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Updated: February 6, 2023 Shop Talk

Q&A: Burncoat Center ties together arts and wellness

Photo | Kevin Koczwara Barbara Alteri and Kim Mowers, founders and co-owners, Burncoat Center for Arts and Wellness in Worcester

Hopes were high in January 2020 when the Burncoat Center for Arts and Wellness opened in Worcester. Using their own funds, Barbara Alteri and Kim Mowers had created a place for creativity and healthy living to blossom together. The plan was to offer art classes that fed not only the creative side but filled the gaps in people’s mental well-being by giving them a place to find solace and freedom to express themselves. Two months later, COVID struck, and those plans went out the window. A new business plan was needed. The pair started sewing masks and selling them. They began offering at-home art kits. When people could return from isolation, the center began another transformation with more off-site art classes and the addition of a refillery, where people can refill and reuse their own containers for household items like soap, shampoo and conditioner. The BCCAW isn’t done evolving, though. As the business climate changes, Alteri and Mowers know they need to continue to explore ways to feed people’s creativity throughout Central Massachusetts.

How do you create a business plan for this project?

Mowers: When we first met it was kind of like, “I do the art stuff, but for me, doing art is a form of wellness, a form of relaxation, of therapy and feeling good.” And for Barbara, being creative does the same thing. We thought, “Why don’t we make this into our business? Because it works.” We're sure other people do it, and art and wellness both talk to each other more than people think. They go hand in hand across the board, no matter where you come from or what you do.

All of our art classes are built to feel good and to observe the practice of making something. It is not about having an awesome, finished product.

You opened right before the pandemic. What did it look like when you had to shut down?

Alteri: Every six months, Kim and I have had to pivot our business plan. The idea was for me to have my practice, Kim to have her sewing studio, and then combine our art and wellness class. When we had to close down, we had to pivot our business plan, which turned into me doing telehealth calls from home and not being able to teach classes. Kim was still doing her sewing projects, and the two of us got super creative and came up with kits people could take to create art at home. We started making face masks by the thousands; that is how we paid our bills for the next year. Tens of thousands of face masks. Kim taught me to sew.

What does this new version of the space look like?

Mowers: We had to keep reconsidering what we were going to be, and we still wanted to give local artists a place to sell their work. At the time, outdoor markets were being canceled, so we had a lot of interest from artists. The refillery, which we have here, is the newest part of what we have going on. It organically happened because it is part of our lives: We try not to use plastic, we try to be eco-friendly, we have a ton of rags we use in the store. We thought, “Why not keep going with what we practice at home in our normal lives and bring it to the shop? If it works for us, it will probably work for our people.” Worcester didn’t have a refillery, so we thought we'd give it a try.

What is next then?

Mowers: We are going to focus on our programs and bring in classes for arts and wellness, not only offered here but offering remote classes. We do a lot of classes at libraries, birthday parties, breweries. That is really fun, and it is a big feel-good thing with the community to be out there, instead of always being in the store behind the register.

Alteri: Growing our art programs out in the community but growing our space to be more cohesive for the community. It has already become a safe space where people come, and it is sometimes just to talk to us. It’s not necessarily to shop. We don’t push products on people. We have our festivals people look forward to every year. It is one big happy family.

This interview was conducted and edited for length and clarity by WBJ Staff Writer Kevin Koczwara.

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