March 14th, 2020. A news story flashed across our screens of Italian citizens singing from their balconies while being under what was Europe’s first lockdown. The creation of community through song was a powerful sight and made headlines around the world including CNN and Al Jazeera, but since then how have we in Ireland managed to create a sense of community within ourselves without becoming lost in the new pixelated world that Covid-19 has necessitated. Businesses in Ireland that run on the creation of communities have had to change their business models and adapt to this new changing environment so I sat down with Aisling from Paintclub to listen to her experience of life before the pandemic and how life has changed since then.
After making sure all speakers and microphones were working properly I ask Aisling to paint a picture of what life was like at Paintclub before March 2020 to get a sense of the business, “we used to host public painting and prosecco in restaurants and hotels around Ireland” when things were normal. A company that began in 2015 with the inaugural event taking place in Galway, Paintclub “started hosting just one event a month, then started doing two a month, then three a month” and it expanded from there. Aisling took me back to Paintclub in March 2020, “we were in nine locations across Ireland and we were about to expand into four more locations” signifying the continuing growth of the company since its genesis in 2015. Up until this point of the interview I can’t help but notice the beaming smiles on both our faces through pixelated screens as we reminisce on pre-Covid times, but it is not long before the thought of virus infects the conversation when I ask how was Paintclub affected by the advent of Covid-19. “We congregate in groups, that was what our business was, it was bringing people together physically and I was like ‘This is not going to be good for our business’ so it was the 12th of March, we had five events scheduled across the country and we pulled them that Thursday morning.” Reflecting on the year gone by, Paintclub as a company was ahead of the game in many ways as they made the decision to pull all events before an official government announcement, something that Aisling says she was prepared to do because she did not want to put her artists or her customers at risk. “We made a decision to pull everything, we said we were just going to shut everything down” but that was far from the end of the company as the online world was beckoning, “we pulled our events on March 12th and announced we were going online on Friday, March 13th.”
Like many companies, Paintclub faced challenges in the new technological world but what became transparent as our conversation continued was that there were clear advantages of this fast change of pace, things that the company might not have envisaged at its inception. “The technology was a struggle, and then trying to decide what platform to host it on, and how to run it so it was a business.” Aisling and her team were determined that five years of hard work was not going to be washed away by the virus and envisaged Paintclub being a major contender in the artistic industry so “we fell back on what we know best and that’s Facebook”, a decidedly accessible platform that could be manipulated to form groups for painting tutorials. “The arts sector we’re renowned for giving away things for free, and it’s one of my bug bearers,” Aisling tells me with a wry smile. “I was adamant from the get-go that this would not be one of those free YouTube tutorials” and as staff at Paintclub began to adjust to this new world of interacting with the Paintclub community the company evolved to embody the online space. Despite the disruption of moving life online during March 2020 and beyond, the wider Paintclub community reacted positively to this new form of attending Paintclub gatherings. “People love the fact that they can paint at a time that suits them” Aisling muses, “we make our tutorials available for up to a month after we are live” so if people don’t want to join us for the live video they can always join in after the broadcast. There were parts of Paintclub’s in person events that had difficulty moving online, things like the Paintclub fairies who if you were in trouble with your painting would magically fix it for you. Using Facebook allowed Paintclub to overcome this hurdle as Paintclub staff were able to advise customers on how to perform the Paintclub fairy magic themselves.
From chatting to Aisling it is becoming clear that the community spirit in Paintclub is a key aspect of the entire Paintclub experience. Despite the physical distance of the participants the digital aspect of the community allows friendships to form and instant communication between participants, “Everybody is different, everybody likes different things but at the same time we will always accept you” Aisling says, a statement that stays with me long after the interview ends. The smiles return to our faces when Aisling starts to speak about basing Paintclub on building “a place where people could be 100% themselves” without the need for the mask that many of us don each morning. But that wasn’t the only ambition behind the creation of Paintclub. As a trained artist, Aisling knows all about the joys that art can bring to life but also the financial struggles of life as an artist. She based Paintclub’s foundations on core beliefs that she holds, “I want to pay my artists, I want my artists to have a job they can rely on” [and] “provide a steady, sustainable income for artists.” A company like Paintclub is living proof that carving a successful career in art is possible given the right business acumen and that the arts sector can be financially successful in a pandemic while growing their community online. As the Paintclub community grew so too did the company’s international reputation, “We hosted [an event] for a company based in Botswana and South Africa so we had to send our Paintclub Packs to Botswana, which was crazy.”
Having gone to many Paintclub nights myself, the excitement of creating a painting throughout a two hour class brings such an adrenaline rush and going through Paintclub’s six step creative process each time only adds to the experience, even when steps two, three, and four seem to last for an age. Smiling across at me, Aisling recounts “The thing we hear the most is ‘I can’t believe I painted that'” and feeling the support from the Paintclub community, in all the digital forms fulfills the key purpose of bringing the community together to celebrate each other’s success. A community that doesn’t know each other by the tune of their voices but by the taps of encouragement on a keyboard, creating a space that has become a worthy contender for “something that makes peoples’ lives a bit easier”, something Aisling sees as a success in itself. Juggling this with keeping a good customer community relationship online is essential for Paintclub as they look forward to the future “we are focusing 100% of business online [for 2021]” Aisling says “so we have to find a way to create that community and grow it and find a way to make that connection” in order to connect with community members and diminish the barriers that the transition to technology platforms has brought with it. Aisling confirms that even when we do reach a stage of normal in the future Paintclub as a company will actively keep their online presence due to the amount of doors it has opened for the company during the past year.
The country recently acknowledged the anniversary of the first Covid-19 case in Ireland, a sad day for us as a people as we remember the year gone by. While our future ahead of this pandemic is still uncertain, a company like Paintclub shows the rejuvenation that can come from embracing the change that has been thrust upon us, awakening the creation of a community through online mediums.
To find out more about Paintclub head to their website https://paintclub.ie or follow them on Instagram @paintclubhq