Art teacher turns passion into business

Published Feb 22, 2015 at 9:00am

Connie Pratt has always been passionate about creating and teaching art, but about a year ago, she would have never guessed it would have become her business — Art & Vine at 157 Genesee St. in Downtown Utica.

An art teacher at Westmoreland High School for the past 18 years, Pratt had a revelation while watching the Today Show one morning during holiday break last year. The daily news program hosted a segment about a business that held painting sessions for groups of adults, but in a social setting. Parties would gather and learn to paint one particular piece, while sipping wine and enjoying time with friends or family.

She instantly decided that was something she needed to do.

“The Today Show was featuring this paint bar in Boston with adults in a class, with a teacher in the front of the room walking them through the painting step-by-step,” Pratt recalled. “The place was packed and it looked like everyone was having so much fun. I turned to my husband and told him, ‘I can do this.’”

Never having dreamed of opening her own business, Pratt said her whimsical idea soon turned to obsession as she delved into research on how to run her own paint bar. On Jan. 18 of last year, the artist attended a session at the Saratoga Paint & Sip Studio in Saratoga Springs to undergo a crash course.

“I wanted to see how they conducted the class and how they get these paintings done in a two-hour time period,” she said. “I also wanted to see how things were set up and what types of materials were needed.”

Ironically, while a Boston paint bar was the initial inspiration — the new home of her business would be what long-time residents of the area may recognize as the former Boston Store in downtown. Once the Oneida National Bank building, it now houses APAC Customer Services, Inc.

“My husband owns the building and now I’m proud to say that the first floor of the old building now has new life,” Pratt said. “But because it was once the bank, there was a 1,000 pound safe and I had to find someone to come take it out. I now have a studio on the third floor too, and there’s safes up there that are so large you could make them into a separate room.”

After much renovation work to the 1,400 square foot space — painting, plumbing, electricity, installing refrigeration equipment and the bar — and applying for the necessary state licenses to operate, Pratt celebrated the grand opening of Art & Vine on Nov. 10.

“It was quite a big investment,” Pratt said, adding that she provides all the paints and canvasses for each session. “And I had to do all the paintings I teach first before they could be done in class.”

Art & Vine’s paint and sip venue hosts a variety of occasions and events, such as birthday parties, bachelorette parties, a girls’ night out, bridal showers, baby showers, date night, reunions, fund-raisers and team building workshops for companies and organizations.

Much of the inspiration that goes into the paintings she teaches at Art & Vine comes from personal photos, but Pratt said she also garners ideas from similar businesses.

“People are there to socialize and have a good time, so the paintings have to be a little challenging, but be something most people can do,” Pratt said. “Then I explain things and paint along with everyone.”

Art & Vine can seat up to 45, and not all events are strictly for adults. Pratt has hosted children’s parties and family days where youths can come paint with their parents and grandparents.

“It’s a casual thing and what makes it fun is that you’re talking and socializing with everyone, even if you don’t know the person sitting right next to you,” Pratt said.

Pratt earned her master’s of fine arts degree from Syracuse University and has taught as an adjunct professor there, as well as Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, before she came to Westmoreland High School full-time. She has exhibited individually or in groups at most area colleges, at Munson-Wiliams and at the Fenimore House in Cooperstown. Two years ago she also had work exhibited in Australia, but said she was unable to make the trip so she could see it displayed.

What makes running the Art & Vine different from commanding a classroom is that she never knows what kind of student she’s going to get.

“Every week a group is different and you never know what’s coming through the door,” she said. “It’s rewarding for me, because everyone leaves happy saying they plan on coming back because they had so much fun. And each person has something they have accomplished that they can take home with them at the end of the night.”

Educator hopes to inspire future artists

WESTMORELAND — For Connie Pratt, Westmoreland High School’s only resident art teacher, preparing her students for a possible future in the arts is both enjoyable and rewarding.

“I do really enjoy teaching art here — I want to help kids develop a portfolio,” she said. In addition to the three levels of basic art classes, Pratt teaches Digital Photography, Sculpture, College Drawing, and College Two-Dimensional Design.

Before she became a teacher, Pratt said she simply wanted to be an artist. Her mother warned, however, that making a living as a freelance artist is extremely difficult, which motivated her to look into teaching.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in science from SUNY Geneseo, Pratt decided to attend art school and continued to develop her portfolio. She graduated with a master’s degree in fine arts from Syracuse University.

Commenting on her own artistic hobbies, Pratt mentioned she paints in her own home studio nearly every day. Asked about her preferred styles, she said, “I love impressionism, which is an older style, and I love postmodernism, which is a newer style and more of what I fit into.”

Pratt added that she believes that an increased emphasis on art, which is no longer a core component of the state’s major educational programs, would be helpful to students. She gave Albert Einstein as an example of the benefits art can bring to someone with a math or science-related occupation.  

“Einstein was appreciative of the arts — he would work through an idea by playing the violin,” she commented.

For aspiring art teachers, Pratt’s advice was straightforward.  

“Find the best school you can and become the best artist you can — you can’t take your students any farther than you can go yourself,” she said.

More recently, Pratt decided to further utilize her artistic talents in a new business model. After being inspired by the TODAY show’s segment on paint bars last winter, she began looking more closely into the idea. A period of research and a visit to the Saratoga Paint and Sip cemented her interest in opening her own paint bar.

Though the process of choosing a location and purchasing supplies was arduous, involving what she described as “piles and piles of questions,” Pratt eventually opened her business, Utica’s Art and Vine. But the effort, according to Pratt, has been very rewarding.

“Everybody leaves so happy — they thank me and tell me they’re going to come back,” she said.

The Art and Vine serves as a place for customers to have a drink, relax, and follow one of Pratt’s guided painting lessons. There are scheduled events for people of all ages, including specific events for families, couples, and singles. The reception, Pratt claims, has been overwhelmingly positive.

“People come in and say, ‘What a great use of the space! It’s wonderful that you’re adding so much to the area,’” she said.

The Art and Vine, located on Genesee Street, held its grand opening on Nov. 10.