How One Woman Turned Pandemic-Induced Boredom and a Makeshift Garage Art Studio Into a Thriving Franchise Maya Ratcliff was searching for a hobby when she stumbled upon an art form that would ultimately change her life forever.
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Maya Ratcliff is in her Dallas studio listening to a "Beach Vibes" playlist when she picks up the phone. She's in a contagiously good mood as she mixes paints to prepare for the day ahead. But if you told Ratcliff three years ago that this is what she'd be doing at 8 a.m. on a Wednesday, she'd probably laugh in your face.
Ratcliff, who moved to the Hawaiian Islands in 2012, spent most of her adult life working as a corporate banker and then in the mortgage industry. Although she's always been an innately curious person, the pandemic ignited a longing for something more. Ultimately, she was bored. Like, really bored.
"I was just tired of the grind of my daily [job] — I call it a j-o-b — I won't even say the word out loud," Ratcliff jokes.
After working in the same industry for 15 years — and now dealing with the new norm of lockdown — Ratcliff sought a way to stay busy while also relaxing, something she says she's "distinctly not good at."
"My husband is a woodworker, and I was sitting in his woodshop trying to whittle wood, and I was cursing the entire time. He goes, 'Honey, hobbies are not supposed to make you miserable,'" Ratcliff laughs. "I realized right then I had to find something that I enjoy."
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She tried everything: oil painting, watercolors, acrylics. "I was so bad at all of it," Ratcliff says. But when she least expected it, she found her perfect medium.
"It's going to take effort and it's going to take energy, but it's going to be worth it."
As Ratcliff was in the middle of yet another attempt at acrylic painting, she struggled to get color out of the bottle. In an effort to loosen the paint, she added water to the bottle, shook it up and poured it on a plate. Ratcliff didn't know it at the time, but pouring that paint out was changing her life.
"I tilted it around, and the next day it was dry and I loved it," Ratcliff says. "So I ordered a bunch of canvases, and I never looked back."
Once she started, she couldn't stop. Her new method of painting was "fluid," both in texture and style. But above all, it was mesmerizing, soothing and exactly what she had been looking for. Over the next two months, Ratcliff began posting her artwork on Facebook for fun — but then people started buying it. Then, they wanted lessons.
"I was like, 'I'm not an art instructor, but I'll show you what I do,'" she says. "I am a huge believer that if you want to do something, you can do it. It's going to take effort and it's going to take energy, but it's going to be worth it."
Ratcliff didn't have an art studio, so she made do with her garage and transformed it into a space for artistic expression.
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To set the scene, though the walls of Ratcliff's garage were painted white, they were filled with so much art that colors covered each wall. The garage was at the end of a courtyard, which served as a welcoming entrance for guests.
It was an instant hit. She taught nearly 1,000 people over six months. Clients came from all over the Big Island of Hawaii — some driving upwards of two-and-a-half hours each way to attend a class.
What made Ratcliff's business a success was not only the method of creating, which she took to calling "fluid art," but also the welcoming environment she so carefully built for her students.
"I realized that people wanted a feeling of comfort in their art studios," Ratcliff says. "All the commercial art studios that are out there are just sterile, uncomfortable and cold."
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The studio was warm and welcoming and above all instilled a sense of healing in all those who come through the doors.
Hawaii Fluid Art studio in Dallas, Texas | Courtesy of Maya Ratcliff
Ratcliff knew her art could bring joy to others, regardless of any physical or mental obstacles they faced. Among Ratcliff's first clients were people who were hard of hearing, suffered severe brain damage or struggled with other disabilities.
When Ratcliff first started teaching, she received a call from a man who wanted to know if she'd be willing to teach his wife. She'd suffered severe brain damage from a car accident. She had no long-term memory and very limited short-term memory. He wanted to give her something to do that she enjoyed so much in the moment that she might remember it.
The woman came to the studio every week for one-on-one lessons and, eventually, she remembered.
"The husband told me that she would ask every day, 'Can I go to art class today? Is today the day I go to art class?' It was the first thing that she remembered consistently since her accident," Ratcliff says.
During the six months of teaching in her garage, Ratcliff witnessed countless instances where her art served as therapy and a source of joy for others, so she knew she needed to take the next step. She opened her first brick-and-mortar studio in Waikoloa, Hawaii in 2021 — but her expansion didn't stop there.
"When we are in a place that we don't feel whole, or we don't feel 100%, we have to look inside of ourselves to figure out what's missing"
Her new studio was thriving, and Ratcliff also taught classes for families at a housing development on another part of the island. After a particularly illuminating class, one of the parents approached her.
"He said, 'Maya, you need to franchise this. Everybody deserves to experience Hawaii Fluid Art,'" Ratcliff says. "At that moment I was like, really? I started thinking about it hard and then looking into what it would take to franchise. I took a leap of faith and spent every penny that I had to pay for the franchise entity."
Ratcliff poured her energy, faith and $50,000 into the hopes of making Hawaii Fluid Art a success, and she finally got her FDD in August 2021. Still, Ratcliff wanted to ensure that her business model was perfect before sharing her art experience with the world.
So, from August 2021 to April 2022, Ratcliff worked on fine-tuning the infrastructure of her business from the inside out, with a focus on creating a positive experience for future clients and franchisees alike — and her efforts paid off. Many of Ratcliff's franchisees were once fans of her lessons, or otherwise inspired by her story, and now extend that same energy forward by bringing Hawaii Fluid Art to their communities.
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Now, Hawaii Fluid Art has five locations across four states, and recently sold 137 units. Ratcliff plans to open 350 locations nationwide over the next five years, and she moved to Dallas in 2022 to focus on expanding the business.
As Ratcliff continues to grow her business, she recalls what led her to the art in the first place: a longing to experience something she needed but couldn't find.
"When we are in a place that we don't feel whole, or we don't feel 100%, we have to look inside of ourselves to figure out what's missing, and then find those missing puzzle pieces and start adding them into our life," Ratcliff says.