Julie Ann McKevitt of Paint Love
Where are you from and how long have you lived in Atlanta?
I am originally from Merritt Island, Florida, and I moved up to Atlanta in 2009.
How long have you been an artist?
That’s a funny question. I never considered myself an artist. My grandma was an artist, and I painted for fun since I was little. But, again, never thought art was a potential career. I became a professional artist in 2013. I probably didn’t start telling people I was an artist as a profession until 2014. It’s very recent that I am a professing artist.
Share the journey that led to you start Paint Love.
It really started around the time of me professing to be a professional artist. I had studied marketing and dance in college, so I loved the idea of using the arts. I started working with youth, and I loved this idea of arts and youth. And it kind of fell by the wayside.
Then I moved up to Georgia. I had worked for several nonprofits, and at the time I was working for a for-profit company. I took some time off once my husband and I got married, and we were talking about what was the next step. I was thinking it’d be another corporate job.
I had been painting for friends and family, and it was one of those things where I just had this passion for it. My husband encouraged me, and I’m like there’s no better time like the present to just try it. To just see if I could make this art happen. But I knew if I was going to do that, I wanted part of that business to be something I gave back and something that I did with youth. I didn’t really know what that looked like.
Fortunately for me, I was asked by Wellspring Living very early on to teach a class with their girls. Oh my goodness, I loved it. It was just seeing them connect with the art and seeing the beautiful pieces that they made. It was just a connection, and for me Paint Love just fell right into place when I did that. I realized that Wellspring Living lacked a lot of resources to keep doing a program like this.
Because I was stepping into the art world I was meeting more artists. I was having a studio where I had a ton of resources. When you buy in bulk, it’s pretty cheap to buy some art supplies. So I had this idea of — what if I started connecting artists, my friends, supplies and resources to organizations like Wellspring Living and beyond? Was that a need? What that something people would want? I found out — yes. There was a huge need, and there’s a lot of organizations out there like Wellspring Living that we’ve partnered with now that desperately want art projects like this and don’t have the resources to fund it or the connections to artists or just don’t know where to begin. It’s a really neat place that we get to step in and say — hey, let’s do this for you.
What’s the biggest hurdle that you’ve faced along the way so far?
I don’t know if this is what everyone says, but it’s funding. I’ve worked in nonprofits before. I worked for the American Cancer Society, and fundraising for ACS is very different from fundraising for Paint Love because you have a huge brand name behind it.
We’ve been fortunate to build really good relationships with artists and to build really good relationships with organizations by loving and serving both groups. Right now we’re learning, how do we love and serve this group that we want to be our donors and want to partner with us? I think we’re learning how to better tell our story, and I think all of those hurdles come in that challenge of getting the word out but making sure people really know what you’re doing.
People often gravitate towards meeting tangible needs, like food or shelter, when thinking about nonprofits. Since your mission revolves around the ideas of love, artistry, expression and self-worth, how have you seen those intangible aspects positively impact kids lives?
Food and shelter are huge, but we see that creativity and art and love is such a huge part of that. From the very beginning, it wasn’t about creating artists. We have this vehicle that we can love on this group of students who have usually experienced traumatic events, are in poverty or need extra support. We found that it’s awesome that we can partner with them and say — hey, we’re here and we want to support you and love you.
On top of that, we bring these art programs that we believe are very therapeutic. Particularly students who are going through tough times and challenges can find and learn that art is an outlet for them. And art is something that they can have for all of their lives. There’s so many benefits that art has shown academically, professionally, socially that can impact these students positively in so many areas. But really the main focus is just this outlet and opportunity for love and being able to face challenges or talk about challenges and learn a new tool that they can have in their belt as they’re going about life.
Part of your mission is being a connector. How did you decide that was going to be the role that Paint Love played?
Several things went into that. The first is that it was the easiest. It required no overhead, and it was something where there was a huge need present. Because of limited resources, we were able to do so much with so little — which was huge. We have a studio now, and we have hosted some events here. But mostly just the organizations that we work with.
We had very little, and we were able to make a huge impact. By just connecting with the people that we knew and working with organizations that were already doing great things with youth but were just lacking in the support areas.
I think the way that you’ve set up your model to be community-based makes it that much more powerful, because you can almost replicate yourself across all these different places.
Yes, and we’d love to be able to take this into different cities and places. I do love that aspect of community that we are able to cultivate with our artists. We want to love on our youth, but we see that loving on our artists is just as important. I think that’s why we’ve had such great momentum and success in bringing in these incredibly talented people. Because we’re able to love on them and able to use some of our resources to support them and market them in the community as well.
So when you started in 2013, did you expect it to grow this fast?
No. In 2013, it was just a tab on my website. I was just thinking that I wanted to incorporate doing good and giving back as part of my art business. It wasn’t a nonprofit. It was just something I did when I had some free time and started asking a friend if they would join me.
But then people started giving and donating supplies. More organizations were interested. The events got bigger. I decided I needed to make this a bigger entity and make it a 501(c)(3), so donors would be getting credit. Then it grew way bigger than my business which is ideal.
I want it to be something much bigger than my name or who I am or my art. Now, we’ve brought on artists who I would say are much more talented than me, which is amazing and great. I love how it’s grown, and it’s certainly blown us all away.
Congrats! You recently won 2nd place in the Plywood Presents Ideas Competition. Share with us how you got involved, how you’ll use the platform and how you’ll use the funds to further the Paint Love cause.
I got involved in Plywood a year before the 2015 Plywood Presents conference. A good friend of ours was interning at Plywood People, and I was invited to come sit at a table at the event. Oh my goodness, I loved it.
That was at the very beginning of me launching both businesses. I was one year into it. It was so inspiring. I had gotten my sea legs, but I was starting to see more opportunities grow within Paint Love. The speakers at Plywood Presents really inspired me to keep on working toward it and driving toward it.
I had actually applied for the idea competition the previous year, but I did not get accepted. Looking back, I am so glad I didn’t do it. We have changed so much. At that point we were such a baby organization. We have gotten a little more sturdy with our motto, our mission, the people we reach, the projects we do. This time around, I felt we were a lot more ready.
So I applied again, and we got in. It was an honor to be able to talk in front of such a creative crowd, and it was a really receptive crowd. We got second place which was incredible. With the winnings we’re putting it towards more projects, because at the time we had a waiting list of artists and organizations that want to pair up. We’re putting it towards that, and we also want to bring on full-time staff members too.
How does it make you feel to know that you’re having this ripple effect in Atlanta because of every single child that you impact?
I’ve never thought about it that way. That’s incredible to think about. We kind of focus on one project at a time. It is really incredible. We believe art is so powerful, and there can be a ripple effect. I think that’s why we do it. It’s not this one time event or one time opportunity to speak into their lives and then go away and everyone forgets what happened. But something that they can take with them.
Because we try to make these events as big and fantastic as possible, it is something that they’re going to take something away from. It’s honoring and humbling and exciting at the same time. There’s so much more to do and so much more to come. We’ve been able to touch hundreds already which has blown our minds.
It’s honoring and humbling and exciting at the same time.
What are some of the most poignant or impactful moments that you’ve experienced in the Paint Love journey so far?
I received a letter from a student at one of our projects, and it was basically saying — thank you so much for coming. Thank you for teaching me this thing I had never known before. I didn’t like my piece in the beginning, but by end of the afternoon I love it. I’m so proud of what I made. To me — this is what we’re doing it for. That to me was so impactful.
One of the big therapeutic parts of art is self-confidence and believing in yourself and loving what you can create and knowing that you can create something beautiful. That was just so cool to me. There’s been moments at every event we’ve done. Seeing a group piece we did and seeing how excited the kids were about coming up to me and showing me their piece and seeing how their pieces connected as a whole. And how excited they got to see the final product. It was really neat and a joy. It’s exciting to see those moments in the students.
What would you say is your biggest lesson learned so far?
It’s more about not giving up. That is the huge lesson along the way. I’m hearing it more and more often, sometimes it’s just “keep plowing through.” You don’t even have to have a huge success in the day. Just keep on moving. That to me is the biggest lesson.
Still to this day, I wake up wondering — are we going to get the funding? Is this going to go beyond 2015? I wake up with these thoughts, and all the times in the past where I have those thoughts if I can move past them and say — it’s ok. I don’t have to have a huge reward or success today. I just have to answer every email that’s in my inbox. I just have to call everyone that’s on my list and let the chips fall where they may while working as hard as I possibly can and not giving up.
I know that I look into other organizations and think — they’re amazing. How do they do it? And so many times the secret is just keep moving forward.
Through your journey of building Paint Love what would you say breaks your heart the most about Atlanta?
In our recent board meeting, we talked about the huge amount of poverty in Atlanta. Atlanta is also a huge hub for sex trafficking. Our youth that are being affected by so many of those challenges — that’s heartbreaking. The opportunities are so different when you cross a line in Atlanta. It’s pretty shocking.
Atlanta has a lot of stereotypes both positive and negative. Through the relationships and community that you’ve built with Paint Love, what stereotype would you like to get rid of? And what truth would you like to replace it with?
From the outside looking in, people think about homelessness or sex trafficking or kids who’ve lost a parent. But when you start working with these kids and doing art there is so much more connection that you can relate to and love on them regardless of the situation, while understanding that they have a lot to process.
At the end of the day, I don’t have to be as equipped as I thought I have to be. I don’t have to have a huge training and counseling background. We do approach the projects with that in mind, but I don’t have to have as much as I thought I did to bring art to all of these groups of kids that we’re reaching.
I had the assumption that a child would produce a “scratch” piece of art work, and I would have easily underestimated their ability to make something beautiful at their age and experience level.
Yes! That is something in almost every project that the teacher goes — Wow! I had no idea. Several of our artists haven’t taught children. So it’s often the youngest groups that these artists have worked with, and they are just amazed. We’re amazed by some of the beautiful pieces that they create with such thoughtfulness. It has surprised all of us and really encouraged us to continue what we do.
What would you say to someone who has an idea or wants to help but doesn’t think that they’re able to make a difference?
Keep climbing that hill. Don’t give up. Start with something small. Start with what you can do.
I think that’s where Paint Love began. We had nothing, but we could connect an artist and an organization.
It doesn’t have to be huge, and you don’t have to have huge aspirations in the beginning. We all want to make a huge impact, but start with what you have.
Ask as many people as you know and learn to tell your story of the impact you want to have or the difference you want to make. In the beginning there will be more days than not where it won’t seem viable. There will always be obstacles in life, so just remember that.
What do you as a leader in the creative and nonprofit space see as the largest opportunity to inspire the citizens of Atlanta to be moved to take action?
The biggest way to inspire is to tell our story and be real. Sometimes we can make our lives look really glamorous. I think leaders should definitely be open to talking to people about the challenges we face and the needs that we see.
I think just being open and having an open door. I would love to talk or meet with people who are interested in making a difference in Atlanta. I think getting the word out about small organizations that are making such a great impact too. Learning about those and learning how we can collaborate is huge.
Paint Love is really built on collaboration. When more organizations in Atlanta collaborate, we can become so much stronger. I think there’s a lot of organizations that we want to support the work that they’re doing, and we’ve been so thankful for the support that others have given us. I think that’s a good and easy place to start.
What is your greatest need at Paint Love today?
Getting the word out is the greatest need. We need people to know what we’re doing in Atlanta and what we want to do. Being able to speak at Plywood Presents in front of such a wonderful audience has opened up so many doors. I got a call the next week from people wanting to donate, and we’ve brought on multiple artists because of that. I have several speaking opportunities and interviews because of that. Just that one opportunity to tell our story has opened up so many other doors to tell it again and to gain those things that we need.
What are the ways that people can get involved with Paint Love?
We take volunteers who will help assist an artist. Any group that wants to collect supplies or want to sponsor an event would be huge. Artists, volunteers and organizations are all people that we’d love to get connected with. There are so many aspects from big to small to get involved. Even tweeting on social media to get the word out is a huge help to us.
What is the biggest benefit that you’ve heard your volunteers and artists express after participating in a Paint Love project?
We’ve heard amazing feedback from the students, and we’ve heard really amazing feedback from the organizations. But every time the artist walks away with stories. They light up and say it was so life-giving. We knew people would love to volunteer. We know the benefits of that, but we didn’t expect it to be so life-giving for the artists as well as hearing how much they enjoyed it. And they usually ask when they can do it again which is great.
If you had to describe your Paint Love journey in one word, what would you say?
Connection. It’s two-fold, because of the support that we’ve gotten from so many and because of the connection that we can provide.
As told to Kristen Green on September 24, 2015.