Cara Hines and Jeannette MacDougal, the owners of Studio Comfort, have lived their lives with ART as a central focus. Both from varied backgrounds, that shared love for art brought them together through a happenstance encounter, and the studio was born.
Since then, Comfort Studio has represented some of the most well known world class artists, grown their community of fellow artists, and taught countless new studios to grow a mutual love for art.
From their studio on a drizzly morning, they tell the story of their lives, of Comfort Studio, and the exciting things they have planned for the future.
by Ben Schooley
Photography by Paula VM Photography
Cara begins, “I am originally from Childress, Texas. I was artistic growing up. Drawing, painting, creativity – running around outside and building things out of sticks and mud. I was a very good student and went into architecture school at Texas Tech University and graduated with an interior design degree in ’98. I worked through school at an interior design studio so I graduated with clients that I could keep so I didn’t take studio art as a career option – but design principles and project management was a big thing for me. I was able to move to Houston and worked for an international design firm called Gensler.”
Jeanette’s story begins similarly. “I grew up in Michigan and graduated from school in ’71. I was definitely artistic early on as a kid. When I was 3 years old, there’s a photograph with me, cousins and siblings. Everyone is smiling and I have a dixie cup with a paintbrush leaning over a painting oblivious to the camera. I knew forever I was to be an artist. Mom wanted me to be a marine or a nurse, but that changed when I got a scholarship for the summer program to a Fine Arts Academy where people from all over the world go for an intensive 8 week program. My roommate was from Austin and she was playing live piano for the Austin ballet at aged 17. They were all so successful and I was just a farm kid, but it prompted me to come to Austin in the ‘70s. The women were wearing sandals and beautiful dresses in April and I was just leaving a snowstorm from Michigan. I transferred to Trinity University and got a BA in Fine Arts, then moved on to Parsons School of Design in NY where I received a degree in Fine Art and Art Education, with a MA in Art Education. My thesis was the Dual Role as Artists and Instructor. In Art History, I had learned about artists that had taught and I also knew that I wouldn’t just instantly make a career of selling art, so I began teaching in San Antonio at the San Antonio Art Institute, which is affiliated with the McNay. In 1980, I started teaching at the Southwest Craft Center (now the Southwest School of Art) and have been there for 40 years now. They now have a degreed program and I love being part of it.”
For Cara, who ultimately found herself mired in a corporate job, a move to Colorado to follow her brother and find employment with a carpet manufacturer allowed her to stretch her design skills somewhat, and she felt peaceful in the nature of Colorado.
However, in 2010, her brother passed away tragically. Obviously a life changing moment, Cara was left reeling. She continues, “I had shifted from working with a showroom for high end furniture so I was traveling a lot in Italy and New York, and after he passed, I knew that living my life selling $30k sofas to the wealthy wasn’t going to fulfill me. His death was a major eye opener for me. I’ve been an overachiever, perfectionist my whole life. I worked through college, and I decided I wanted to take a break. I needed to take a break. So I bought a ’66 travel trailer and hit the road for a year. In that year I started making art, and that was 2012. Art and nature go hand-in-hand for me, and it was such a special time for me to heal and grow and find my love of art again.”
As her travels slowed, Cara moved to Texas to be closer to aging parents. On a visit through Comfort in 2016 with her new husband, Jeanette met Cara. Cara explains, “I lived in Abilene for 6 years before coming here. My husband and I came here (Comfort) for a wedding in ’16 and we came in the building we’re in now, looking around and just fell in love with the town. I came in here and it was a shop before and Jeannette worked for the business before us and we hit it off. There was art here and it was mainly gifty stuff and she was hired to curate art and do some teaching. I met her and we had an instant connection, and then we stayed in touch, she came up to visit me in Abilene and I came down in November of ’18 to do a workshop in San Antonio and I stayed with her in Boerne. The weekend I came down for that, the previous owner was closing down and she had told Jeannette to take the space. I’m listening to her talk about this and I could see an opportunity to have an art event space with a teaching space in the back and be on the main drag in a small town – it was pretty much my dream.”
Jeanette jumps in, “– I was reluctant to step into this on my own because contrary to her practical choices in life, I had gone in different directions. I had never owned a business. I was an artist and a free spirit, but the more we discussed it, her vision became more and more clear.” Jeanette had experience with curating not only art, but in teaching. With the duo’s individual experiences, their shared passion for art, and their similar outlook on life in general, Studio Comfort opened its doors on January 16, 2019.
“I’m going to get emotional. It was magical. And intentional. I’m living a pre-destined celebration of life. And Cara agrees with me. The magnetic field of goodness was so powerful that I could just say “Wow,” Jeanette explains. Cara agrees. “Perfection. Synchronicity. There’s a visual I get about it – you go over a body of water and you don’t have to look down to see where the next rock is – you are just safe and you can run and your steps are always solid and safe. There’s never been a question about whether we should do this or not. Every step for us has been safe and solid, and that’s an amazing feeling.”
The community of Comfort also picked up on their efforts, and were hugely supportive. Jeanette continues, “The community was waiting for us as we have been so celebrated and supported and told how much we add to this community and district. We were needed and appreciated so much. The building and its presence on the street is an attraction, but we have high quality art in a small town and my passion is to educate and we make the knowledge about art and about making art accessible to anyone. One of the things when I teach is that we talk about all the myths about art and art creation and I just love doing that. I can teach anyone to draw and paint and the community has just celebrated us since day one.”
As their first year completed, they enjoyed a profitable year, surprising them both. They had invited guest artists for residencies at the studio, and they continued to leverage their relationships to grow the reach and strength of the studio.
COVID happened, and it obviously forced the duo to make some changes…fast. Cara continues, “We were still doing good through 2020, surprisingly. We had a show that was supposed to open in April of ‘20, and so we couldn’t do it. But we had done so much work toward it. I was sequestered with my grandmother in Abilene so I was up there for 2 months so we had to scramble during the 2 month shutdown – do we go ahead and do the exhibit? How do we do it? Online really wasn’t an option – so I had to revamp the website, get better images for online, and we moved it strictly through the site. We sold, not a lot, but enough and the artists were just blown away by the support during that time.” Jeanette adds, “That set us up to have really great quality relationships with our artists. The artists appreciated how we run this as a business, and some world renowned artists applaud us for our organization and support we provide. We put so much time into making sure our processes are solid and dialed in and organized. We want to spend more time focusing on their art, and not on disorganized situations.”
In our new world of remote learning, Jeannette has also had to adjust. “During COVID, I started teaching zoom and that was a huge thing for us. I resisted it as I didn’t figure I could do it as I always walk the room and it’s a tactile response and I didn’t see how I could do it. At first it was cumbersome, and something I’ve never done with over 40 years of teaching – I’ve never worked with a group of students for an entire year. Ongoing. I’ve been able to measure their progress for a year and they’ve blown my mind. We’ve been able to increase our production ability with multiple cameras for these classes and it’s been helpful for them and it’s just been so fun. We’re doing some classes in studio now, zoom, and simultaneously. That has been a success and can continue when I travel.”
As for the immediate future, the duo is poised to put the last year’s unique hurdles to COVID behind them and get back to the focus of art. Cara explains, “Teaching is going gangbusters. Exhibits are going to start ramping up again. We’re starting to invite new artists and getting larger pieces now. The teaching is exciting as we can now move beyond Comfort, moreso than the the gallery portion. We’re working to improve our ability to sell online, but what Jeannette is doing is amazing. One of our students is in her watercolor classes and is a marketing/adverting professional and she’s going to promote us internationally.”
Jeannette is, of course, on a similar wavelength. “I’m a little older than Cara and I can clearly see my near future options and that must include my ability to feed my gypsy soul and continue my quality of life which is important to me. Teaching groups, maintaining my motivation and passion for teaching, and we’ve outgrown our teaching space! The upcoming expansion is important for us and I’m so excited to see that happen.”
As the two clearly pour a lot of their energies into the studio, they both also recognize that as artists, they must maintain a balance. Mutually, they try to hold one another accountable for that balance in lives that rarely leave a lot of time for other activities. Cara explains, “For me a lot of my free time has been dealing with family stuff. I’m the executor of my grandmother’s estate after taking care of her for 3 years. All of my free time has been about self-care and making art because I’ve been taking care of everyone else. I haven’t had a lot of time or energy for for community involvement, so I’m focused on finding time in nature – and doing work on myself. This is paramount to both of us. And art is a huge part of that. Art is a salve for me. Healing. What brought me back to art was my brother’s death and working through those emotions that I couldn’t express through words but could only do it with color and line and texture. Creation of art healed me.”
Jeannette couldn’t agree more. “At an early age, the experience of loss wakes you up. I’ve lost 5 siblings. My art was redemptive, a saving grace, and in these historic events in my life, art is very spiritual and it took me to a place of trust and comfort that the retreat to that safety is where I go when I must. I don’t have to express anything, I just have to make art. It’s not qualitative – the moment your tool touches the surface and you’re off and running so it is nothing I question…it’s been in practice for so long that the self-care I focus on…I must also schedule that art making time. I just love how we both say “You should probably get into the studio and talk to me when you come out” because for us, it’s intuitive. And absolutely required. And it’s so fun that we both support one another in that pursuit because we both know that without it, we’re not the same people.”
As 2021 is in full swing, the duo is as well. Reaching a new audience, expanding their art offerings, and uncovering the next hidden gems, they have big goals. Jeannette concludes, “Make Art – Find Joy – that’s on our business cards. When I can work with people and help them find a creative outlet, it directly builds self- confidence, integrity, and empowers them. Regardless of age. There’s something in me that I can integrate, and that’s the wanderer, the nomad, and the gypsy….I feel comfortable in solitude and I love to take advantage of that each summer.
Cara is very similar. One of the things we shook on was that we’re going to hold each other accountable so that we retain our time to make art. We spend all of our days around art, and honestly, there’s nothing else that either of us was made to do. And we’re both so lucky to get to do this together.”
“Our gallery assistant, Coley Wohlgemut, worked for the previous tenant, Intermezzo. When we had the opportunity to assume the lease and create our business at 716 High Street,” laughed MacDougall, “it’s as if Coley came with the building. We could not be where we are without her.”
“Absolutely!” Hines chimed in. “She’s integral to what we do, looking after many of the
critical details that help make us one of the most organized
art galleries around.”