The old saying goes, those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. But that’s not quite the way it worked out for Kathleen Marinaccio who had a full and prosperous career as a corporate creative director before eventually opening her own art school. Not only was she ready to be the boss, but she was also drawn to the idea of encouraging others to entertain the idea of a career in the arts.
But it didn’t always look that way for Marinaccio. For as long as she can remember, she wanted to be a nurse. “My father had MS and I thought if I was a nurse I could cure him,” she says. Marinaccio would watch the nurses taking care of him then she would paint pictures of herself as a nurse, also taking care of her dad. “I have tons of pictures of me in all different scenes, making my Dad better.”
But when she was 12, her father died, and with that so did her dream of a career in medicine. But her love of art didn’t, and Marinaccio continued to paint from 12 on, expanding beyond the nursing pictures.
Her focus on art continued through high school, and when she was considering college, Marinaccio’s high school art teacher encouraged her to apply to the renowned Pratt Institute in New York City. Knowing she would have to bear the financial weight of college on her own, she applied for the Pratt Scholarship. Although she didn’t win, she placed 13th, still quite a feat, and enough to push the college to entice her to come with other grants.
So in 1987, when she was 18, she packed her bags for Brooklyn. “At that time, Brooklyn wasn’t the best place but I loved it. And I decided early on to become a graphic designer. I knew I couldn’t paint the rest of my life and needed to make money.”
Her senior year at Pratt, she did an internship for NBC studios, a stint where she was producing ads for Emmy-nominated shows and logos for sports events.” She loved every minute of it. From NBC she jumped to Harper Collins the book publisher as a graphic designer.
It was not the pay or the job description that sealed the deal for her: “The woman who was interviewing me couldn’t find a pen to write notes, so after looking all over, she picked up a purple crayon – which happened to be attached to my coloring book resume – and took notes with that. I just thought that was so awesome and funny, and clearly there was some sort of chemistry because at the end of the interview she said you’re hired!”
It wasn’t just interview chemistry. The woman became a mentor to Marinacco, and the two struck up a lifelong friendship as a result. “She always wanted me to strive for the best and always try to do as much with art as I could. It’s hard to believe an art director I met almost 23 years ago is now one of my closest and dearest friends.”
Marinaccio stayed at Harper Collins for a year and a half when she moved to take a position as a junior designer at The Lotus Group, a NYC design firm. “I was just 23 at the time and was supposed to be out partying and doing real life stuff, but yeah, I wasn’t doing that. I was working.” Six months into her job at Lotus, she moved into the senior designer position, and then a few months after that she heard from a Pratt friend who was working with Marvel Comics that they were looking for a freelance graphic designer. Marinaccio had the skillset and the work sounded interesting so she took the position … as a night job.
It was a grueling schedule but she loved it … working three jobs (oh, did we fail to mention the weekly bartending gig?), doing what she loved for great companies. “I didn’t sleep and I worked a ton. I don’t know how I did it all but I just kept working and banking the money.” But at 25, she needed a break, just a vacation really. After meeting someone in a bar who lived in LA and extended her an invitation to visit, Marinacco decided a vacation was long overdue. Her boss agreed and even said, “you need a break. Take the trip, and I’ll pay for it.”
After a week in California, Marinaccio knew she had to move there. She loved the weather and the beach and the laid back lifestyle after seven non-stop years in New York City. “When I got back my boss said, oh my God, did I just pay for you to realize you want to leave your job here?”
Marinacco never had trouble landing jobs. Her work ethic preceded her and when she put the word out that she wanted to move to California, her colleagues at Marvel connected her with people at New World Entertainment (of Wonder Years fame) who were looking for a creative director.
With $6000 in her bank account, the 26-year old headed West. New World eventually got sold to Fox, a move that led Marinacco to take her design skills in-house … literally. “I realized I really wanted to work for myself and I opened my own design firm, Fishbrain Graphic Design, out of a third bedroom in my house. From 1998 until 2010, Marinaccio ran her business, with her now husband, another refugee from NYC.
In 2010, it had been 12 years since Marinacco had “worked for the man” and when Warner Bros. came calling with the chance to takeover their Media Research design department, she jumped. But it was that move that really brought it home for Marinacco, “When executives were banging their hands on the table in frustration during meetings, I realized I had been in the game too long.”
Those art teachers who had guided Marinaccio long ago must have been speaking to her subliminally because, one day at Warner Bros., it hit her – she had to open an art school. “I wanted to teach all forms of art to all people. I had had a career already. I wanted to teach other people who liked art how to do it, how to practice it, and to get them to the point where they could have a great career in art if they wanted to.”
At first Marinaccio, started out of her house again, in the evenings and on the weekends. First one student, then three, then four. All of her students were people who had other jobs but wanted to be graphic designers – a challenge Marinaccio was well prepared to teach.
“I couldn’t wait to get home and help the students. It was like THIS – all of this has been for this moment right here. I would go to meetings and I would sketch my students’ projects and try to find solutions for them.”
Even though the writing was on the wall so to speak, it took one of her students to hammer the point home. “She came up to me and said, ‘you need to do this for real.’”
The next day while driving to work, a phrase popped into her mind: Reimagine, Enjoy, Aspire, and Learn. After work she told her husband she had come up with the acronym for the school: REAL. “My husband, who thinks most ideas are dumb just said, ‘brilliant’, and then of course, I said, ‘Shit, I don’t know anything about opening a school.’”
Over the next couple of months, Marinaccio networked like crazy. She reached out to funders, community leaders, teachers and more. Before she knew it she had 15 teachers saying they were willing to teach a class or more if she needed it and a commercial real estate location. She was on her way to raising $30K in crowdfunding through MoolaHoop, a crowdfunding source by and for women. With some money in the bank and her former student and now partner, Tina Cho, on board they launched REAL on March 19, 2014.
“I knew that if I didn’t try it, I would always regret it.”
It wasn’t easy but she kept moving forward. Her motto when she hit stumbling blocks was simply, “I gotta do it.”
Today, REAL Creative Space occupies 1250 square feet in Los Angeles’ Westchester Triangle near LAX. REAL offers workshops and camps for adults and kids ages 5-18, that combine people’s current interests with their desire to learn art. A recent summer camp, MineCraft –ing, which focused on the popular game but combined the artist styles of Mondrian and Picasso was hugely successful. Marinaccio still works at Warner Bros., teaches at Otis College of Art & Design, but now also co-manages REAL and teaches Freelance 101, the graphic design class that launched this amazing art school.
She draws adults to the school with monthly couple’s art nights the 4th Saturday of every month. And importantly, in addition to inspiring others to pursue art, she is committed to donating a portion of all proceeds to rejuvenate art programs at the local schools. Open just since March, she’s already raised $1500 for local schools.
“Its not about us. Its about helping people learn art. I went from corporate to listening to my community, and this is exactly where I’m meant to be.”
Tips from Marinaccio
- Always be learning. There is never a point in life where we know all the answers, challenge yourself to learn something new every day.
- Be honest but be nice in the process. The best thing you can do for people is to tell them the truth, but please give criticism without being negative or mean. It’s important to let people know that you care about them and that your notes are meant to be helpful.
- It’s never too late to try new things or change your life. Over the past 10 years, my students have taught me that if you are not happy it’s OK to make a change. Thank you to all of them for having the courage to make a change and open my eyes so that I could make a change too.