Shelley Hesse's art hangs in collectors' homes from New York to the Galapagos Islands and spurred her eponymous Anthropologie line. But the native New Orleanian never set out to be an artist. "It was completely unexpected," she says. "One of those things you can't predict in life."

  Two years in Paris in her mid-20s exposed Hesse to the work of the masters. Though she studied journalism in college, she was driven to paint. "I had this overwhelming desire to express myself through lines and color rather than through words," says Hesse, who is self-taught. "It took over my whole life."

  Her career as an artist launched in an equally serendipitous fashion in 1999. Hesse was at a PJ's Coffee shop when she saw a woman peering in her station wagon, where framed art sat waiting to be hung in her apartment. "I thought, 'Oh Lord, she probably rear-ended me,'" Hesse says.

  The woman turned out to be a gallery owner. "She said, 'I'd love to show your work,'" Hesse says. The show sold out and was followed by many others. Hesse eventually left the gallery and sold her work directly to clients and decorators.

  "Before I had my kids, I did a lot of traveling and did my best to get my art spread as far as possible," she says. "I've always pushed myself to get out as far as I could go."

  In 2010, her work caught the eye of Anthropologie's staff, who visited her studio. "They asked me on the spot, 'Would you like to have your own line?'" Hesse says. "I said, 'Absolutely.'"

  Hesse recently launched her fifth collaboration with Anthropologie, a collection of fabrics, tableware, wallpaper and furniture adorned with her nature-inspired watercolors. She recently shifted her focus to large-scale works. She's in her studio seven days a week painting the flowers, sea life, birds and shells that inspire her.

  "I am happiest painting 35 to 50 hours a week," says Hesse, who donates a percentage of sales to nonprofits World Wildlife Fund, Gulf Restoration Network, Earthjustice and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, among others. "Some people say, 'What are you working on?' And I tell them 10 animals are waiting in line in my mind that I can't wait to paint. I shine a light on the beauty of the natural world one animal at a time."