The upside of being in quarantine, for many people, was reconnecting with hobbies and creative passions. One person, however, who has never lost touch with her passion is Catherine Watt, the owner of Townsville Art Classes, but the pandemic did force her to embrace technology.
Four years ago Catherine was a relief art teacher in secondary education when she decided to take the plunge and turn her hobby and passion into a business. She said she had always wanted to have her own art school, teaching adults.
“I considered teaching at TAFE but they needed me to retrain and follow their procedures. I didn’t want that! I wanted to teach adults fundamental skills and engage their passion… and I didn’t want to do it following anyone else’s guidelines!”
Catherine joined a painting group at the Townsville Art Society which operated out of hut 26 at Jezzine Barracks. She fell in love with the venue and discovered it was available for hire. The time was right! Her kids were adults, she was an experienced teacher, and her inspiration was flowing after visiting Europe for the first time, and touring many iconic art galleries. Townsville Art Classes was ready to be born!
Initially, Catherine offered daytime and evening weekday classes but quickly added Sunday ‘Paint and Sips’ after getting the idea from a travel companion.
“I really enjoy the ‘Paint and Sips’ They’re four hours on a Sunday afternoon and perfect for people who work and don’t have time to attend a weekday course. I provide a platter and people bring their own wine. It’s a lovely relaxed event where people paint, chat and sip!”
Catherine stresses that her ‘Paint and Sip’ sessions are fun, but definitely skill-based; teaching participants painting techniques, so that they walk out with a finished piece of work they’re proud of.
When asked about the difficulties she’s faced in her business, Catherine is quick to point out that technology is not her strong point!
“I started using Eventbrite for bookings but couldn’t work out how many people had booked, so more people turned up than I had canvasses for! I had to refund money, send apologetic emails… it was a big learning curve.”
Catherine’s philosophy is that every time you have a win in business, it’s your win… and every time you make a mistake, it’s your mistake. She believes in celebrating the wins and learning from the mistakes.
“People are very understanding as long as you’re upfront and do the right thing. Honesty is very important in business.”
When asked about her fears, Catherine said her greatest fear was boring people by running an activity that nobody likes. To counteract this, she always does the activity herself, from start to finish, and, if she’s still unsure, she asks someone she trusts for their honest feedback.
“That way I rarely get things wrong, and it’s very important because if people are doing something they don’t enjoy, it’s no fun for them or me! Luckily, a lot of my projects feature animals and flowers, which are always popular. One of my most popular images was a very colourful pig!”
When asked what she loves about her business, Catherine doesn’t hesitate.
“My clients! They’re always ready and eager to learn… which isn’t always the case with high school students!” she laughs.
“I teach a lot of people who are retired; who have given themselves to their families and businesses and who’ve wanted to paint but never had the time. Now they’re finally following their passion… and succeeding!”
Catherine knows from experience that art is very therapeutic.
“It allows you to forget your worries. My classes give clients space away from their responsibilities…a cocoon where they can be in the moment. That’s why it’s important for me to find something everyone likes. I feel like I have a bit of a responsibility to be a crowd pleaser!”
Covid-19 was, of course, challenging for Catherine.
“I had no venue but people wanted to keep painting, particularly my retirees who were isolated. I felt a sense of personal responsibility to keep going, as well as a responsibility to my business. You’ve always got to challenge yourself and I’m not someone to sit around.”
One of Catherine’s clients, Karen Ruhl, a maths tutor, posted something online that got Catherine’s attention.
“She said ‘Covid-19 hasn’t beaten me – I’ve worked out Zoom!’. I didn’t really know what Zoom was at that point but I knew we had similar businesses; so I quickly did some research and made Karen an offer. I said if you help me with Zoom I’ll give you free art lessons for the rest of your life! She agreed.”
Catherine ran a few trial Zoom classes to iron out any problems. After her first evening trial, she was told that her reds looked brown. As a lover of vibrant colours, Catherine was horrified! She quickly upgraded the lighting in the room before the next class.
“My clients were great at providing feedback and they were very straight shooters,” she laughed.
Catherine took on the Zoom classes knowing it wouldn’t be a great money-making venture.
“It kept the wheels spinning and it was good for me professionally and personally.”
Catherine said, one of the exciting upsides of Zoom was having international participants in her class.
“In my Monday night class I had a lady from England, a friend of my sister’s, plus a previous client of mine from the United States… who bravely got up at 4.30am!”
Now that Catherine can teach face-to-face again, she is still continuing with Zoom. She has found a niche; teaching people who are too busy to attend classes but want to get together to paint with a group of friends. These friends congregate in one house and use one computer to watch Catherine’s demonstrations.
“They’re not absolute beginners, they just need me to give them an excuse to get together and paint with a glass of wine and some nibbles!”
When Catherine thinks about her experiences as a business owner, the thing that strikes her the most is the support she’s received.
“I have people who wash-up the cups at the end of class, or help me carry stuff out to my car. A lot of my clients are business people and ex-teachers and they give me great ideas and honest feedback. I also have a wonderful husband who sets up my ‘Paint and Sips’ and never gets anything wrong!
“I couldn’t run my business without the support of my husband, family, friends and wonderful clients… but the icing on the cake is being able to share my love of art with people. I have my weak spots, (technology!) but I know that I can teach art and I love sharing my passion.
“I’m so much happier now that I’m following my dream…and meeting so many nice people along the way!”
By Susan Mattocks for BDmag