By Holly Jo Linzay
Veretta Garrison-Moller embraces life as a creative risk-taker. The artist, who recently opened her own studio at the River Oaks Square Arts Center in Alexandria, has a history of making bold choices in her life. “I’m one to just jump in at anything. I like challenges and I am very determined. If you jump in, you can always jump out. Messing up is not a bad thing,” Veretta explains with a bright smile. She likes to give a Babe Ruth analogy about her life citing how the “Big Bambino” actually struck out 1,330 times in his career, but that he is a legend in baseball because of the 714 home runs he hit. “If you are not willing to miss, you are not going to hit a home run. I’ve never been afraid to strike out by trying something,” Veretta adds. It is that very woman-of-action approach that has resulted in a variety of successes in Veretta’s multilayered life as a businesswoman and artist.
She grew up in Cleveland, and after graduating from high school, she earned her bachelor’s degree in foreign languages from Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio. Although she majored in German and Latin mainly, Veretta can speak fluently in half a dozen languages. Two of her college years were spent at the Heidelberg campus in Germany, where she perfected her German. “There were 10,000 students there, and I was the only black female student. The experience definitely influenced me and helped me be more open and more understanding of all kinds of people,” Veretta recalls.
While working on her master’s degree in linguistics at the University of Wisconsin, Veretta met and later married Dr. John Garrison, a mathematician. For a time, Veretta taught German to high school students, and then later taught an adult education class in German. The two moved to Buffalo, N.Y. in the late ‘60s, and it was there that Veretta first became interested in creating art pieces “just because.” She painted impressionistic oils and created her first multi-media collage. Veretta entered her very first two artistic attempts in an exhibit at the Niagara Falls mall, and won first place in separate categories on each piece. “My first two art pieces sold that day,” says Veretta.
Eventually, Veretta and her husband, along with their three sons, Jeffrey, John Jr., and Jason, moved to Washington, D.C. Veretta started exploring other artistic mediums. “I started painting three feet by four feet-sized acrylic abstracts. One of the Kennedys bought one,” she explains. Every Saturday in Georgetown, Veretta would exhibit and sell her mixed-media collages and macramé wall hangings. After awhile, the family moved to Rochester, N.Y. On a whim, Veretta decided to open a women’s clothing shop in the basement of her home, which became so successful she was able to open a high-end fashion women’s clothing store in the suburbs of Rochester. The store, which was named “Veretta,” was featured in a “USA Today” newspaper article. Veretta’s clothing boutique became a popular spot for fashion shows and trunk shows. It was not long before Veretta appeared quite frequently as a guest personality on area TV shows and as a commentator for predicting fashion trends.
From 1973 to 1988, Veretta owned and operated the fashion store herself. During that time, she had become a single mother. By the time 1989 rolled around, Veretta’s youngest son enrolled in college. In an adventurous spirit, Veretta decided to hire a manager to run her store, and moved to New York City. A businesswoman familiar with Veretta’s artistic flair approached her about designing a plus-size clothing line for women. “Even though I had not ever designed clothes before, I said ‘yes.’ I thought I could do it, and I did it,” says Veretta, adding that decision prompted her to start designing her own clothes.
The first garment she designed was a denim jacket with Swarovski Crystal embellishments. “I made just one and put it in a fashion show. My very first client was Debbie Gibson, a pop singer, whose agent ordered four of the jackets for Debbie,” recalls Veretta. At another show, a buyer from a Canadian store ordered 200 denim jackets at $400 a piece. “I didn’t have a clue of what I was doing. I found a manufacturer and educated myself very quickly. I hired an overseer of production. It was a crash course 101,” explains Veretta.
She developed her own unique style and created an entire line of sportswear. After hiring a representative, Veretta displayed her fashion line with “Veretta” on the label at a showroom. Buyers from Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom were soon placing orders for her blouses, pants and skirts. Veretta’s design for a T-shirt was selected in 1990 to be the official design for Nelson Mandela’s tour of the United States. The day Mandela spoke at Yankee Stadium, 17,000 of the T-shirts she designed sold. Her clothing line diversified, and Veretta, who is petite, soon launched her own plus-size clothing line for women.
In September of 1996, Veretta’s son, Jeffrey, invited her to watch a football game with him between Yale and Brown universities. Jeffrey was serving as Yale’s medical doctor at the time. “After the game, we were walking in the parking lot and I told him I did not feel well. So I laid down in the parking lot, and looked up and saw a bright light,” Veretta recalls. Two weeks later, she woke up from a coma to discover she had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and massive stroke. “I could not talk or walk. I could not feed myself. I had to learn how to do everything all over again,” remembers Veretta. For months, she was in the intensive care unit, followed by extensive rehabilitation. She underwent four therapies a day. “That was my full-time job. You don’t even think about business. I was trying to coordinate my energy. I would wake up smiling and saying, ‘Thank you, God, that I am alive, that I get a second chance. It is absolutely a blessing,” says Veretta.
Although she eventually was able to complete her rehabilitation on an outpatient basis, for several years, Veretta would relapse or undergo a health crisis situation that would end in the emergency room. I’d go to New York City and then find myself unable to move while shopping in one of the stores,” Veretta recalls. In the late ‘90s, Veretta started working on her master’s degree in intercultural relations, and sometimes she would “pass out” in class and end up in the hospital. Eventually, she became a consultant for several national corporations working with their employees on diversity and interpersonal communication issues. She worked with city governments by conducting cultural audits. As a stroke survivor, she helped develop a physician-patient partnership program and even went on lecture tours with her doctor.
Veretta continued working as a consultant, but in 2004, she decided to move to Alexandria to be closer to her sons and two grandchildren, Jered and Anniina. She had been dating Clifford Moller in New York City, and in October 2004, Veretta and Clifford were married. Clifford is the executive director of the Greater Alexandria Economic Development Authority. Veretta is serving as the second vice president for the board of directors for the Arts Council of Central Louisiana. For several years, Veretta has been a silver medalist in the 1,500-meter race walk in the Senior Olympics, and plans to compete again. She was the founder of the National Black Women’s Health Project. Her life after the stroke has taken on a deeper depth, Veretta explains. “I have a deeper understanding on how to focus on what is really important, and to focus on the moment you are in,” she adds.
Her artwork has evolved and has become the culmination of the “threads” of her life. Her latest works celebrate cultural diversity. Incorporating paper from all over the world, Veretta uses shells, feathers, beads, fabrics and textiles to create her most recent multi-media abstracts. She recently returned from a week-long stint in New York City where she contracted with a manufacturer for her new apparel line. Veretta’s Art-Ts feature textile and Swarovski Crystal embellishments, reminiscent of her collage collections that the designs originate from. In addition, her abstracts will also be developed into designer pillows. Currently, Veretta’s art pieces can be viewed at her gallery and at the LSU Museum of Art store in Baton Rouge. Next October, Veretta’s collages will be featured in a one-artist show at the River Oaks Square Arts Center in Alexandria.