By Minda Honey | Photography by Crystal Ludwick
Midway through a Level Up Louisville floral watercolors class led by Lauren Dahl, who happens to be an elementary school art teacher, I look up and think, “This feels like adult kindergarten – in a good way.” It’s not just the paints or the smiling faces of people getting to know each other or even the soothing way the sunlight fills the all-white room with warmth. It’s more than that. It’s the joy of learning without apprehension. Learning for the sake of learning. Learning that fosters community. In a way, Level Up Louisville is a break from the “Adulting” trend and about finding the fun in just “Being.”
For many of us, the older we get the fewer opportunities there are for curiosity-driven learning. In school, we’re encouraged to learn so we can get into a good college. In college, we’re encouraged to learn so we can have a good career, and in our careers, we’re encouraged to learn so we can land a promotion. Not learning comes with consequences and a sense of failure.
But floral watercolors? It’s not a high-stakes scenario. There’s wine and Level Up Louisville founder, Natalia Bishop, is pouring us refills herself. The paints and brushes are provided and I’m risking nothing more than a couple hours of my time. Dahl is encouraging without being intrusive and the other women seated around me are friendly. Amanda Freibert who moved to Louisville from New York City to work in Supply Chain for Brown-Forman has taken three courses through Level Up Louisville.
She was at their very first class a year ago at Copper & Kings, Mixology with Butchertown Grocery’s Beverage Director, Nic Christiansen. Freibert says, “It was super fun, we had a really good time.” She was drawn to Level Up Louisville because she wanted “to do something different.” Coming from NYC, she says she was “used to having activities outside of my box – I do not paint!”
Bishop has intentionally made it possible for anyone to take a Level Up class, from busy young professionals like Freibert, solo-preneurs looking to learn a new skill or even just stay-at-home parents in need of “me time.” Bishop says, “I like to dabble in things. I want to know all the things – I have FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) to the max! But I don’t want to spend $400 in supplies to learn how to do calligraphy.” That’s why all your supplies are included with each Level Up Class. All you need to bring is yourself.
She also says signing up for a class makes it more likely that you’ll actually find the time to learn something new. “I know this information is available online. Do a YouTube search for ‘How to Hand Letter’ and you’re going to find it.” Bishop says. “However, I need accountability. Part of it is I have three businesses and I have a home life and I have children – I can’t commit and hold myself accountable to pull two hours out of my night life to learn calligraphy. That’s not going to happen!” But she can commit to a two-hour class where she knows she’ll also get to connect with other cool people who share in her interests.
This format has been so successful that Level Up will celebrate their one-year anniversary June 22. They’ll also be hosting their first pop-up classes in Lexington this summer with plans to roll out a full roster in the fall. If all goes well, classes in Nashville will be available at the beginning of next year. No one who’s encountered Bishop and her non-stop drive has any doubts she’ll succeed in those cities as well.
Bishop, who was born and raised in Barranquilla, Colombia, came to the United States at 17. She immediately went to work at multiple jobs to help support her family while she also attended school. She existed for years on just a few hours of sleep each night before meeting her husband, graduating and having children. While on bed rest in 2010 with her son, Ethan, Bishop stopped for the first time ever – doctor’s orders.
She realized, she didn’t want to go back to her career in retail management. That’s when she started Chocolate Box Photography. When the opportunity to expand her Butchertown studio presented itself, she launched the co-working space, Story Louisville, for creatives who need an office to work out of a few times a week. Level Up was born out of an idea she had for marketing Story Louisville, but quickly became its own venture.
Lauren Dahl, who was one of Level Up Louisville’s first teachers, met Bishop when Bishop was a second-shooter at her wedding. They stayed in touch and Dahl was immediately on board with teaching for Bishop: “[Natalia] is so passionate. She’s the type of person you want to root for. It’s been so rewarding for me.”
Bishop’s passion was one of the first things I noticed about her too. I reached out to her a couple of months ago to teach a writing class through Level Up Louisville and was immediately impressed by her enthusiasm to work together and by how quickly she moves to make things happen. Bridget Davis, owner of Mahonia who taught her first air plant terrarium class at Monnik Beer Co. for Level Up Louisville, says that all it took was Bishop coming by the store for her to be interested in partnering with her – that’s the Bishop effect.
That effect extends to Hannah Estes, who helps Bishop run Level Up and is a class manager. Bishop describes Estes as “extremely smart and super hard working.” She spoke on the importance of having a person like Estes as a startup: “For her to trust me enough to say, ‘Hey, I’ll get in this boat with you and we’ll row together and see what happens’
has been great.” Madison Crawford also works for Level Up as a part-time class manager and does it all, including holding babies – she held my niece while I put together my terrarium.
After taking the terrarium class, I found myself walking into Mahonia on a whim to buy a bouquet and visit with Davis. I’d walked passed Mahonia countless times on my way to Please & Thank You but had never dropped in. But now I felt like I was a part of a broader community. Bishop loves that aspect of Level Up, that it connects teachers to teachers and introduces students to creatives in their community and places they may not have been before. She pointed out that after the Beach Waves class at Primp, many students returned to the salon for products and expert guidance.
Bishop is excited for Level Up Louisville to offer children’s summer camps in June and July that will be a hybrid of art and yoga, also led by Dahl and two teacher assistants. They will take place at Story Louisville and are sure to have a lot of one-on-one interaction. They are also offering their first Daddy and Daughter braiding class with Colleen Hayes, Lead Stylist and Brand Manager at Primp Style Lounge, partnering with Clayton & Crume for a belt making class and doing a special Father’s Day wood working class at Jeffersonville’s Maker13. A full lineup of classes can be found at leveluplou.com.