It was while working as hotel cleaners that Katrina Henderson and Joanna Malec-Bouali discovered they had something in common – a love of art.
Both felt deflated by the lack of job opportunities. But then Katrina received an e-mail from Portsmouth City Council inviting tenders to create an exhibition space.
Five months down the line, and with no funding from outside authorities, she and Joanna are running their own art gallery and workshop space.
But the firstname.lastname@example.org, based at Eastney Community Centre, very nearly didn’t happen.
Katrina, who lives in Somers Town, says: ‘I am on the cultural register at Portsmouth City Council and anything on it goes out to a mailing list, so I saw the invitation to tender for an exhibition space.
‘After ignoring the e-mail a couple of times, I asked Jo what she thought about it.’
‘We had to submit a brief about what we wanted to do. I used to write reports at university, so I just used those as a template. It was just like going on Dragon’s Den and they ripped the whole presentation apart.’
However, the council accepted their pitch and as the project progressed the lease came up for the exhibition space in the cafe at Eastney Community Centre.
They agreed to take over the cafe and are four months into their six-month lease, although they are hoping to carry on after that period.
Katrina adds: ‘We didn’t think we would get this far, even though we had the council behind us the whole time with it.
‘We were given anonymous funding to literally give the room a lick of paint so we could open the building, but we started it with little to no money.
‘I can’t believe we have got to this stage with it. But I think the exhibitions will help us through it because they are really popular.’
The cafe is now holding its third exhibition, with Portsmouth-based artist Paul Couper.
For the opening, Joanna and Katrina played host to Nigerian artist Toni Ndikanwu, who studied fine art at the University of Portsmouth, and after that created a collaboration between five artists who focused on the environment through the medium of textiles and photography.
Although still working part-time in the Ibis Hotel, it wasn’t long ago that both Katrina and Joanna were struggling with their jobs.
Katrina, who is married with an 11-year-old daughter, Jasmine, recently finished a degree in photography at the University of Portsmouth.
She explains: ‘I graduated last year and it wasn’t easy after I finished. I still work 24 hours a week at the hotel.
‘It’s constantly changing here though. I don’t want just established artists like Paul Couper. We have had students and even a 13-year-old boy showing his work.’
Katrina adds: ‘I’m a realist and I knew it wasn’t likely I would get a job as a photographer any time soon.’
Joanna, who is originally from Poland and now lives in Southsea with her husband, Nacer, says: ‘I was on holiday about five years ago visiting my friends but then I met my husband and decided to stay.
‘I worked as an architect in Havant and always loved art. But I lost my job last year and then I met Joanna. I knew I wanted to be involved with art projects in the community because I love art so much. It’s my passion.’
She adds: ‘We’re just hoping to involve more people and speak to international artists as well as local ones.’
Along with the exhibitions, the cafe runs a number of workshops for children and adults. Katrina says they just want to get the community more involved with artistic projects, especially in areas like Eastney.
She adds: ‘There’s not much in this part of the city to do with art. There is a lot by Guildhall and Gunwharf Quays, but this side of the city doesn’t really have that kind of creativity or arts culture to it.
‘We’re really trying and there’s a lot of interest, but people don’t seem to have that disposable income.’
‘We’ve applied for funding but we don’t have any, so we’re putting all of our own money into it and anything we make goes straight back into the cafe.’
The pair have big plans for the future and they’ve organised projects with the Mary Rose School, Eastney.
Katrina explains: ‘I’m just doing what I’d like to go and see.
‘We’re trying to make it a social place for people to meet and it will be good for kids.
‘Some galleries don’t like kids coming into their space, but we openly encourage children to come and experience art.
‘I like the fact that in community centres you meet a mixture of different age groups. It’s just so exciting.
‘It’s hard work because I’m working two jobs, with a husband and a child.
‘But I just hope we can get people through the door – and anyone interested in discussing ideas can come in to see us whenever they want.’
For more information about workshops and exhibitions, e-mail email@example.com or call 07766 810044.