At the start of 2020, Christine Ohemeng, our NJMOMpreneur of the week, had just completed renovations on a 19th-century carriage house attached to her property in South Orange, where she planned to grow her already successful surface pattern design company, Christine Joy Designs. But when the pandemic made in-person working difficult, Christine put her plans on hold and was left with an empty beautiful barn space. Feeling frustrated and sad for her kids and herself stuck at home, Christine came up with an idea—use her design skills to teach kids’ art classes when the weather got warmer, where she could open doors in the barn while the kids created. After posting about it on a mom’s Facebook group and receiving an overwhelming—yes, please—a side hustle was born. Her classes at Art Barn helped her and her children socialize and gave them a sense of normalcy, and as restrictions ebbed, she added adult workshops, retreats, and parties to her list of services with more ideas on the way. We chatted with this South Orange mom of 3 about the cool design clients she’s worked with, the surprising fact about her that influenced her aesthetic, and the unexpected Essex County destination where her family goes to view magical holiday lights.
Tell us how you ended up calling South Orange home. My husband, Kwame, and I met while students at Wesleyan University in Connecticut—we were college sweethearts and have been married since 2011. Both of us are from New York and lived in Brooklyn for a while before moving to South Orange in 2017. South Orange was on my shortlist because I was looking for a progressive and racially diverse town. It was very important to me that we wouldn’t be one of the few black families in town so that my kids would recognize themselves in the people around them. I also liked the idea of it being a residential area with a lively downtown (something I loved about Brooklyn), and South Orange delivered on all those fronts. Around the time we were looking at homes, Kwame and I attended a Gems of South Orange House Tour, where we got to visit multiple magnificent historical homes. I fell in love with the architecture and knew that this was where I wanted to live—the homes here are stunning!
What did you do career-wise before opening up your business, and what was your “aha” moment that made you decide to do this? Though I was born in New York, my family is from Antigua and Dominica, and the thinking there and the way I was brought up is that you can have a creative hobby, but you shouldn’t choose it as a career. After getting my BA from Wesleyan and my MBA at the University of Michigan, I worked at American Express as a Marketing Manager for a few years. I worked closely with some creatives on a project–they’d hand me their invoices, and the big “aha moment” for me was seeing how hefty these invoices were and realizing you don’t have to be a starving artist as a creative. I decided to leave my job to get a Masters of Industrial Design from Pratt Institute and started my own surface pattern design business after graduating. Doing trade shows brought me many clients, including West Elm, The Gap, Minted, and Crate & Barrel. I definitely believe my business background did help me nurture those contacts and close those deals.
When I moved to South Orange, I planned to grow my business, Christine Joy Designs, by collaborating with other artists in my newly renovated carriage house/artist studio. The renovation was finished in November of 2019, and I was making plans to determine which designers to hire to work alongside me, and then the pandemic hit, the world shut down, and no one could be in close quarters with other people. I was home with my kids and feeling just as sad and frustrated for them as I was for myself when the idea struck to hold art classes for them in the carriage house. I posted to a local Facebook Mom’s Group and got so much interest in it from the neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods that when the weather warmed up a bit, I just ran with it, and I ended up loving it, so I decided I wouldn’t stop doing it. When I first moved to New Jersey, I taught classes at The Visual Art Center of New Jersey and One River Art School, and from those experiences, I knew it was something I’d enjoy doing.
Were you always an artist? I lived with my grandma and my mom in a small-ish apartment in Queens, NY, and though I didn’t have a lot of art supplies, I used what I had at my disposal, and I always had a pencil and paper. I remember being drawn to architecture when I was around 7 years old. I’d plan my dream house, drawing the floorplan the way blueprints are done and adding interior finishes, too, and to this day, I’m still interested in architecture. It was hard to settle on the exact path I’d take, but architecture was certainly an option and probably what I would be doing if I didn’t discover surface pattern design.
What’s been the most surprising thing about being an entrepreneur? I didn’t expect or fully appreciate how lonely it can sometimes be. If I want to try something new, there’s no one to bounce ideas off of. Also, as a business owner, you wear all hats all the time. You need to know that unless you work with a partner or can delegate to others, you’ll have to take care of everything.
What do you hope your kids learn from seeing you run your own business? I hope they realize they can make a career out of their creativity. It is possible to be an artist, bring in money and make a living doing what you’re passionate about. Going your own way can pay off if you love what you’re doing and it brings you joy.
Please share a little-known fact about yourself or something that most people would be surprised to know about you. When I was young, my mother worked for the United Nations and was stationed in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was surrounded by my mom’s friends from all over the world, and when I look at my aesthetic and what I’m drawn to now, it’s heavily influenced by patterns you might see in certain African countries. It makes me stop, pause and appreciate that what I was exposed to at the early age of 4 or so continues to impact my overall aesthetic to this day.
What’s next? There are a lot of things I’m mulling over right now. The Art Barn is keeping me so busy—I love it and will continue to move forward growing it—but I also want to focus some more of my attention on Christine Joy Designs, my surface design pattern business. I’m considering bringing in an assistant teacher for the school to balance running both businesses more efficiently. I’d also like to add some group and corporate all-day adult retreats where we could create more than one piece of art, have lunch, and include a wellness aspect.
What are some of your favorite NJ businesses? Elitist Coffee is a great place to meet up with friends. It’s bright and airy with lots of space, and the food and drinks are high quality. Another go-to of mine is the close-to-my-home Harpers Café. It’s cozy, with excellent service and great food. Valley Vintage is a place I love to explore and find old, cool things. They have everything from artwork to furniture to clothing and accessories, and you never know what treasures you’ll find. And I love Devine Plantery. The proprietors are so knowledgeable, and all the plants I’ve ever bought from them have survived and are going strong, which is saying a lot for me.
Please share some places in NJ that you and your family enjoy visiting. We’re big fans of the Turtle Back Zoo and the surrounding area. My kids run straight to the Pirate Playground as soon as we arrive, and we also love the swan paddle boats next to the zoo at the South Mountain Reservation when the weather is warm. Plus, the holiday lights at the zoo are very, very special.
What’s your best piece of advice for an NJMOMpreneur just starting? You have to do your homework, so talk to and interview as many people as possible in the same or an adjacent field, and if possible, find yourself a mentor who’s at a place you’d like to be in. Also, don’t underestimate the power of reaching out to people on social media – many are very generous with their time and information.