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Casey Christie / The Californian

Once a high school teacher, Sandra Ramirez now has a shoe painting business she operates out of her home in Bakersfield.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Sandra Ramirez takes plain TOMS shoes and turns them into works of art in her Bakersfield home studio.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Sandra Ramirez hand-paints each pair of TOMS shoes she sells, with designs that can take from five minutes to three days to complete.

Sandra Ramirez can hardly believe her luck in the two years since she was laid off from her job at a local high school.

It started with a sense of relief. Standing at the head of a class was never really her thing. That became clear when she kept having to hide her amusement at student hijinks that, in retrospect, probably called for a firmer hand than her own.

"I really didn't like teaching," she said. "I kind of hated it."

Art was where her real interest lay. She had studied it in college, but her alma mater, Vanguard University, didn't offer art as a major. Teaching English became her career by default.

Her creative self never accepted this. Outside school she painted designs on fabric-top shoes and began selling them online.

When her layoff notice arrived in 2011, it seemed to her an opportunity to see how far the shoes might take her.

Quite a long way, it turns out.

Ramirez has turned her passion into a full-time business that she said sells an average of about 60 pairs of shoes a month to customers as far away as South Africa. Last holiday season she hired a few people to help her fill about 180 orders a month.

"Christmas was outrageous," she said with the enthusiasm of someone still surprised at her own success.

She also paints coffee mugs and other items, but shoes remain the focus. Several models sell for upwards of $120 a pair.

Her designs range from school mascots to well-known cartoon characters to one of her best-sellers, a stylized quotation from Paul the Apostle's first epistle to the Corinthians ("Love is patient, love is kind. ...").

There are occasional complications. Reproducing sports team logos, animation characters and such without the proper licenses has earned her warning letters from corporate lawyers.

"They just warn you," she said with a shrug. Her typical response to such correspondence is to remove the offending item from her Web store.

Ironically, perhaps, copycats have sprouted up who make and sell copies of her most popular designs.

"I'm like, what the heck?" Ramirez said. "That's my work! People stealin' it."

She's not overly concerned, though. At 27 years old, she is her own boss. The hours can be long and business unsteady, but she gets to work in pajamas and take vacations almost whenever she wants.

"It's pretty fantastic," she said in an interview inside the southwest Bakersfield home that serves as her studio and production facility. "I can play my music as loud as I want."

Riding a trend

The keys to her success have been product customization and the Internet as a link to niche customers around the world.

Though she lives in Bakersfield, Ramirez has made very few sales here. Instead, she posts photos of her work on two websites, one a retail site she produced (fruitfulfeet.com), the other a New York-based online marketplace for handcrafted goods (Etsy.com).

Both feature her TOMS shoes decorated with colorful images rendered in acrylic paint and markers.

A creative person since childhood, Ramirez first decided to post shoes for sale after a pair she made for herself received several compliments.

From her first sale to a young woman in Missouri, the volume of her orders quickly gained momentum, going from 20 a month in October 2011 to 40 the next month.

The orders come more from individuals than retailers. She is aware of only a couple of stores that sell her shoes, while buyers for personal use live all over the United States and places like South Korea, Australia, Sweden and United Arab Emirates.

A customer from Beloit, Kan., 17-year-old Ashley Ellenz, was struck by the quality of Ramirez's painting and lettering when her order arrived.

"'Where did you find those?!?' became a common question," Ellenz wrote in an email.

She also recalled feeling a personal connection with Ramirez, a friendship, because of the artist's offer to customize the shoes.

Nurturing such connections has proved profitable for Internet companies like Etsy and a Massachusetts-based service called CustomMade.

Both bypass chain store goods in favor of artisanal, one-of-a-kind products. The sites take a commission on sales; Etsy additionally charges a product listing fee, while CustomMade does not.

CustomMade co-founder Mike Salguero said artists like Ramirez are harnessing the Internet's power to connect with far-flung customers seeking specialized products.

Just five years ago, he said, those relationships were out of reach for artists and craftsmen. It cost them money to take part in a trade show, and it was expensive to haul their products to and from an event where sales were far from guaranteed.

"Everything was like, 'Hey, pay us a lot of money and wait and see,'" said Salguero, whose company motto is "Things mean more when they're made for you."

Ramirez's own operation is very cost-effective. Most of the year she is her only employee, and she's able to write off part of her home as a work expense.

With minimal inventory on hand, she buys plain TOMS shoes at a discount from a store at Valley Plaza. Buying wholesale is out of the question, she said, because the manufacturer offers only retail pricing unless the buyer has a storefront, and Ramirez said she's not ready for that.

At home, it takes her between five minutes and three days to paint a single pair of shoes. After the paint dries, she packages and ships daily from her front door.

Marketing is done on her computer tablet at night. She relies mostly on social media to spread word of her business, though she has participated in trade shows.

At times, she said, things can get to feeling mechanical. That's when she needs -- and finds -- outside inspiration.

Sometimes it arrives in the form of a new craft, like crocheting. She recently picked up that skill by watching instructional videos posted online at YouTube.

Other times she applies her painting to new materials. The coffee mugs were one example; another: rhinestone-studded high heels.

"It takes forever, but I sell them for a lot of money. So that's nice," she said.

For a real jolt she goes out shopping -- not to buy things, but to see what others are making. She said she heads out to HomeGoods and Bobbi's Hallmark, then comes home with a slew of new ideas.

"That's my inspiration," she said.

Really, though, she sees no end to her creativity. Her optimism keeps her going toward the next project.

"I have tons of ideas. I'm so creative," she said with a big smile. "I want to do anything and everything."