Stephanie Donaldson’s path to being a business owner and a 2014 Lafourche Parish 40 Under 40 honoree didn’t always go according to plan.
But like many of the great pieces of artwork ever assembled, happy accidents can sometimes produce better results.
The owner of The Purple Penguin Art Company in Thibodaux never thought she’d be a business owner. Just like she never thought she’s be a teacher. But the combination of the two produces beautiful things daily in northern Lafourche Parish’s quaint downtown area.
Donaldson’s love of art started at an early age and continued into her higher education ventures at LSU. Interested in many facets of art, Donaldson enrolled in art education in order to diversity her portfolio as much as possible – never planning to actually become a teacher even though many of her family members worked in education.
“I finished all these classes, and it was time to student teach. I student taught at St. Amant, and my mentor teacher was amazing. I fell in love with it,” said the LaPlace native.
From there, Donaldson found her way to the bayou region by taking a job as an art teacher at Thibodaux High School. After not really enjoying her first semester, she said things got better and better every semester.
“It just kind of snowballed into my dream job,” said Donaldson, who spent eight years at Thibodaux High. “Absolutely loved it. We moved into an upstairs part of the building where it was sort of our penthouse. We had a painting room, an office, a pottery room, we took kids to Disney World every year. It was amazing.”
However, Lafourche Parish’s shift to the 7-period day made being an art teacher more difficult and led to her decision to leave Thibodaux High – but not without the skills necessary for her next adventure – opening up The Purple Penguin in Downtown Thibodaux.
Like her personal journey, the name Purple Penguin didn’t exactly go according to plan but produced amazing results anyway.
“Connect a color to an animal, and people will remember that. Well, it has to be purple, because purple has been my signature color since I was born. And so we went through purple pelican, purple pallet, purple this, and [my friend] said, ‘Purple Penguin.’ And I was like, ‘Penguin!? It just signs kind of kiddie.’ She said, ‘I’ll have you know, penguins are very loyal, they’re sophisticated animals, and they’re always dressed for the occasion cause they always look like a tuxedo on.’ I said, ‘I don’t know. We’ll see.’”
Weeks later, in a completely unrelated conversation between Donaldson and her brother-in-law, the same two words came up.
“He says, ‘What are you going to name this place?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, the purple something.’ So he said, Purple Penguin.’ I said, ‘Did I tell you this? He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Why did you say that?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. It sounds like a really fun place to go.’ I said, ‘Oh God, I think that’s it.’”
Not only have Donaldson’s fears been vanquished that people would think the name is to “kiddie,” but the store has turned into an artful refuge for people of all ages.
Plenty of area children have their birthday parties at The Purple Penguin where Donaldson and her staff teach basic classes in paintings, pottery painting or glass fusion.
“I think having the little ones come in and learn in art, there’s no wrong answers, you don’t have to have a degree in art to be an artist. It’s a mindset. It’s a part of you, and some people just kind of suppress it more than others,” Donaldson said. “So many adults say, ‘I’m not an artist. I can’t do that.’ And I’m like, ‘How do you know? You’ve never tried.’ The little ones, they’re not scared at all.”
As for the older crowd wishing to put their artful fears to rest – although children 4 and up may still attend – classes at The Purple Penguin include wheel throwing on Wednesday nights, glass fusion on Thursday nights and “Pick your own painting” on Friday nights.
Evening classes range between $25 and $50, and children’s classes range between 20 and $25 per child, according to Donaldson. Adults may bring food and drinks, including alcoholic beverages, to any event.
“Some people try to bring wine for pottery, and I just tell them to bring something with a straw,” Donaldson said with a laugh.
Once every two or three months, The Purple Penguin holds a “Paint Your Pal” night where people can paint a picture of their pet. Dogs and cats are most common, but a bull and a hermit crab have even been done before.
And, of course, anything painted by a customer on site becomes theirs upon completion.
“There’s nothing better than someone asking you where you got something, and you respond, ‘Oh, I made it.’ No one has to know how easy or difficult it was, but it’s something that you take pride in,” Donaldson said.
For art aficionados, memberships are available allowing artists to come in whenever they please to work on their projects, while receiving instruction, when necessary, from Donaldson and her staff.
“It’s artists coming in and out saying, ‘Oh, that’s so cool,’ and different people [the artist] can ask, ‘What do you think,’ and get different perspectives,” she explained. “It’s often that we have people come in with a project, and that’s the fun part for me. And it’s a project for us to. That makes it fun. It’s a comforting place to do art. I can’t do art at home anymore.”
The Purple Penguin makes custom pieces of art and offers a firing service for those working with clay outside or inside the building.
And, of course, there are plenty of works of art for sale.
Call (985) 446-0700 or stop by their always-friendly 702 West 3rd St. location for more information.
The Purple Penguin owner Stephanie Donaldson (right) works on a mosaic on a manikin head with former student at Thibodaux High and current Nicholls State University senior Kallie Landry. Landry is using art to represent the effects of skin cancer in an easily-to-view manner.