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Duo grows culturally-appropriate paint class

Sanaa with Friends hosts multicultural paint parties

Karen Morales
Duo grows culturally-appropriate paint class
Victoria Downes and Taneekah Johnson of Sanaa with Friends. PHOTO: KAREN MORALES

Using art as a therapeutic form of self-expression, longtime friends Victoria Downes and Taneekah Johnson created Sanaa with Friends, a multicultural painting experience for people of color to paint, sip and socialize in a community environment.

“We’re about seeking out things that affirm us and feel good to us,” says Downes.

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The idea for the business venture came one night in 2016 when Downes and Johnson wanted to do something other than the usual drinks and dinner. Attending a paint class while being served alcoholic drinks was the new popular thing to do at the time, but the two friends stopped dead in their tracks when they saw what they were supposed to be painting.

“For $45, there was a pumpkin with a kitten sitting on top of it,” Johnson says in between laughter. “We are grown women, right? I didn’t want to paint anything they had.”

So the duo created their own version of a painting experience, naming it after the Swahili word for art, or sanaa.

“We wanted to create a space where our culture was celebrated, free of microaggressions and with people who understand you,” says Johnson.

Downes adds, “You do want to interact with diverse kinds of people, but in the same breath, if you’re in a space where you’re supposed to be relaxing, you want to have some semblance of familiarity, safety and community.”

And, as it turns out, there are other people out there who also want to recreate artwork that reflects their lives a lot more realistically than a kitten.

Hosting paint parties at local partnering venues or at clients’ homes, churches or backyards, Downes says what sets Sanaa with Friends apart is the participants’ freedom to customize their painting.

“We encourage people to do their own thing, make it funky, make it their own,” she says. “So when they take the painting home, they have that feeling of, ‘I did this.’”

Sanaa with Friends painters showing off their finished pieces. Photo courtesy of Sanaa with Friends

Three years in, Sanaa with Friends has been able to grow with the help of accelerator programs such as The Urban Labs, which culminated in a pitch contest in which Downes and Johnson won a $10,000 cash prize.

More recently, Sanaa with Friends won a second-place cash prize of $2,500 at the LISC Founder’s Stage pitch competition earlier this year.

The artwork used in the painting events comes from royalty-free stock photo websites, as well as from local artists in the Boston area who have made original art exclusively for Sanaa with Friends.

Clients can choose to either attend one of the monthly ticketed paint night events at local restaurants such as Suya Joint or Morell’s BBQ, priced between $25 and $30, or book a private party at their chosen date and location for $25 to $50 per person.

While they are putting on several paint parties a month at colleges, at partnering restaurants or in clients’ homes, Sanaa with Friends has remained a side hustle for the business duo, who both have day jobs, are married and have kids.

But as busy as their lives get, Sanaa with Friends is a chance for the women to be creative and have fun outside of their everyday jobs.

“We have way more fun than we should,” says Johnson. “When we’re working all day and we have a paint event after, it’s not like, ‘Ugh.’”

“It’s more of a relief,” adds Downes. “I get to play around and paint. I see it as going back to your childlike tendencies.”

It helps that Sanaa with Friends isn’t the women’s first foray into entrepreneurship; both Downes and Johnson have each started their own past ventures with organic beauty products, handmade jewelry and homemade cupcakes.

And Downes’ beauty product line, although now defunct, even made its way onto the shelves of Walgreens at one point.

“When you start a business, you don’t know how everything is going to turn out, but for us, if we didn’t make the jump, we would have never taken the step,” says Downes. “We’ve learned a lot along the way, and have had to pivot and restructure, but we’ve remained flexible and that has allowed us to grow.”

As serial entrepreneurs, the two women are operating Sanaa with Friends under the umbrella company Mahogany Empowerment Agency. “The goal is to create social spaces and professional opportunities for people of color,” says Johnson.

Next up for Mahogany is speed dating, an event series Downes and Johnson are in the process of creating for singles in Boston.

“We want to deliver impactful events and memorable experiences,” says Johnson. “This is something we’re really passionate about and we want to make sure we’re making an impact on the community.”

For Banner readers, use the online code BAYSTATE for 25% off any private party booking deposit with Sanaa with Friends, until June 1, 2019.

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