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Owner Kristen Ashley MacCarthy poses for a portrait in the K.A. Artist Shop in Athens, Georgia on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019. MacCarthy opened the shop in 2014 after graduating from the University of Georgia with an art degree. She says painting is one of her long-time favorite mediums, and she has recently, become more interested in watercolors. (Photo/Taylor Gerlach)

Despite being a hub for creative minds as well as the “go-to” supply store for art students in Athens, the origins of the K. A. Artist Shop and its founder remained largely unknown.

Tucked away on Jackson Street, the K. A. Artist Shop is a hotspot for Athens’ professional artists and art students alike. Founded in 2014, the shop slowly integrated itself into the Athens art scene, advertising solely by word of mouth for its first three years of operation. For regular customers, the shop was a stroke of serendipitous fortune.

Upon entering the shop, customers ascend a rainbow flight of stairs to the main room. Tidy and organized, its walls are covered in muted earthy colors with splashes of pastel pinks and aquas. Despite being packed with a wide assortment of supplies, the organized arrangement and bright lighting make the space airy and dynamic. 

The shop’s aesthetic would be easy to attribute to an artist, and while that title may reign true today, the owner’s journey to establishing the K. A. Artist Shop was a rather ambiguous unwinding of events.

The name behind the name 

Kristen Ashley MacCarthy, the founder of the K. A. Artist Shop is originally from Atlanta and moved to Athens in 2000 to attend the University of Georgia.

While MacCarthy was committed to obtaining an art degree from a young age, deciding exactly what role it would play in her life was a slow process. On the path to self discovery, MacCarthy took a vast assortment of classes at UGA such as linguistics, biology, sociology and psychology, before graduating with two majors: one in art and one in philosophy nine years after she initially began.

However, at the time of her 2009 graduation MacCarthy was surprisingly not pursuing an artistic career, but instead was managing a restaurant. Throughout college she had slowly progressed through the employee hierarchy, which provided her with an initial taste of business experience.

From student to studio artist

A year later, MacCarthy was married, and her marriage became the fertile soil from which the K. A. Artist Shop grew. And its growth was rooted in a single pair of wedding shoes. 

“They were covered in mud because we got married outside,” MacCarthy said, in reference to the expensive Calvin Kleins she wore down the aisle. “So I just started applying lace in strips to the shoes, and I really treated it like a sculpture … I made a pretty cool pair of shoes.”

It was the first piece MacCarthy had made that was not a painting, and more importantly, the first piece she was able to visualize as a purchasable product. After putting similar prototypes on an Etsy store, she was suddenly selling not just throughout America, but worldwide, including Canada and Sweden. 

Following the success of her Etsy store, MacCarthy decided she wanted her own studio and began to search the Athens area for a space suitable to her needs. 

This exciting time of life was changed, however, with the passing of MacCarthy’s parents. She quit working at the restaurant, and began to pursue a life that would honor her parents.

“It gave me an opportunity to reevaluate my life and say ‘OK, I can start something here.'” MacCarthy said.

After purchasing a rather oddly structured space on the second floor of a building in downtown Athens, she and two recruits from her restaurant worked tirelessly to bring the space to life. As new flooring was laid and fresh paint applied, MacCarthy became aware that her studio would be more than she could have ever hoped for.

“Kristen is one of the most poised and graceful people I’ve met,” said Christina Littleton, manager at the K. A. Artist Shop and friend of MacCarthy. “She carries a strong and encouraging demeanor both in and out of work.”

Becoming a shop owner

When the studio first opened, MacCarthy dabbled in all mediums and did freelance work advertised by word of mouth. Customers’ continual requests made her aware of a need for not only a supply store in Athens, but a space for artists and non-artists alike to take classes and display their work.

“If I’m going to have a bunch of art supplies on hand, I might as well sell some,” MacCarthy said. “It was all just a matter of thinking, ‘OK what do we have, what can we then share with the public?’”

The studio became an artist shop, adopting MacCarthy’s  first two initials in its title. Business progressed gradually, with her describing it as quicker than she could handle, but not so quick that it escaped from her entirely. Throughout the growth, she continuously prioritized organization and customer care.

Over the years, as customer demographics fluctuated between professional artists and student artists, MacCarthy was able to gain a clear understanding of Athens-specific customer needs, and made catering to them her goal through supplies,class kits or a versatile assortment of in-studio art classes.

“She has created a new haven for so many artists and creators who come through the shop,” Littleton said, “It is clear that she is making a difference in people’s lives. I have been enlightened to a beautiful community of artists who support each other and provide a rich lifestyle for themselves."

MacCarthy hopes to expand at a gradual rate, preferring to be gracious and optimistic about new possibilities. In the near future she is hoping the shop will host more artists for the in-studio classes they provide, which further enlighten and support the growth of creative knowledge and artistic mindset. 

“It’s the dream I never knew I had,” MacCarthy said. “But it’s absolutely what I’m cut out to do and what I want to be doing.” 

To young artists who have found themselves in a similar unfolding of events, MacCarthy encourages organization from the start and a willingness to say yes to as many opportunities as possible. She believes being open to possibility provides a deep understanding of the surrounding need, and how one as an artist can fulfill it.

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