Mother of Invention Inspires Studio for Kids

Times Staff Writer

When her daughter was a toddler, Leeanna Gantt started looking for arts-and-crafts studios where Riley could experiment without having to be enrolled in a class. But the Sherman Oaks resident couldn't find one.

"There wasn't an unstructured place for little kids to do art," Gantt said.

So for years, the Gantt dining room served as the staging area for Riley and her friends to paint, cut and glue away. It was a hot play date, partly because other parents didn't want a mess in their homes.

These days, Gantt no longer hosts paint-covered kids in her dining room. Nine months ago, she and her husband, Brad, opened up a business for them.

Tinker, located in Sherman Oaks, is an open space with big tables and small chairs; shelves lined with scissors, glue and stamps; jars full of sequins, bottle caps and beads; and tubs overflowing with fabric, plastic bottles and yarn. Though there are classes throughout the week for kids of all ages, the key to Tinker is its come anytime, do anything philosophy.

"In a way, our dining room was a mini-Tinker," said Brad Gantt, 38, who is a creative director at an advertising agency. "Our classes are structured but we try to be flexible. The kids just like trying stuff."

One day last week, Corinne Mesner brought her two daughters, 3-year-old Sophia and 3-month-old Ava, to Tinker. While Ava stayed in her stroller or her mother's arms, Sophia was busy painting. Sophia re-created the fireworks she had seen July 4, pasting mini-erasers and felt cutouts onto a piece of paper covered in red and yellow paint.

"This is like a dream for a parent," Mesner said of Tinker, where she brings her daughters every few weeks. "I can just kind of relax and she can go nuts. And I don't have to deal with the mess."

It's a dream for Leeanna and Brad Gantt too. There were obstacles along the way, but the couple overcame them with the help of family and friends -- and the three credit cards they used to finance the business.

Opening Tinker took three months longer than they expected. They had planned to have their daughter's fifth birthday party at the store in August, but it wasn't ready in time.

"Everything is a challenge," Leeanna said about launching a business. "Construction, permits, figuring out payroll, taxes -- we had never done any of that before."

Construction took about six months. They gutted a house and an attached beauty salon, turning 10 rooms into 2,100 square feet of studio, classroom and other space. Leeanna's stepmother, an interior designer, figured out the floor plan. Her dad's company did much of the building. A friend helped move furniture and set up the store before the opening.

They're up against some well-known names, including the Michaels chain of craft stores and the popular Color Me Mine ceramics-painting franchise. But the Gantts believe that Tinker, with its focus on young children and its variety of arts and crafts, occupies a unique niche.

The company, with eight part-time employees, is "completely different" from Michaels, Leeanna said, because although Michaels offers some classes, it focuses on selling supplies. "We're similar to Color Me Mine in that people come and go. But they're just pottery and we do anything but pottery."

Tinker studio time costs $5 an hour for each person, which includes basic art supplies such as paper, paint and glue. Other items, such as a wooden truck or a T-shirt, cost extra, ranging from $3 to $30.

During her visit to Tinker, Sophia Mesner shared a table with 2-year-old Charlie Downey, who was concentrating on painting two wooden firetrucks. While munching on chocolate Teddy Graham crackers, Charlie worked away, sometimes making siren noises as he pushed the trucks down the table. It was his second trip to Tinker.

"I love that he can touch everything and it's OK," Nicole Downey said of her son, who, in between painting, played peek-a-boo and ran around the room. "I also like talking to other moms."

While their kids were busy, Mesner and Downey talked about mom things -- for example, whether they want to have more kids (they each have two) and how the siblings interact.

That's a part of Leeanna Gantt's vision for Tinker.

"We are trying to be a community resource for moms," the 35-year-old former ad agency creative director said.

As kids get older, they have more options at Tinker. They can decorate a hat, a potholder or a picture frame. They can make puzzles or stuffed animals. For Father's Day, many painted a hammer (only the handle).

The Gantts continue to come up with new ideas. Tinker has begun offering Thursday-evening studio time just for adults, Leeanna said, because parents had been asking about doing art projects themselves.

And just this month, they started to sell "Tinker to go" kits so parents can do small projects at home. "Parents don't want to buy big, 10-pound bags of art supplies," Leeanna said, adding that they need just enough for one afternoon.

The Gantts are also starting to offer more custom-made products for sale. T-shirts, totes, dolls and wooden signs made by staff members are displayed throughout the studio. These items range from $18 for a tote to $90 for a wooden sign that can display a child's name, for example, or a favorite quotation. Parents can also bring in a child's drawing and have a Tinker staff member turn it into a stuffed animal. That service starts at $50.

But even as Tinker expands, the Gantts said the most important thing was that it remain a place where children could let their imaginations run wild. "There is heavy emphasis on experimentation and exploration," Brad said.

That's exactly what Sophia Mesner did last week.

After about 90 minutes at Tinker, Sophia was still busy -- cutting with a pair of purple scissors that makes squiggly cuts -- when it was time to leave.

"Say bye-bye to the scissors," her mother said.

"Bye-bye, scissors," Sophia said. "See you soon."

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