If you’ve been keeping up with my posts, you know that I am all for local businesses. There are some that we frequent, and there are some we rarely ever go into. Until recently, the Blowfish Emporium was a place I rarely went into. And after spending a little bit of time there, and getting to know the owner, Mrs. Bethany Wilson, I think I have figured out why I was reluctant to shop at her establishment. Also, I hope to turn around the opinions of others who are in the shoes I was up until recently.
If you have heard about the Blowfish Emporium (just “Blowfish” from here on out), you probably know that it’s an art gallery. You probably don’t think you fit in with people who look at art. The kind of people that you see dressed in Manhattan Black and Kangol hats staring at an unfinished tic-tac-toe board or something. Well, we’re not in Manhattan, and that’s just not how Ms. Bethany rolls. Like I said, I was a little intimidated by the store, but I can assure you that once you walk inside, you will feel very much at home. The art is fantastic, and it is all done by people who live in the area. I’d be willing to put money down, saying that if you bought a painting from Blowfish, you could arrange to meet the artist for a word or two.
Another thing about this art gallery is that it’s not just paintings. There are also practical pieces in the store like hand-made jewelry, pottery, they have classes lined up for you to make your own masterpiece. It really is a place of business that not only fills a niche, but inspires and invites new people into the niche. Being born and raised 20 minutes from D.C. I had easy access to art shows, gallery openings, and museums. I have also been to Chicago and absorbed the cultural art there. But nothing is like going into the Blowfish. I felt very comfortable there, Mrs. Wilson is very professional, yet laid back enough to make sure you have a good time while you’re browsing through her store’s many different items.
Like these people.
And I know what you’re thinking: “But Del, she could just have been nice to you while you were interviewing her, for the publicity!” No, she was being nice to me because she’s genuinely a nice person. She wants to answer your questions, and tell you her opinion without forcing it on you. And as for the publicity… my site gets about 80-100 hits every 6 days or so. Her background is in marketing. I don’t think she needs my help getting her name out there. She’s just very sincere, very confident, and seems like the kind of person that really enjoys what they do! I visited the store the day after I was able to interview her and she loves striking up conversations about the different pieces she has on display. And you can bet your butt, if she doesn’t know the answer to a question, she will find it out for you.
Also, (heads up for the guys out there), I highly recommend shopping for your g-friend at Blowfish. Mrs. Wilson has informed me that if you purchase something there, you can work out a gift-wrap situation and a bag, and everything so all you have to do is sign the card. It will really make you look like you know what you’re doing. Especially if you’re like me and it takes 3 or 4 tries to wrap something, then you realize it’s July and you’re using Christmas wrapping paper. Definite thumbs up there.
Pictured: Something that's not scary.
So without further ado.. here is the interview I was able to get with Mrs. Bethany Wilson. And I have to say, she was so easy to talk to, I wish I had more questions/time for her because she made this interview fun.
Del Dotson: Ok, this week I’m here talking with..
Bethany Wilson: Bethany Wilson.
DD: And she’s..
BW: I’m owner and operator of the Blowfish Emporium, local arts gallery.
DD: First question, what got you interested in art?
BW: I worked with Believe in Bristol, a non-profit organization, which is a main street program that essentially runs downtown. And it promotes economic development and all of that stuff, so I was involved with Believe in Bristol, Christina Blevins, and lived downtown. My husband and I, we had this retail space because we own the building and after several months of not having anyone sign a contract, I kind of have always wanted to own my own business.. so being involved with Believe in Bristol, the arts were really something big here, and the art galleries surprisingly were pretty much non-existent. I had several friends who were artists [and still are], and I’d ask them where they were showcasing, and they’d say: “Well, I really don’t do anything, because where would I put it?” so I kind of started thinking about that, and you know, the arts have been here for years and years, so why not add an art gallery? Because I feel like, especially showcasing local arts you feel a little bit cultivated, and you’re stretched a little bit in your own world because the arts are so subjective. And they appeal to such a broad audience.
BW: You may have a particular style that you like. Whether it be abstract, or realism, or whatever. But when you see and view the others in an inviting and welcoming environment, you kind of grow yourself, and I think that can mainly be done through local art.
DD: So is that mainly what you showcase here, the local art?
BW: Mm-hmm, I have local and regional art. And that includes everything from photography, pottery, original paintings, jewelry, handmade soaps, a lot of other little nick-nacks, hair-ties..
DD: Yes, and it’s all very cool in here, I like looking around.
BW: Thank you! And I mean, I have everything from people showcasing their work publicly for the first time, to those who are well established nationally and some internationally acclaimed artists. Like I said, it’s still artists from this area, so you have all sorts of price ranges and different takes on landscapes, improv paintings, abstracts, all sorts of cool things.
DD: That’s really cool. My next question is, I know you guys own this building and everything, but what made you decide to open a business on state street? What made you choose this location?
BW: I’m actually, both my husband and I are from the area. So when I was in High-School I was involved with something called Bristol youth Leadership. Through that program, we were introduced to future development plans of Bristol, Downtown area specifically. So with the potential that Downtown Bristol has, was something that as I got older, I knew I wanted to be a part of. That was actually the compromise, we were living in Atlanta at the time. My husband wanted to move back up to the area and I loved Atlanta.
DD: And he’s from around here too?
BW: Yes. He’s from Bristol. So the compromise was, well if we’re going to move downtown then we’re going to live downtown and be part of the movement. Because growing up, the downtown area was something that I didn’t ever frequent because all it was, was antique shops. That’s great if you’re antiquing but if you weren’t into that then you had no reason to come downtown. So between from when I was in High-School to when we started looking at relocating back to Bristol, Downtown was already starting to grow quite a bit. Development opportunities were right in the prime time, I think. So that’s kind of what brought us downtown.
DD: I hear a lot of people saying that, you know, all Downtown has is nothing but this enormous potential. So what would you like to see happen with Downtown Bristol, like say.. in 10 years? Where would you like it to be?
BW: Oh gosh.
DD: If everything were possible.
BW: If everything were possible, there is a project that has been on the table for 10 or so years.. it’s called the “Beaver Creek Project”.
DD: I think I’ve heard a little about that.
BW: They actually would go in and develop Beaver Creek, so where it would be somewhat like a city-walk. And it would go along the creek, and it actually goes through Bristol. It starts past the train station and it goes all the way down to the speedway [Bristol Motor Speedway - approximately 8 miles away]. But the plans for its development would not only 100% control flood damage, which everybody down here pays huge, huge insurance premiums for flood control, it’s ridiculous. So not only would it completely have 100% flood control, but the development potential.. I think it would bring in new business. If you look at Greenville, South Carolina that have a river-walk, or where is it, like Santa Fe or somewhere that also has a river-walk, I mean, its potential for river rides with quote-unquote gondolas [yes, she used the "quotation fingers"], maybe not exactly a gondola.. but aesthetically it would just make downtown..
BW: Absolutely beautiful. It would be such a huge tourist attraction. That would be my number one dream because I think with the Beaver Creek Project, it’s a very economically expensive project, I think it would bring in.. I mean when you look at the businesses that are downtown, that’s great that we have a lot of small businesses, but really we need major corporations to come in here that will bring in multiple jobs and multiple people who want to become permanent residents of the area. So in order to attract those kind of businesses we need those big, major steps of why they should come here, you know?
DD: I agree.
BW: With Beaver Creek, I think a lot of other things will just kind of trickle..
DD: Will just kind of fall into place?
BW: Fall into place, yeah. So that would be my first big achievement, if I could have anything happen it would be the Beaver Creek. But that’s like a 40 million plus, dollar project. Haha.
DD: Well I didn’t know anything about it. Kind of.. I think I kind of heard a little about it, back when I was reading up on all the City Plans and all that stuff.
DD: It’s, like you said, it’s not really mentioned a lot in the more recent documents the City puts out.
BW: I think the big, one of the biggest.. it happens to be one of the most unique features of Downtown Bristol, but it is also a big obstacle, or it can be. Because we are Bristol Tennessee and Bristol Virginia, we’re a dual city in 2 separate states. We have completely 2 different laws and regulations, and committees. So, you know, most downtowns are dealing with one city manager, one board, or one law enforcement, you know? So like I said it’s one of our most unique features, but it’s also just, double the work.. haha. Anything like a Beaver Creek or something would be interesting.
[Phone rings in the store. Mrs. Wilson is constantly busy with that kind of thing, I consider myself very lucky to have been able to talk with her for as long as I did.]
DD: Is this the first business you’ve opened up?
BW: Yes. It is. My background, is actually.. it has nothing to do with art. It has to do with business management and marketing. When I graduated college, I moved down to Atlanta and then I became Associate Director for a marketing program for a private prepatory pre-school in Buckhead. And that was my first job in marketing.. a pre-school which was interesting.
DD: Right. And it was a private school?
BW: Mm-hmm. Very prestigious families, and NBA players, and Ludacris’ daughter went there.
BW: So that was my first experience and when I moved back here I worked part-time for an international marketing consultant. That was great experience, but it was just.. I mean, not very many people can say that they love their job. Owning your own business is definitely twice the work if not more, more hours, more responsibility..
DD: I’m a business major, so I can see that.
BW: But at the same time, you have to work for somebody, so why not work for yourself? Haha!
BW: If you can! If you can, I mean, like I said it’s hard. If you work for someone else you’re guaranteed a paycheck, as long as you do your job you’re guaranteed a paycheck every week or 2 weeks. Owning your own business you’re not guaranteed anything, you just have to bust heiny and make it work!
DD: So, being around all of these local artists and kind of having connections with everyone do you think that since you’ve opened up the Blowfish you’ve become a little more creative?
BW: Oh yeah.
DD: Like, do you pick up a paint brush now and try it out a little bit?
BW: Yeah, we actually offer painting. It’s a very informal twist on a painting class. We offer BYOB painting every Tuesday and Thursday evening. And what we do is, as you can see on the schedule we have a set image. So tonight it’s going to be this deer with a million antlers. But we offer a set image and some of them are originals from our artists, and others are, as you can see with the Bristol sign are just other images and works of different artists. But what we do is we take that image and everybody gets a blank canvas, and we have a paint bar, so you don’t necessarily have to follow those colors. But we use the image as an inspirational point and then a local artist comes in and does a demonstration on how to get you started. Then you create your own interpretation off of that image. Whether or not you follow it to the T, is really up to you. but our art instructor really encourages you to kind of.. make it your own. Whether it be adding something, taking something away, changing the colors to accommodate your house or whatever.
DD: Just kind of making it special to you?
BW: Yeah. But I literally am 100% honest when I say that no skill is needed or required, at all. We’ve been open just over 13 months, and since we’ve been open we’ve had over 1500 students.
DD: Wow, so how many are usually in one of your classes?
BW: It depends on the season. When it gets colder, our classes get bigger, because there’s not as many things to do outside. Colder seasons we average between 10 and 15, warmer seasons are anywhere from 5-8 typically. Let’s say we have 1500 students divided by 12 months [it's calculator time!], that’s over 125 people a month! If you divide that by 4, that’s at least 30 people a week, so 15 per class. But we do provate parties as well.
DD: Very cool.
BW: Where you can book a Friday, Saturday evening, have the whole place to yourself, you can bring in your own food, bring in your own drinks and set up a party. Then you get to pick your image that you want to do. And we have hundreds! A whole selection.
DD: Well that sounds fantastic!
BW: So since.. well your question was “Have I gotten more creative”..
DD: Oh yeah, I forgot that’s where we were heading.
BW: Since opening that, the art instructor and I, we kind of came up with this concept off of a similar concept that is pretty nation wide. Where you go, it’s not exactly paint by numbers. Well, it’s definitely not paint by numbers. I had gone to a private party in Alabama, and had such a good time painting, and had never painted before that I wanted to do something similar, but I felt a little bit restricted. Because they literally were like: “Pick up this brush. Dip it in this color. Draw a line here.“ Everybody ended up with an awesome painting, but everybody’s looked exactly the same. There was no freedom to express yourself. And even though I had never painted before I felt completely restricted. So Pat.. Pat Jessee, she’s the artist that comes in, and she’s been an artist her entire life, and is very well known. She worked in New Orleans for 30 or 40 years. She was a curator for an art gallery, she worked for some very prestigious artists. She’s an art instructor but she also gets commissioned locally to do art improv on stage to musical performances. She’s a cultural dance instructor, she’s just an awesome overall instructor, and she can make the most miserable, uncreative person end up with this awesome painting, where they learn something new about themselves. I don’t know, she’s just amazing.
DD: Well it sounds like she’s got it going on.
BW: Oh yeah! She’s awesome!
DD: Okay, just a few more questions. What do you think your store, what do you think the Blowfish Emporium brings to Downtown Bristol that wasn’t already here? I mean, not just the fact that it’s the only art place..
BW: Well I definitely think that, it being a local art gallery it definitely gives artists in the community an opportunity to showcase their talents, to show how talented our area really is. And it just gives more personality to our area, for our artists to be on pre-view. So Blowfish just is a place of opportunity and artists can promote their works, and promote what’s going on behind the scenes of Bristol.
Pictured: Mrs. Bethany Wilson. When it comes to the art scene in Bristol. She's a Jedi, is what I'm sayin.
DD: Which leads me to my next question: How do you think Blowfish fits in with the personality of Downtown Bristol, on State Street?
BW: I definitely think that Downtown is on a fast track to growing and you have to be innovative in your business way of thinking. Because we are dealing with such a different generation, you know? Everybody’s on Facebook and the social media networks, so being in tune with all that, and also offering an art gallery where you don’t feel like “Oh my gosh, I don’t want to break anything.” By definitely creating an environment that is welcoming and, whether you buy something or not, you’re going to take away something. Just because that’s because how art is.
DD: Sure, yeah.
BW: So I want to showcase a place where if you have $5 you can buy something, if you have $500 we have something for you. And none of it is mass produced. All of this is hand-made, local art, local jewelry. When you give that gift to somebody.. you know, when you buy local.. that money comes back to your community. When you buy online, none of that money comes back to your community. When you buy regionally, where you spend your money is where it comes back to, so when you come here and you buy a piece of jewelry that’s $50, well that $50 is going into your community, it’s going to a local artist, versus if you go buy a similar item at Wal-Mart, that money is going to China!
BW: You know?!
DD: I hear ya! And my final question is, well I had 2, but you already answered the other one. Is there anything else that you’d like to share that we didn’t really touch on?
BW: The thing about small business, and I think everybody everywhere feels this is that we are so, so affected by the economic downturn and the state that we’re all in. That is even more of a reason why you should buy local. Because small businesses rely 100% on our local community to survive. And you still have to buy birthday gifts, you still have to buy anniversary, Christmas gifts. You still have all of those things you have to buy for. So when you go and shop, whether it’s at Blowfish or wherever, just buy local, so you can keep your small businesses in business.
DD: Okay, well that’s all I have.
DD: Thank you for your time!
BW: Yeah! Thank you. I look forward to reading it!
I think she has it right on the money. She knows what she needs to get done, and does it. I hope this reaches out to people who have passed by Blowfish (like I had so many times in the past), and is the open invitation they need to get them in there and look around. I am positive you will find something you’d like, or something you could get to score brownie points with your wife/g-friend/daughter/mom, or for the art enthusiast in your life. I’ll see you there!
529 State Street, Bristol VA, 24201
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