Angela “An” Medlin discovered her creative self scribbling in notebooks from the Hamlet feed store or — if money was tight — on the wall her grandparents set aside for that purpose.
Her earliest memories are of herself at 3, the daughter of an eighth-grade dropout who fell pregnant at 15 and cared for her new baby in the shack where she, herself, had yet to leave childhood.
The shack had no running water and no toilets, inside or out. No heat, except from a wood stove, and no insulation. If you poked your finger into the wall, nothing would keep it from touching the air outside.
“That was my first experience of being creative,” Medlin says: When you live in circumstances that force you to improvise, you find unconventional — creative — ways to do things.
Now in her 50s, Medlin lives in Portland, Oregon, far from that tumble-down house in Hamlet in more ways than geographically. Always an artist, she has worked for Adidas, Nike, Air Jordan, The North Face, Eddie Bower.
Last year, she founded a program to train underserved and budding designers in footwear design: FAAS (pronounced “faze”), the Functional Apparel & Accessories Studio at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. A local newspaper headline called FAAS the “World’s First Sneaker Design School.”
Medlin also has been profiled in her alumni and Essence magazines, and on the website Outdoor Afro, which calls itself the place that “black people and nature meet” and quotes Medlin as reminiscing about a childhood of skinned knees, the smell of wood smoke and “pure freedom!”
This month, Schoolhouse Electric & Supply Co. features Medlin and her dog, Wubbi, in its online and print catalogues.
Schoolhouse, which sells upscale home furnishings and hardware, describes Medlin as a “creative entrepreneur and small business owner” who lives in a 110-year-old, sparely decorated house whose decor uses many of the items Schoolhouse sells (a green metal stool, a pot hanger in the kitchen, a Shaker-style bedroom chair).
Medlin smiles coyly in one photo, broadly in others, often accompanied by her dog, Wubbi, the inspiration for her newest creative endeavor: House Dogge, a line of personalized pet toys that Schoolhouse will sell.
Quotations alongside her photos — in which she wears athleisurewear — say such things as: “I never put limitations on my imagination. Anything I’m truly passionate about flows through all parts of my life.”
Still, unless you’re a family member or longtime friend, Angela Medlin probably is one of the most famous people you’ve never heard of.
“There are a lot of people who are doing amazing things, but nobody’s really singing their song.” — Angela Medlin
In the notebooks from the feed store, Medlin said in a recent interview, she drew legs, Afros, faces — with each weekly book dedicated to one theme. One book, she said, she filled with faces without noses because noses somehow detracted from the look she liked.
When she was 4, her mother, Alice, married into a family who were more conventional in their behaviors than Alice, Angela and her grandparents had been. (No more drawing on the walls.) And Angela slowly became “the strange one” — an artist in a world in which, her mother says, there was little other art.
“It taught me to think left brain/right brain,” Medlin said of living with her new family. Still, “there were times that I didn’t feel like I fit in.”
In the sixth grade, she said, “I started teaching people how to draw. I could not believe that everyone didn’t know how to draw.” She would craft assignments for her students, send them home to work and “grade” their work when they brought it back to school.
In junior high and high school, she was quiet but popular, always hanging out with a crowd.
She became a cheerleader. She ran track. She bargained with her teachers, trading art for being excused from assignments she didn’t find useful or challenging.
When it came time to enter N.C. State in 1986, she said, “my mom was concerned.”
“I want to make sure you’re not a starving artist,” she said, so Medlin enrolled in engineering because she also loved mathematics.
Once there, though, “I was just looking around (and decided), ‘This is not creative.’”
She approached the school of design, but “what I was interested in, they didn’t teach.” So, she said, she enlisted the “most feared” professor in the school to help her craft a personal curriculum.
After she graduated, she worked awhile as a nanny, said her mother, Alice. But Medlin hated it and came home to Hamlet, making a studio in a building in her mother’s backyard and cranking out a portfolio that snared her an interview with the fledgling Cross Colours fashion-design company in California.
In its first year, the company made $90 million designing for big names in the music business. And Angela Medlin took the first step toward a challenging and profitable career.
Now, she has the luxury of doing what she wants to do, whether it be her passion project with Pensole at PNCA, or working with her own brand, DESIGNED (the first “D” is backwards in the logo) to develop “customizable, minimalistic, handcrafted fun” for House Dogge.
“I think it’s a natural thing” to be independent now, she said. “I have fun. I don’t feel obligated to do anything.”
“Everything that I’ve ever done was a passion of mine. I (am) a person driven by bigger things. I’ve felt like the world was bigger, and there’s so much more (to do).” — Angela Medlin
Medlin’s mother, Alice, shuffles through a sheaf of photos and articles that feature her eldest daughter, Angela.
There’s the article from Essence magazine, laminated to preserve it. And the one from the N.C. State alumni magazine, which featured Angela Medlin when she was just starting out. But there’s nothing from Richmond County.
Unless you’re family or know Medlin on Facebook, you probably don’t know anything about her.
Alice Medlin also has a stack of old photos, over which Angela has double-exposed her face. One shows the shifting shack in which Angela spent the first four years of her life, running into and out of it to play in the dirt with her cousins.
The shack is gone now, but Alice and Angela Medlin endure.
Of their difficult early life together, Alice Medlin says: “We’re just 15 years apart. We basically grew up together.”
Alice, who had become pregnant and was forced to drop out of school, was determined her daughters would follow a different path.
Angela was a quiet but popular child, Alice says, theorizing that perhaps some of the quietness stemmed from her height; Angela got her growth spurt early and, for a time, towered over her classmates.
At 15, Angela went to work because her mother told her she needed to learn to budget and to help with household expenses: “You can’t spend my money if you don’t know how to spend yours,” she said.
And there were curfews. A chart on the fridge on which Alice ticked off infractions that would eliminate the girls’ time hanging out with friends.
“(I monitored) my girls because I knew what I went through,” Alice says. “I wasn’t my children’s friend. I was their mother.”
Alice proudly shows a yellowing certificate of achievement Angela earned from the Art Instruction Schools, whose advertisement Angela found in the back of a magazine. When Angela began college, she already had amassed a few credits for the $12 a month her mother invested in lessons from the “institute.”
“I was cultivating her for what she wanted to do,” Alice says simply.
For the high school prom, Angela designed her own yellow dress, which boasted 22 buttons and loop closures down the back. It was, Alice says, a dress “way beyond anybody else’s imagination” — and torturous for the woman anointed to sew it.
Alice admits she has referred to Angela as her “strange one” — her other daughters are an accountant and a lawyer, and Alice herself has earned her nursing degree — because Alice had no idea how art became Angela’s passion. She wasn’t exposed to it at home. She barely had the tools to make it.
“That’s always haunted her,” Alice says of the label. But who else but Angela would buy a used gun cabinet and turn it into a shelf for her glassware?
High school friend Missy Allen Edens remains impressed by and still keeps in touch with Angela, although Missy lives in Morrisville and Angela, in Portland.
“I latched on to her because she’s just a beautiful soul,” Edens remembers. “I was drawn to her.”
Now, “look how she’s come from Hamlet” and faced so many trials, Edens says. “She’s blossomed, for sure. She loves challenges. She can’t do something mundane.
“I’ve always admired her ability to create.”
“I hope (my story) inspires someone to take more chances, dream bigger, own their talent and be curious about what they can offer the world as a creative (person).” — Angela Medlin, on being interviewed for the Richmond County Daily Journal
Medlin’s mother, Alice, says Angela (at right, in the hat) always ran around with a group of friends. Many of those friends still come by, Alice Medlin says, although she isn’t always sure who they are because so much time has passed.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]