Late one night, painter Traci Lorraine Farmer is on the phone with her mother, Mary Nichole Milton. As her brush sweeps across a large, tall canvas, moving with confidence, her voice echoes down the long hallway of her empty art studio. Mary is worried about Traci working all alone at SwitchHouse, literally a former switch house on the wrong side of the railroad tracks in Raleigh, NC. She offers to bring over coffee and see her new work.
It has been more than a decade since Traci last painted. Between making a living and starting a family, she hasn’t had time to focus on her creative passions. Now, forgoing sleep, she pursues her art after her kids have gone to bed. When Mary arrives with coffee, she is stunned by what she sees. The breathtaking subtleties of Traci’s first new painting brings her to tears. In that moment, she feels that all their struggles have been worth it.
Traci is very young when her parents divorce. An only child, she grows up lonely and doesn’t start a relationship with her dad, who has moved out of town, until she is seven years old. Mary, a hair stylist, works relentlessly, trying to support them as a single mom. On weekends, she takes Traci with her as she travels all over the country giving advanced hair styling classes. “The hairdressers raised her as well,” Mary says. “She became a wonderful people person and well-traveled.”
Although steeped in the hair business, Traci develops a passion for art. Both she and Mary borrow money so she can attend the Atlanta College of Art. When Traci is 18, her father plans to drive her to start school there. As she remembers it, he gets into “trouble” the night before and doesn’t make it. She sets off on her own, with the dog that he gave her.
After a couple of years, Traci can no longer afford the tuition. On a dark, stormy day, Mary helps her pack all her belongings into a rented moving truck and make the seven-hour drive back to Raleigh. They have plenty of time to contemplate next moves in the front bench seat, with Traci’s dog fidgeting between them.
Once back in Raleigh, she studies for a hairstyling license and waits on tables at Margaux's, a new restaurant in town. The co-owner, Steve Horowitz, is supportive of young creative types. One of the bartenders, Joe Farmer, plays in a band and also DJs at a club. The head bartender, Jim Beriau, dreams of owning his own restaurant one day. They and other young staffers often go out to unwind after work. One night, Traci gets into a deep, spiritual conversation with Joe. From a respected family, he aspires to lead a fulfilling, creative life. She knows she has found a kindred soul. They fall in love and have remained true to their young ideals. On their 17th wedding anniversary in January, Joe posts on Instagram, “She says she’s still crazy about me. What can I say? I’m lovable.”
Joe aspires to write screenplays, so they head to Los Angeles in 1995. While he works on film productions, Traci starts an apprenticeship with Jim Wayne, the renowned stylist and manager from Vidal Sassoon, who has recently started his own Beverly Hills salon.
Charman Driver, a close friend, remembers meeting Traci while on a visit to Los Angeles. As their husbands are friends, they all have a drink together at Skybar in the Mondrian Hotel. In that uber-trendy pool bar, Charman remembers Traci standing out with her effervescence. “Dressed in a 1950s vintage yellow outfit, she was vibrant and beautiful, but didn’t take herself seriously at all,” she says.
That effortless Southern charm, plus exceptional hairstyling technique and a lot of hustle, allow her to build up a substantial clientele at Jim Wayne Salon. Yet for her and Joe, a life fulfilled includes a family of their own. They decide to move back to Raleigh so they can have kids near their relatives. It takes a village as well as an affordable city.
Although they return in 2000, and Traci starts up her Crazy Combs salon, she remains bi-coastal for two years. Every month, she flies to Los Angeles for 10 days to keep appointments with clients. She finally gives up this routine when she’s nine months pregnant with her first child.
Not only is their son, Jackson, born in 2002, but Joe partners with their old friend, Jim Beriau, to buy Humble Pie restaurant that year. Churning out beautiful, inventive dishes in a friendly, inviting environment, Joe finds the restaurant business as challenging as any Hollywood production. The hours can be even longer, since Humble Pie is open till 10:00 pm during the week and past midnight on the weekends.
When their daughter, Ava, is born in 2004, their lives get even more hectic. Traci grows closer to her mother, as she realizes her strong work ethic and energy come from Mary’s example. In fact, Traci creates a suite for Mary within the Crazy Combs space so her mother can continue her hair business. Among other things to make her mom feel appreciated, she buys her Brighton jewelry, knowing that she loves the designs, and surprises her with a big 65th birthday party. She also develops more of a relationship with her father and half-siblings. Of her parents‘ frailties during her youth, she says, “They were loving people. I became a person who loved unconditionally and forgave.”
Although she devotes space at Crazy Combs to show other artists’ work, Traci doesn’t resume creating her own until after Ava starts school. Given their schedules, she needs to wait until Joe gets home from Humble Pie before she can leave for SwitchHouse, where she often works until 3:00 a.m.
It’s about 2:00 a.m. when Mary arrives with coffee and cries at the sight of Boat, Maine Winter. Several years later, she still chokes up at the memory of that moment when she sees Traci’s potential realized in the layers and layers of water, shadows and sky. The piece sells immediately, and Traci receives her first showing at Flanders Gallery in 2008.
Coming full circle, Steve Horowitz from Margaux's begins to follow her work. He exhibits her most recent Industry pieces at the restaurant from January through March.
Even with so much on her palette -- family, business, art and an adorable new Golden Retriever named Walter -- Traci finds time to volunteer at Underwood elementary school as an artist-in-residence. She recently oversees all the second-graders as they create self-portraits through collage. All two hundred pieces are being displayed at CAM Raleigh on May 1. “She’s selfless with her limited time,” says Charman, now board chair of that contemporary museum. “People confide in her, and she has a keen ear to their needs. She’s always giving back to friends, family and community.”
As her kids grow up, she hopes to have more time to create and give back. For Traci, both are essential elements of a life fulfilled. Meanwhile, both Crazy Combs and SwitchHouse participate in First Friday, Raleigh’s monthly free opportunity to explore cultural hot spots. Whether at the salon or the studio, people can walk in and experience a brush with greatness.