Mary Lou Bradley: Painting the Picture-Perfect Life

Mary Lou Bradley

Mary Lou Bradley worked for the man who created Three’s Company, a TV show those of us of a certain age will remember. She also worked for Bill DeBlasio before he was the mayor of New York City. She went to culinary school and learned to make pastries. And then, at age 55, she became an entrepreneur.

Though Bradley had a wide range of impressive experience, including 22 years in syndicated television, she discovered that it becomes harder for older employees to find work because employers don’t always want to pay for their experience. In addition, she had never gotten a college degree.

“Everything I learned, I learned on the job. I don’t think people can do that any more. You need a college degree just to get an interview.”

After briefly – and disastrously, according to her – living in Florida, Bradley and her future husband, Mary Lou Bradley in Front of StoreJoe, decided to return east. Though they wanted to move back to New York City, they were deterred by the high cost of living, so instead settled in Bradley’s hometown of Pittsburgh. But one good thing came out of their ill-fated move to Florida: she and Joe had taken a class at a paint studio not far from their house, and they were intrigued by the idea of opening a place where people could go to relax, have a good time, and paint for a few hours. When they settled in Pittsburgh they decided it was time to pursue that idea.

A cousin of Bradley’s suggested they consider the Lawrenceville neighborhood, which was an edgy, up-and-coming arts district. They were delighted when they went to see the area for themselves, and even more so when they checked out a building called the Ice House, which had been a working ice factory until the 1950’s and was later repurposed as artists’ studios.

When they arrived at the Ice House they were shown a studio and knew they had found their space. “The heavens parted, angels wept – it was perfect.” They were almost afraid to ask the price, their minds still accustomed to NYC rents. But this was an edgy neighborhood in Pittsburgh, and when they heard the rent they were astonished. They didn’t hesitate; though they had yet to come up with a concrete business plan, they took the studio.

“My 27-year-old daughter is so proud of me. It’s like role-reversal. She told me I was an inspiration to her because I have a strong sense of self. It was one of the nicest things anyone ever said to me. I definitely feel successful. Since turning 50 I’ve started a whole new life.”

They wasted no time getting started and figured things out as they went. First came the name, and then Joe, himself an artist, designed the logo. Bradley got a business license and filed the necessary paperwork. They created a catalog with the sketches of paintings Joe created, and soon after ran a test class with some of her cousins’ kids. In March 2012, two months after finding the studio, Paint Monkey was officially up and running.

Paint Monkey offers classes in which each participant begins with a sketch on canvas, and then, over the course of a two- or three-hour class, is guided through the process of painting it by a local artist – usually Bradley’s husband. The atmosphere is casual and fun; participants can bring their own drinks, including alcohol, as well as snacks.

“We call it show time when it’s time for a class. It’s like having a party every night and I don’t know who the guests will be. I’m the hostess – I make sure everyone is happy, draw them out. It’s my favorite part.”

Paint Monkey ClassBusiness is going well and they’ve expanded, offering private parties, children’s classes and other events.

“Our original goal was to make enough money to pay the rent, and not much more. But it’s gone well beyond that at this point. We now have three full-time employees and three locations.”

There have been many surprises. “I never fully appreciated how hard it is to manage people. In all the different jobs that I had I was never in charge of anyone; I was always independent. Having people work for you is a whole different scene. I think I’m pretty good at it but it tries me; it tests my patience.”

It also keeps them busy. “Joe and I got married two years ago and we still haven’t been on our honeymoon. I don’t like that I don’t have much free time, but it’s getting better. We chose a business that operates mostly during evenings and weekends, so that’s time we can’t have for ourselves. But the flipside is that I would probably never be able to work for someone else again after having worked for myself. It gives us a different kind of freedom.”

There’s one benefit of having her own business that Bradley hadn’t expected. “My 27-year-old daughter is so proud of me. It’s like role-reversal. She told me I was an inspiration to her because I have a strong sense of self. It was one of the nicest things anyone ever said to me.

“I definitely feel successful. Since turning 50 I’ve started a whole new life. What do you know when you’re 24? I was so shy, and my vision of success was getting a paycheck every two weeks. Now, I can get up in front of a roomful of people and talk about my business with confidence. In my old job in constituent services I would sometimes have to go to meetings and represent the politician I worked for. I would be terrified. Now, I can get up and talk about what I do, and how we started, and anything else with no problem at all. Because it’s mine.”

Tips from Mary Lou Bradley

• For me, having a partner is crucial. I like to bounce ideas off of someone.

• Never give up.

• Keep yourself connected. Read all the time – read about what’s going on in the city around you. Be informed.

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