Story and photos by Meda Kessler
The Bus Lady
Have wheels, will travel: Niki Little takes her artistic skills on the road.
With a gusty south wind, today is not a good day for glitter.
Niki Little is setting up an on-site birthday party for 16 little girls. While make-your-own glitter tattoos have been scratched from the outdoor schedule, everything else is coming together for the painting party inside The Little Art Bus.
“Having a mobile studio means weather isn’t too much of a factor,” says Little, who launched her business in December 2017.
The Tiffany-blue bus is parked during the day in the circular driveway of art bus headquarters in Arlington Heights. Niki typically takes the bus on the road — she’s become an expert at navigating the 32-foot Blue Bird — but home base is not a bad place for a party. “There are restrooms inside the house — a must for adults or kids.”
This day finds the bus parked on a residential street in the Walsh development on the western edge of Fort Worth. Girls make their way up to the house with parents and wrapped gifts. All are impressed by the bus, with several adults stopping to peek inside.
Niki and one of her assistants, Deb Bunting, are finalizing the individual art stations, which are set up along two long metal tables attached to either side of the bus where the seats used to be. Metal racks overhead hold supplies and string lights for illumination. A rolling Craftsman metal tool cabinet with lots of shallow drawers also provides valuable storage. A heating and cooling system keeps the interior comfortable.
Each workstation contains an 11-by-14-inch canvas set up on an easel. Flower-crowned llamas are the subject — what Niki calls the new unicorn — and canvases have been prepped with a black outline for the young artists to follow. There also are printouts of finished llamas to use as an example.
Acrylic paints are poured out onto paper plates, and brushes are set out along with cups of water. The girls also get their own aprons. At the ready, too, is a big packet of wipes, because accidents do happen.
Niki stands at the back of the bus with her own canvas to give instructions: what brush to use, how to make the paint thinner by adding water, how to mix black and white to make gray paint. Deb stands at the ready to squeeze out more paint or wipe up spills. The girls start out tentatively but soon are happily painting away. Niki encourages their creativity. “It’s better that way, as everyone takes home their own unique piece of art.”
Niki’s background as an artist and a mother of two young children has taught her the importance of patience with her young clients, a skill she honed while giving art lessons at Little Tyke, a chain of child care centers operated by her husband’s family. During one visit, she noted a mobile gymnastics bus as she was loading up her equipment. The search for her own studio on wheels began in earnest. She found the former school bus, customized it inside and out and learned to drive it. “The big side mirrors really help,” she says with a laugh.
Today, private parties for kids have become her bread and butter, and she offers several packages. The Little Masters Artist Series also includes an educational component: Kids hear a short story about a noted painter, followed by a painting session using the painter’s technique. Georges Seurat and pointillism is one example.
Parties for adults also are popular, which is how Deb ended up working with Niki part time. “I’ve taken several of the pet-painting classes and loved them all,” she says.
With adults, there’s a BYOB option that’s popular. Sipping wine with friends and painting a funky portrait of Willie Nelson is a creative option for those looking for something different to do for a happy hour or birthday party.
And the paint-your-pet parties are a draw for animal lovers — Niki got her start as a pet artist.
From making wreath collages out of paper plates to creating paint kits that parents can purchase, Niki is excited about expanding her business. She’s even contemplating a second bus. “We’re only limited by our imagination.”
The Little Art Bus Information on parties for kids and adults, along with “creative escapes” for corporate clients, are on the website, thelittleartbus.com. Follow TLAB on social media at facebook.com/thelittleartbus and @thelittleartbus on Instagram.
Park and Paint These events are open to the public, but require reservations. April 17 Paint Your Pet, The Trailhead at Clearfork, 4801 Edwards Ranch Road, 6-9 p.m. June 22-26 Art Camp, the Art Room, 120 St. Louis Ave., 9-noon.