Brush Box : Local Creative Small Business Brings Custom Art-Making Experiences to the Community
Amber Thomas was drawn to pursue art therapy as a profession because of the ways it combined her interests of psychology and art-making. Now, along with business partner Kadijiha Jones, she’s bringing customized art experiences to diverse communities all over the Milwaukee area through their creative small business Brush Box.
After obtaining an undergraduate degree in art therapy from Alverno College, Thomas gained experience working hands-on in assisted living centers, and went on to pursue her graduate degree at Mount Mary University. Then, during her final year of the program, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. As with many people all over the globe, Thomas saw creative community evaporate—but the need for it was stronger than ever.
“There was so much going on with community at that time, and also, so much community was lost,” reflected Thomas. “And I realized, community engagement is really what helps me thrive, I think it's what helps a lot of people thrive. A lot of people were messaging me like, Amber, we're bored. We need an art box, can you make something up for us?”
What began as a passion project in response to the needs of her inner circle became an opportunity to forge a future as an entrepreneur. Soon Thomas was approached by a company interested in working with her for internal team building through creative activities. From there, she went on to combine forces with her business partner Jones to host workshops at area colleges, which led to collaborations with established community-serving organizations including Artists Working in Education and United Way. Working in the community, Thomas observed how expansive the appetite was for art activities, and for flexibility and inclusivity within artistic spaces.
“It's been a very cool mix of psychoeducation, and our engagement and community. Really meeting people where they're at and focusing on accessibility, making sure that we're actually meeting the needs, not assuming the needs," said Thomas.
With each client, the Brush Box team is focused on listening to the needs of the particular demographics of the group, and building activities that are informed and customized based on each unique group profile. To Thomas, the act of promoting accessibility within the arts is at the core of what Brush Box is all about. She’s witnessed the empowering mental, physical, and emotional benefits of artistic play, exploration, and shared creativity up close.
“Art is probably the most underrated, impactful thing that we can engage with in our lives. And I want people to start thinking of art more as a needed form of expression versus a prestigious thing." Thomas elaborated. "Most people are creative, they just don't realize like what they're doing is their own form of expression. So I always tell people: whether it's movement, music, dance, creative writing, rapping, poetry, painting, knitting, hair, makeup nails, all of those things have different regulatory benefits that wind themselves through our like circulatory system. Your body releases endorphins and there’s a reduction of cortisol simply when you do things that you enjoy. Your stress level goes down, if that helps how your body is going to function. Repetitive motion releases serotonin in our brain.”
Today, Thomas identifies as a community art therapist. As she’s grown into the role and into being a co-business owner, she values how the greater Milwaukee area has been a naturally fertile and encouraging environment in which to do this work.
“I think Milwaukee is unique in so many ways," Thomas reflected. "But I think the downside to Milwaukee is that like, with so many micro communities, with so much culture, like people tend to stay in their own areas and not really like explore outside of it. So it's been very cool for us to be invited into so many different communities throughout the city. We're not really like, pigeonholed into one area. We do things on the south side, in Riverwest, in Bayview, and by the Sherman Phoenix...just like as many places as we can be. And we've been welcomed into all of them.”
The receptivity to the art-making experiences of Brush Box had a ripple effect. Most of their clientele has been generated by word of mouth, or the networks of attendees or organizations that have worked with Thomas and Jones. And Thomas observes that in Milwaukee, there’s a special emphasis on and pride in supporting local creative entrepreneurs, as evidenced by the robust makers market scene, made popular through markets such as Milwaukee Makers Market and Hovercraft. Thomas hopes that many in the community will continue to be curious, and to see themselves in the services she provides and creative experiences she facilitates.
“The Brush Box community is for everyone," she said. "These experiences are for everyone. We are passionate about creating programming that fits different acuity levels, uplifts all developmental levels, and focuses on providing accessibility....we try to think of all types of developmental needs, and physical needs so that everybody can be a part of our experience,” said Thomas.
And her creative side helps keep her inspired to continually craft the future of the business. She keeps a running list of ideas of future themes and projects to provide to communities she works with—including being informed by science around development of the brain and fine motor skills, and getting inspired by materials encountered in daily life.
“I'll read an article and I'm like, oh, we should try something that focuses on these like developmental needs," said Thomas. "And then a lot of the time it's just us walking through stores, like looking at things and like, oh, let's experiment with that. So we make a lot of prototypes, we'll even bring some prototypes to market to see how the community engages with them.”
As Thomas continues her journey as a creative entrepreneur, she remains focused on meeting the specific needs of the Milwaukee community — and on scaling up.
“We are currently trying to develop larger programs that focus on community outreach, and adult based social emotional development. And we eventually want to offer like, some school-based trainings that we can provide, like the outline for how we think you could structure like different emotional development programs. Right now we're at like Milwaukee Academy of Science. And we're running an art therapy program for them, for children with different type of like behavioral needs, teaching them how to process how to engage in different ways, and how to build community with each other through art-making.
Based on the interest she’s seen from teachers, Thomas hopes that in the future, Brush Box will be able to build up its resources to the point of being able to supply kits directly to educators. From her experience, it's evident what a positive impact creative community activities are having in the lives of Milwaukeeans of all ages.
“There's so much problem-solving, critical thinking, fine motor development, like so many things that can be taught through arts and it's just a different way of engaging the brain," said Thomas. "So we're happy to be a part of that movement to bring creativity back to different communities."