Students And Teachers Craft Artistic Communities At Canvas 2 Paint

Michael Neary
Rapid City Journal, S.D.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Entrepreneur Kelly Benke shares her unique experiences and growth as both a business owner and teacher.

Rapid City

When Kelly Benke began teaching painting at the Canvas 2 Paint studio in Rapid City about four years ago, she wasn’t sure it was going to stick.

“If you had asked me when I started if I’d be teaching now, I would have told you no,” she said.

Benke noted that she’s experienced her share of anxiety in groups, something that had made the prospect of teaching and interacting with lots of people seem out of reach. As it turns out, that wasn’t the case.

“It’s been really good for me,” she said. “It’s helped me overcome a lot of that.”

In some ways Benke’s experience as a teacher reflects some of the students’ feelings as they settled into the studio during a recent lesson. On that evening, about 30 students were taking a lesson from Benke, and some described the experience as the start of an adventure.

“I would like to be able to paint one day,” said Kevin Diatezua, positioned in front of his canvas. “This is a new thing I’d like to try. First time, first day.”

Angelina McMahon said she was receiving her lesson as a Christmas present from her husband Paul McMahon, who attended with her.

“We actually enjoy painting together in our home,” Angelina McMahon said.

She began to detail some of the kinds of painting they do, including the audience for that painting.

“Right now, we do paintings for our dog’s kennel,” she said with a laugh. “We have a couple of walls around it, and we do fun paintings and put them up.”

Paul McMahon said that he also likes to work on landscapes. Both discussed how a lesson would create some structure and the opportunity for tips about improving their work.

For Kenzi Meeks, the lesson created a chance to experiment with a medium that she doesn’t always use when she crafts her art.

“I like painting porcelain and ceramics, but I like doing this too,” she said.

Jessica Gerlach, who owns Canvas 2 Paint, noted the sprawling range of experience students tend to have in the classes, and she homed in on empathy as the overriding characteristic she’d like to observe in the people who teach them. Four instructors teach classes at the studio, including Benke.

“They have to like people,” Gerlach said. “And they have to have some sort of need themselves for this socialization. They want to put themselves out there. They’re very empathetic. They feel and have felt what the students feel, and they come from it from that perspective.”

The studio offers evening and afternoon classes, and Gerlach pointed out that she and the instructors host special events and travel from time to time, as well.

Gerlach said the studio closed for a time after the pandemic hit, rescheduling students and then practicing social distancing and limiting class sizes when the studio reopened.

“Now we’re slowly transitioning back, still not to full capacity,” she said. “I’m still pretty mindful and conscious of the small space we have.”

Gerlach said she’s also added classes, giving her a chance to spread students out more effectively.

Gerlach stressed the breadth of ages, as well as of experience levels, of the students who come to the lessons. The presence of evening and afternoon classes leaves room for different atmospheres and age levels, she explained.

Socializing, she said, plays a big role in the lessons. Gerlach has a wine and beer license, and she sells other beverages as well. Her own background, she said, lies in business — but she offered a few caveats.

“I have a business degree, but I love art,” she said. “I have always loved art. I’m also very much a people person. And my parents are both entrepreneurs … so I come from this background of being self-employed.”

Gerlach started Canvas 2 Paint nearly 10 years ago, when she also owned Pottery 2 Paint, in Rapid City, as well as a pottery studio in Pierre. She’s since then sold the two pottery studios.

The instructors at Canvas 2 Paint, Gerlach said, often work day jobs that don’t tap their artistic tendencies. That means the teaching serves needs for the instructors as well as for students.

“This is kind of that opposite side for them,” Gerlach said.

As Benke taught her class on a recent evening, she demonstrated the sort of empathy Gerlach mentioned, speaking both to painting technique and student emotions. She noted some classroom pointers at the beginning of class, and one of them was to feel free to take breaks.

“The key to solving painting frustration,” Benke said, “is not more painting.”

Benke began with the background, demonstrating the “long horizontal brushstrokes across the canvas” at the beginning of the lesson. She later moved from table to table, as the soft hiss of brushes on canvas seeped through the room.

Benke’s work outside of painting is in accounts receivable at Black Hills Energy — tapping skills that fall outside of the ones she exercises as a painting instructor.

“I do math all day at my full-time job,” she said. “Then I get to come here to a place where I’m allowed to be creative and to use the other half of my brain a little bit.”

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