Adria Moynihan Rusk is growing an accessible creative community
Adria Moynihan Rusk’s desire to create and teach art and make it more accessible to everyone stems from her own personal experience.
“There were a lot of holes in my education, and I learned a lot about painting on my own and from other artists after I graduated,” she says. “One of the things I do is explain things that weren’t explained to me and break things down into smaller chunks that are more manageable. In art school, it was a lot of ‘here are the materials, go for it, good luck.’”
Originally a native of South Portland, Rusk moved back to Portland in 2009 after graduating with a BFA from Oregon’s Portland State University. She rented a space at the Running with Scissors studio collaborative, where she made art and taught painting and drawing. As Rusk, 39, started teaching workshops to larger groups, she realized she needed a larger space. Last year, she explored the idea of opening her own art studio and community space for art workshops and classes.
She found a site in Portland’s burgeoning West Bayside neighborhood on Elm Street and signed a lease in May of 2017, embarking on three months of knocking down walls, opening up rooms and renovating the space. As a full-time working artist, Rusk needed capital to get the business off the ground, so she sought out the community’s support, launching a Crowdfunding campaign on IndieGogo and raising $12,500, most of which went toward the space’s renovation.
She opened the doors to Still Life Studio in August 2017. The space includes a large room for group workshops and classes, a kitchen and work station and three small private studio spaces, one of which Rusk currently occupies for private lessons and creating her own art. She rents the other two studio spaces to local artists for $500-600 per month, including utilities and parking, and uses the income to offset her lease and overhead costs.
“I wanted a fairly small and manageable space that had room to grow and evolve,” she says. “People are really excited about the community aspect of taking classes or workshops that help them gather and come together with other like-minded people. We need community right now,” Rusk says. “Sometimes people will come to something because they want to be creative, be with other people and do something different. There’s so much of this space that isn’t actually about the art, it’s about coming together.”
Still Life Studio’s clients are diverse—from beginners who haven’t picked up a paintbrush to experienced artists who want to keep learning and exploring different art forms. “I want this studio to have a combination of learning and time to be creative and explore,” says Rusk. “I try to bring in instructors who hang out in that space of experimentation and being timid and having that be OK.” Rusk offers open studio hours the second Sunday of every month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., where people can bring in their own art projects and share ideas informally. The studio is also available for private groups to rent the space, including a weekly drawing group. Rusk is planning a pop-up show in July with a local book artist and is planning more pop-ups for the future.
Other workshops and classes offered at the studio include a modern art class for teens called Modern Arts Explorations and taught by local painter Abbeth Russell, a mono printmaking class and an abstract painting workshop taught by Portland artist Haley Nannig. Rusk also offers private lessons to individuals, customizing lessons based on each student’s goals. She’s also exploring the idea of “salon style” semi-private or small group lessons, which would allow her to lower her price point while still offering quality instruction. Rusk’s goal is to pay artists a respectable wage. “Artists are constantly asked to teach or perform or display for next to nothing. For me, as a working artist, if it doesn’t work out so that teacher is compensated for their time and talent, then we don’t do it.”
Rusk describes the vibrant energy of a recent workshop hosted at the studio with local abstract painter Amanda Hawkins. “She was excited about the space and teaching, and she had this real enthusiasm for sharing what she does.” The workshop was so popular it filled to capacity and the studio added a second workshop. “The students were really excited to work with someone they admired, and she had the energy for doing it. It was a great synergy of everyone being into it, and the work they produced was really cool.” Rusk says she loves being able to support artists as teachers and observe the community she’s helped create. “Whenever I’ve taught, I’ve wanted that support, and it’s nice to be able to offer that for the instructors. I take care of all the administration and they just come in and teach the class.”
One thing she’s learned in her first year is that “if people don’t commit, they don’t show up.” As a result, she created an online registration system where people sign up and pay in advance. “Asking people to commit helps us pay instructors, because if we don’t fill a class, it doesn’t make financial sense to hold it.” She says she’ll consider adding drop-in classes and workshops as her mailing list and interest grows.
Marketing has been another challenge in growing the business. “We’re so connected, but there are so many channels to be connected through that I’m not always sure what the best way is to get the word out,” Rusk says, explaining the shift in traction she’s received from Facebook to Instagram. Shes posts events on MaineToday.com and in The Phoenix, and she sends out information in her bi-monthly e-newsletter, her most effective channel for registrations. “My biggest focus now is in growing my mailing list. It’s on my website and I ask people to sign up in exchange for a $10 coupon.” She also does cross-promotion of events with Running with Scissors owner Kate Anker to help get the word out.
Making financial ends meet and maintaining a profit margin has been tough, but Rusk has the verve and determination to succeed. “You have to have a lot of passion if you want to do this work,” Rusk says. “What drives me right now is that there’s so much potential, financially and personally. I work seven days a week right now and that’s not my end goal, but for now it feels necessary. I feel like once we get some traction and things are rolling, it won’t be quite such a challenge every month.” Rusk is currently wearing so many hats that she’s limited in what she’s able to do, so she’s hoping to hire someone part-time to help with social media, marketing and bookkeeping. She’d also like to be able to reinvest in the business to grow it for the future.
Rusk hopes that Still Life Studio will become “an urban artist hub for learning and a trusted source for creative learning and creative art experiences in Portland.” Her immediate goal is to fill all of her offerings to capacity, so she can continue to grow. She’s at a threshold common for many start-ups and new businesses, gaining enough momentum to get by, while also continuing to grow and expand. She’d like to continue to expand the space, offer more artist retreats, and continue to “create experiences and community for people to come be creative and learn and grow.”
Still Life Studio is located at 82 Elm St., Portland.
Mercedes Grandin is a freelance writer, editor, English teacher and tutor. She lives in Brunswick with her husband Erik and their chocolate Labrador Fozzie.