want to say that I LOVED ALL THE PEOPLE AND FRIENDS THAT I MET ALONG THE WAY AND THE TRAVEL... JUST WOW!!!!
We enjoyed catching up with Debbee and if this is your first time meeting her, we hope you enjoyed the conversation! We don't have any Debbee Thibault items at this time, but be sure to check back often and browse our other folk artists in the meantime!
-Debi and Debbee