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This Mom Saw a Need for Art Programming & Started A Kids Art Studio

by Rachel Withers
November 5, 2019

Erin DeThomas started a kids art studio after moving to Rhode Island and seeing a need for art programming in her area. Erin shares her personal experience running Makers over the last year. 

Two children painting with tempera sticks on sheet music
Two children working side by side on a collaborative piece with tempera paint sticks.

Shortly after moving to Rhode Island, Erin DeThomas (a former elementary school teacher) saw a need for visual arts classes, where kids could experiment and explore.

Not long after, she started Makers, an art studio for kids.

Erin’s story is so inspiring to me. In the last year she has built a professional brand and website, along with a beautiful online portfolio of her art classes.

I’m so excited to share my interview with her today here on The Artful Parent.

Child painting at recycled cardboard collage wall at kids art studio
Recycled Wall inspired by ArtBar & Creation Space!

Starting a Kids Art Studio

How did you start your kids art classes?

I started just last year because I couldn’t find any art classes for my kids (who were 2 & 4 at the time). There was music and dance, but not much else.

I felt there was a real need for a place where kids could experiment and explore with art materials. I also wanted to create a space where kids (especially the younger ones) worked collaboratively.

Parallel play is such a natural part of development. And parallel creating is a really natural part of art, but I believe it’s so beneficial to create opportunities that encourage collaboration and interaction.

I wanted my kids to have that, and I thought other parents might be interested in it as well.
Before I held my first art group, I chose a business name, registered the business and created a website.

I had recently moved to the area and really didn’t have a lot of connections to rely on, so I wanted to make sure from the beginning Makers was seen as a professional, legitimate organization.

I hung flyers all over town, put out a FaceBook ad, and was able to share the classes via the local Moms Club I was a member of.

My first few classes had only 2-4 kids, but for me that was enough!

Painting and decorating mermaid tails.
Mermaid tails made from cardboard for a 6 year old birthday party!

What did the transition starting a kids art studio look like?

I opened my own studio {Makers} in April 2018 – about a year after I started hosting the art classes. It’s a super small but sweet studio, and is such a dream come true.

It was definitely a leap of faith. I remember one friend saying, “Wow. I didn’t know you were at that level yet!” And honestly I probably wasn’t. But I felt like if I wanted to grow this thing I was doing, I needed my own space to do so.

I love having my own space and not having to pack up my “boxes of magic”. It also makes it so much easier to accommodate and adjust lessons because all of my materials are in one space. The business is still growing and people are still finding out about it. I am trying to give myself grace to accept it doesn’t happen overnight.

I know how many students I need each week to survive. So I set quarterly goals to keep me focused, and am constantly reflecting on the way things are going.

Once kids come into the studio, they typically come back, and I see that as a really good thing.

I also have my two young kids with me almost all the time (well, one is starting kindergarten *SOB*), so I’m always trying to find the balance. They come to lots of classes and spend a decent amount of time in the studio while I’m prepping or cleaning up.

It’s not always easy, but I’m so grateful to be able to have my career and personal life blend the way it does.

Child swatting paint onto canvas with fly swatter in kids art studio
Painting with fly swatters on one of our evolving canvases. Inspired by Creation Space!

Passion for Education

I have a Masters in Education and a HUGE passion for teaching, but I put my teaching career on hold when my daughter was just a few months old. I was teaching 5th grade at the time, and my husband got transferred to Canada. We decided it was much more important to be together, and so we all moved to Toronto.

At the time it felt like I was giving up my career, and that was extremely difficult for me. Teaching is my passion, and was a huge part of my identity. I didn’t know who I was without it. Then add in moving to a new place and being alone with a not-even-one-year-old… It was tough.

I threw myself into as many mom groups, clubs, meetups, baby yoga, playdates, etc. as I possibly could. We lived there for about three years before moving back to the States, and I now attribute that time to being my ‘Market Research’. When we came back (with another little baby in tow), I couldn’t find nearly as many opportunities for the kids here as there were in Toronto.

I never EVER thought I would own my own business or be in the place I am now. It’s pretty crazy actually. I feel really lucky to be doing this, and I am really proud of what I’ve accomplished so far.

Children at soapy car wash sensory station
Mud/ Car Pit Sensory Bin: Car Wash Sensory Bin inspired by Meri Cherry!

Where do you run your classes?

I started hosting classes at local state parks around town and in my backyard. I used my backyard for the Toddler Art Class which was ages 1-3. There was just SO much stuff I needed to run those classes, having them in my backyard was the easiest.

The classes I taught at the parks around town were for kiddos 4 and up. We live next to Colt State Park, which is an incredibly beautiful state park on the water, and that was my favorite place to hold classes. The wind made things difficult sometimes, but letting the kids paint outside in such a beautiful place was so much fun.

I live in New England (Rhode Island), so once summer is over it can get chilly and having the classes outside wasn’t such a viable option. I started renting space at a local art studio and a local farm until this past spring when I opened my own studio in April!

Kids creating mixed media collages
Cardboard donuts inspired by ArtBar!

What ages are your classes for and how did you decide on that? Do you have mixed age groups and how does this work for you in planning? 

I currently do a class for five and under, preschool/ kindergarten classes, K-5th grade, and sometimes just 4 & up.

Sometimes the five & under [age group]  is challenging to plan because not all the materials are safe for the little ones, but overall I really like mixing that age group.

It’s such a neat thing to watch the little kids observe and learn from the older ones, and watch the older ones get a confidence boost when helping the younger ones.

As for planning, I’ve found the majority of projects are accessible to all students at some level. What a 5th grader is able to do can be completely different than what a 1st grader is able to do, but most of the time it doesn’t matter.

At Makers I emphasize process art, so it’s all about the creative experience. It releases pressure on the outcome, and allows the kids to just settle in and create at their level.
My role is to support them on their creative journey, and that looks different for each student.

Child painting white sheet with liquid watercolors in kids art studio
Child painting draped white sheet with liquid watercolors.

How do you determine your session fee?

I force myself to really value my knowledge, time, and energy, and then add in the cost materials. There’s a lot of thought, planning, prep and clean up that goes into my classes, so I try to charge accordingly.

I did some market research to see what people were already paying for kid’s activities. I have gotten some push back on the cost of a class (most of my classes are $20), but I am confident in the quality of work I am putting out.

Watermelon Sensory Bin: Watermelon Sensory Bin with dyed rice, black beans, and green noodles!
Watermelon Sensory Bin with dyed rice, black beans, and green noodles!

Where do you get ideas for your projects and activities?

I feel like once I started living with creative intentions, I started to see things differently. I’m always looking at objects wondering if I could paint with them (or on them) or build with them (or on them). And what that would be like.

The Artful Parent was a huge resource for me when I was just starting out (and still continues to be).  I have a copy in my studio and am always telling parents about it).

As well as Meri Cherry and Alison Service (she’s got a process art studio in Canada). The Art Made Easy podcast gave me a lot of tips & tricks (and positive juju).

With the digital age that we’re in, there’s an endless amount of inspiration out there, and thank goodness for the people who are kind enough to share their ideas.

Child hammering nail into board with beads
Wooden Creations with 5 year olds! Inspired by Meri Cherry & Art Pantry.

How many different lessons or setups do you prep for per class?

This depends on the age of the students:

  • For my Mini Makers classes I have 3-5 activities going on simultaneously.
  • Preschools & kindergartners tend to work quickly, so I usually have 3 activities planned for an hour session, with a couple more up my sleeve just in case.
  • For the older students, I typically have two – a warm up and then the main project.
Large Canvas with branches: The last layer of our evolving canvas painted by kids 5 & under.
Large Canvas with branches: The last layer of our evolving canvas painted by kids 5 & under.

How do you grow enrollment for your art classes? 

I still need help with this! Word of mouth has really been the best way to grow my business, but that takes time. Flyers seem to have been helpful. I do some Facebook/ Instagram advertising, but for me that hasn’t had an instantaneous ROI yet.

I also try to send out emails when I’ve announced new classes. Facebook and Instagram are great because I consider it to be my online portfolio.

Interested in hearing more about running a kids art studio?

This is part two of our art studio series, so if you missed 6 Tips for Running a Business Teaching Kids Art Classes then be sure to read it as well!

Stay tuned next week for Part 3 of our series as four art educators share their personal experiences growing their businesses.

And tune in to listen to a really fun interview with Erin on YCDI-Di’s podcast.

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