THE SECRET ART CLUB IS EVERYTHING I LOVE
Ali’s three loves are people, art and food. And she’s found a way to combine them all.
I’ve never really known what to do with my life. I’ve certainly done a lot. Travelled. Tried lots of different jobs. Met loads of people. And many times over the years I’ve said “I don’t know what I want to do – I haven’t found it yet”. But I’ve not been unhappy.
The challenge – the eternal question – has always been to find a way to combine the things I love: people, art and food. I’m a total foodie. Years of working in West End restaurants in young adulthood led to becoming the Maitre d’ of The Quality Chophouse in Farringdon, where I met and fell in love with my partner Michele – ‘Mick’ – an Italian chef.
We went out to LA for a couple of years where he was a head chef and I did catering on TV sets, feeding crews on shoots at Sylvester Stallone’s Malibu beach house, or a Ninja Turtles movie in the middle of the night. Bonkers stuff that can only happen in LA.
But when we came back to London and had our two children I wanted to do something arty – I always had. I’d grown up with a love of art and pottery and making things. After school I’d trained in window display and worked for a few years at Miss Selfridge and Bourne & Hollingsworth, and I later worked in a design studio for window concepts in retail and props for TV. I’ve always loved using props to style the way something looks – from doing window displays to dressing a table for dinner.
Making things makes me happy. But how do you make a living from that? Once we’d moved out to Leigh on Sea in Essex, I found myself working in restaurants once again, including running our own at one point. For a while it did really well.
Through it all I still felt I hadn’t quite found my niche. I often felt restless, like I wasn’t fulfilling my potential or really playing to my strengths. I suppose to an extent I’ve always reacted to my circumstances, rather than making things happen. But a series of events made me reassess my life and where I was heading. First my partner Mick had a serious motorcycle accident that really shook us all up. Then the restaurant we owned went into liquidation, meaning we lost our house.
When the worst thing happens you think you’ll fall apart, but incredibly I didn’t. We went through some incredibly tough times and a lot of worry, but nothing was so bad that we couldn’t ultimately find a way to be happy. Losing almost everything made us focus on what mattered – our family. Renting a house nearby, we both picked ourselves up and found work. With two children in their teens we needed to keep moving forwards.
And then I got creative. They say necessity is the mother of invention, which must explain how the idea for the Secret Art Club came along. For some years I’d been running a supper club, serving food cooked by Mick in a marquee in our back garden and charging £30 per person. But with the Secret Art Club we took it one step further. And we created something magical.
I’d met this young woman called Michelle, an art teacher, in the book shop and cafe where we both worked part time. We quickly became firm friends. One day she was hanging some of her art in the book shop and I’d been cooking away in the kitchen, and we started talking about how we could combine our two skills for the women we knew who used to pop by the shop. I said “Why don’t you teach them art and I’ll give them a spot of lunch?”.
It was so simple and we had no idea if it would take off, but we decided to give it a go, using Michelle’s kitchen as a venue. It started out with a few of the women who used to come into the book shop and through word of mouth The Secret Art Club just grew and grew.
Now we have 30 loyal members who pay to come every month, lunch and evening class, and it’s a really diverse mix. Young, old, male, female, we’ve got yummy mummies, some older ladies, arty types and complete beginners. And they just love it. These are often people that have never done any art and it doesn’t matter. Michelle’s so good at getting them inspired to try different things, like working with wire or charcoal or tearing up magazines to make collages.
We have three large tables and I use my display skills to create a theme in the middle of table – pumpkins, foliage, coloured glass or big branches. We never tell them in advance what we’re going to be doing, so it’s always a surprise. While she’s teaching, I’m cooking an Ottolenghi spread and everyone stops for a big lunch. Then we put all the work together at the end and step back – and it’s honestly brilliant.
We’ve got quite a devoted following now, and it’s such a joy. What’s really exciting is to have created something unique that people love – and to have turned it into a business. Giving people pleasure in this way gives me so much satisfaction. We’re growing slowly and have lots of ideas about developing it, although we drew the line at dong an Art Club for the corporate world. That’s not really us.
Michelle’s young enough to be my daughter but we just get on so well and really look forward to each Secret Art Club, planning and organising each one with care, while keeping it cost-efficient. It’s just such a buzz to get to 61 and to have finally found my niche. In the end I didn’t need to find a career – I created my own.
Find The Secret Art Club on Instagram at @thesecretartclub