It Ain't Over: From A Blank Canvas They Created A $20 Million Empire


First Posted: 08/15/2012 7:57 am EDT Updated: 10/18/2012 5:54 pm EDT

One of the reasons I started my website was so that women could have a place to come together and dream. We women need to know that we don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing us -- that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story is about two women who found a way to make anyone an artist, while giving back to their community after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. -– Marlo, MarloThomas.com


By Lori Weiss


Just over the big bridge from New Orleans, lies a city that will take you a step back in time. Some refer to Mandeville, Louisiana as a kind of Mayberry, where neighbors help neighbors and it’s not unheard of for the city attorney to take his payment in blueberry pies. The small resort town has a few stop lights, a Walmart and today, what some might call an empire -- an empire that was built by Cathy Deano and Renee Maloney, two stay-at-home moms, who wanted to add a little color to their lives.

“We lived just blocks from each other,” Renee explained, “and we’d walk around the lakefront every morning and talk about things we could do. We were room mothers together, we raised funds for our community after Hurricane Katrina together, and Cathy had gotten me involved with the local arts association -- but we were beginning to ask, What about us?

“My husband is nine years older than me,” Cathy added, “and while I didn’t want to tell him I was worried that something could happen to him, I felt like if something did, I’d be falling down on my job if I couldn’t educate my son.”

“I got married at 20,” Renee continued, “and started having babies by the time I was 24. All I ever wanted was to be a great mom. But my own mother said to me one day, ‘They’re going to grow up and then what?’ And it really made me think.”

So as the two friends walked, they talked about their options. Renee thought it might be fun to create a science fair in a box, something she’d had a lot of experience with, while raising three kids. And Cathy, who has a degree in interior design, thought maybe they could start an architectural salvage company. But what they really wanted was something where they could be equals -- and they found it, in Cathy’s backyard barn, with a little bit of paint and a whole lot of wine.

“Cathy was convinced that anyone could be an artist,” Renee said, “that it was just like cooking and that we could offer group painting classes. She said, ‘If I stood by you and told you what to put into the pot and you did everything I told you, you’d be a cook.’ I wasn’t so sure. I failed 6th grade art.”

“So I asked her, 'what would make you try it?'” Cathy recalled with a smile.

“And I said, 'I guess if I could drink,'” Renee laughed.

“So we put together a class in my backyard barn,” Cathy explained. “We went to the local art store and bought brushes and easels. And on the way back, we picked up five bottles of wine. We invited our family and close friends, knowing they’d at least come for the wine, and if it flopped they wouldn’t tell anyone. And we brought in my sister’s step-daughter, who was an artist and teacher.”

“I figured if mine came out really bad, I could blame it on the wine,” Renee added with a shrug. “But she took us all through every step. Put a dot there. Now put a dot four inches down. Then she had us connect the dots. And in two hours, 15 of us had each painted a Matisse. And I didn’t have one flashback to 6th grade!”

So in the middle of a recession, in a community that was still cleaning up from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the two women who had devoted endless hours to their local art association, decided to begin with a blank canvas. They set out to create a business that would give their neighbors a welcome break from the problems that surrounded them.

On a shoestring budget, the pair found a small place near their homes -- and got on their hands and knees -- scrubbing and painting until the place looked presentable. Glass tables Cathy brought from home doubled as desks and the two women shared a used $200 laptop computer. Weeks later, easels were in places, an art instructor who could turn just about anyone into a budding Picasso was on site and a “bring your own bottle” policy was in place. They named their studio "Corks N Canvas" and opened the doors to their very first students.

“People thought we were crazy to do this,” Cathy said, “they kept telling us that people didn’t have disposable income during a recession, that they were still worried about fixing their homes. But what we knew was that alcohol, movies and make-up don’t suffer during bad times, because they make you feel better about yourself. People were looking for an escape. And we sold out immediately.

“It was all word of mouth. Our customers started posting their paintings on Facebook! They’d walk into their offices and say, ‘I had the best time last night.’ You wouldn’t typically say to someone, Let me tell you about the painting I did, but you will tell them about somewhere you went and had a great time. People were driving across the river from New Orleans.”

“One night we had a power outage,” Renee added, “and we offered everyone their money back. They insisted on staying and they all went out and turned their car lights on, so they’d shine into the building. And they just kept on painting. I remember one woman said, 'This is better than yoga because you can drink wine!'"

In the first six months, the pair turned a profit and put every dime back they’d borrowed from their savings. It wasn’t long before they opened three more Louisiana stores and then something interesting happened. Their customers, many of whom had come back to visit after being evacuated during Hurricane Katrina, began asking about opening their own art studios –- in their new hometowns.

They literally had potential franchisees knocking at their door, before they’d even decided to sell the concept. So with a little help, they packaged their business, named it "Painting With A Twist" (the twist being the wine, of course) and started interviewing potential candidates.

“One couple had evacuated to Houston,” Cathy said. “The wife’s company moved there and they followed, but the husband was a photographer and had lost all of his equipment in the storm. They felt like refugees. When you’re born and raised in New Orleans, you feel like there’s nowhere else. But once they set up their studio, they immediately became immersed in the community. He said he didn’t feel like he’d ever be home again, but now Houston has become their home.”

Today, just five years since the women got started, there are 67 franchises and the company has brought in more than $20 million in revenue. But the ladies haven’t forgotten where they came from. The former stay-at–home moms, who spent their spare time volunteering in the community, have made giving back a core value of the company. Every month, each of the franchises holds a fundraiser called "Painting With A Purpose," which gives back to the community. And at the end of every class, when students walk out with their renditions of a Renoir or Van Gogh, the instructors donate theirs to a family that’s moving into a new Habitat For Humanity home.

"We didn’t have any grandiose plans when we started this,” Renee explained. “It was just a fun thing to do. We didn’t even think of it as an official business. But we’re learning something new every day.

“I have a plaque in my office that says 'I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.' That’s exactly how we feel,” she said as she reached for Cathy’s arm. "And neither of us can imagine being here with anyone else."

To find a class near you, you can visit PaintingWithATwist.com.

Loading Slideshow...
  • Renee & Cathy

    With a little bit of paint, a lot of wine, and the desire to start something all their own, Renee Maloney, left, and Cathy Deano, right, launched Painting With A Twist. And today, what started out in Cathy's backyard barn with family members is now a $20 million business with studios all over the country.

  • The Beginning

    Cathy was convinced that anyone could be an artist with a little bit of instruction. So she and Renee gathered their family and closest friends in Cathy's backyard barn and they gave Cathy's idea a shot.

  • Learning To Paint

    At first, Renee was skeptical that just anyone could paint, so Cathy asked her what would make her want to give it a try. "I guess if I could drink," Renee said. And so, Cathy picked up five bottles of wine for the first class.

  • A Family Affair

    Cathy and Renee invited their family and close friends to their first class, knowing they'd at least show up for the wine. And in the event the class was a flop, they figured their family and friends wouldn't tell anyone. But, the first class wasn't a flop, it was a huge success. Here, the students pose with their art.

  • From Barn To Studio

    In the midst of a recession, in a community recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Cathy and Renee set out to establish a studio that would provide their neighbors with a little reprieve from the problems that surrounded them. Here, their first studio in Mandeville, Louisiana.

  • Corks N' Canvas

    After pooling their money to find a small space in their neighborhood, Cathy and Renee launched Corks N' Canvas. And with a shoestring budget, borrowed tables and one used laptop the two women shared, Corks N' Canvas was open for business. Here, the first class in the new studio.

  • Proud Business Owners

    Although some people thought Cathy and Renee were crazy to start a painting studio in the middle of a recession, they were certain they were selling the escape from reality that their community could use. And they were right. Their first classes sold out immediately and word of mouth made them the hottest spot in town.

  • Hurricane Katrina

    Cathy and Renee knew that painting classes would be just the escape their Louisiana community needed. Two years before Mandeville, along with the rest of New Orleans, had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Here, the view from Cathy's backyard is only a small part of the damage done by Katrina.

  • The Aftermath

    Cathy and her family were one of the many families who had to relocate after Hurricane Katrina. However, Cathy couldn't bear to go too far away. So, while her home had been consumed by more than four feet of water, she would come back every day and spend time in this tent in front of the house, because she felt like she needed to be close to her home and her neighbors.

  • Giving Back

    Having experienced the hardships of Katrina, Cathy and Renee wanted to use their budding business to give back. So every month each store in the company holds a fundraiser called Painting With A Purpose, and while the students walk out with their paintings, the instructor donates the art to a family moving into a new Habitat for Humanity home. Here, one woman smiles after receiving new artwork for her home.

  • Expanding The Business

    Not long after Cathy and Renee opened their first studio, they opened three new spaces in Louisiana. And as the business grew, their customers, many of whom had come back to visit after being evacuated during Hurricane Katrina, began asking how they could open their own studios in their new hometowns.

  • Becoming A Franchise

    And so, with an outpouring of potential franchisees, Cathy and Renee packaged their business concept, named it Painting With A Twist, and soon they had studios popping up all over the country. Here, Jennifer Elwell, center, poses with her Painting With A Twist team in her studio in Skippack, Pennsylvania.

  • Painting In Texas

    As new Painting With A Twist studios opened, the business continued to be a hit. Here, a packed room at the grand opening of a studio in Dallas, Texas proves that Painting With A Twist is just what the people wanted.

  • Focused On Fundraising

    Even as their business continues to grow, Cathy and Renee have remained focused on giving back to communities in need. After the devastating earthquake in Haiti, Painting With A Twist dedicated their efforts to raising funds and making art for Haiti.

  • Haiti Fundraising Class

    Of course, the family came out to support the Painting With A Twist efforts for Haiti. Here Libby Henly, left, and Cathy's sister, Becky Deano, right, create works of art at the Haiti Fundraising Class in 2010.

  • Another Successful Fundraiser

    Where there is a need, Cathy and Renee are always willing to help. Here, the two ladies present Judy Pfister, right, from St. Francis Animal Sanctuary with checks from one of their Painting With A Purpose events at Corks N' Canvas.

  • Classroom Moms

    Renee and Cathy were no strangers to volunteering and fundraising before they went in to business together. In fact, the two women were room mothers together at Mandeville Elementary School, they had raised funds for their community after Hurricane Katrina, and they were both very involved in their local arts association. Here, Renee in action as room mother at an event at her children's school.

  • Cathy & Ryan

    As room mothers, Cathy and Renee spend a lot of time together working on various school projects with their children. But it had been Cathy, who has always been extremely involved in the local arts association, that encouraged Renee to join the arts association. Here, Cathy and her son, Ryan, at Mandeville Elementary School where the two moms first started volunteering together.

  • Mother Of Three

    All Renee had ever wanted was to be a great mother to her three children, Parker (left), Bailey (center) and Christian (right). But, when her own mother asked her what she would do when they grew up, Renee found herself at a loss. That's when she really started to think about what she and Cathy could do together.

  • Earlooms Jewelry

    Although Painting With A Twist was relatively new territory for Cathy and Renee, it wasn't Cathy's first entrepreneurial endeavor. In 1986 Cathy had launched her own jewelry company, Earlooms, which recycled vintage buttons into pieces of jewelry. Here, Cathy poses with some of her first company's goods.

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