Kaman Style

Tricia Kaman, Best Friends, oil, 36 X 42 inches

Artist Tricia Kaman is known for more than her portraiture studio in the Murray Hill Schoolhouse, where she hosted the Murray Hill Life Drawing Group for 24 years. She also built Kaman’s Art Shoppes with her husband Rich. At its peak four years ago, Kaman’s had 2,500 seasonal employees drawing portraits in the Kaman style, and offering other creative services, at amusement parks across the United States. In 2021, the company celebrates its fiftieth year.

Some people are born artists. Some are born to business. Tricia Kaman, who blurs the lines of creativity and commerce, straddles both.

One of her business cards is for a gallery in Little Italy, which Tricia has occupied since 1989. Her studio on the second floor of the Murray Hill Schoolhouse is home to family, friends, and models for the portraits for which she’s known.

The other card is for Kaman’s Art Shoppes, the Chagrin Falls business she and her husband Richard founded in 1971, the year after they got married and moved to Cleveland from their native Sandusky. Kaman’s Art Shoppes grew and grew and grew, and now it affords Tricia the opportunity to do what she loves best: paint traditional portraits and figurative works.

Two girls at Old King Cole’s Sketching Court, at Storeybook Forest, Ligonier, Pennsylvania, 1974. Image courtesy of Kaman’s Art Shoppe.

Through the years, they also employed thousands of artists, like Cleveland-based Clarence Merriweather and Derek Brennan. Many went on to significant art careers. Joe Bluhm started out at Kaman’s Geauga Lake locations in the mid-90s, and became a multi-Emmy winning animator, based in Louisiana. Fred Harper started drawing for Kaman’s at Cedar Point, and since has worked for the likes of both DC and Marvel, as well as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated and Playboy. And Kate Kaman (yes, Tricia and Richard’s daughter) drew for the family business at Sea World, and is now an accomplished sculptor, with works installed for civic and corporate clients all over the country.

Tricia Kaman felt art was at least part of her destiny even as a child. “I knew that I had a passion for it. I knew in kindergarten,” Tricia says. “My mom put a pencil in my hand to stop me from sucking my thumb. That’s all I know. And it worked.”

Her parents encouraged her artistic drive, though her high school counselors didn’t. Tricia persevered, eventually taking courses at the long-defunct Cooper School of Art and at the Cleveland Institute of Art, after spending her summers working as a sketch artist.

In the summer of 1965, she became the youngest person ever hired as a sketch artist at Cedar Point, where her boss, Ruth Price, was an independent concessionaire providing the amusement park with creatives like Tricia. Rich Kaman, who also worked at Cedar Point—his specialty was fudge—drove her to the interview, and part of the process involved her sketching him.

“When I knew I would be paid to draw, I was, like, ‘great!’” Tricia recalls. Price “had the template I followed, and I developed my own template from that start.”

When Rich got a job in Cleveland—he enjoyed a career as an electronics technologist and production manager—the couple, their son Ben, and their daughter Kate moved to Cleveland. In 1971, the family established Kaman’s Art Shoppes, securing Geauga Lake, which was booming at the time, as their first client.

“When they called me in to Geauga Lake to start a sketch operation and be a concessionaire, I said, ‘Well, I have to think about that,’” Tricia says. “I went home, and Rich went, ‘Are you kidding? You go back there tomorrow and tell them yes.’”

“I knew how to do it, and my boss had recommended me. And my husband was saying, ‘Go for it. What else are you going to do?’” Rich built her a little kiosk “with our wedding money—$750, all of it.”

Tricia essentially ran the business by herself until 1986, when Rich joined full time. “She takes care of the art, I take care of the business,” he says. How does that work? “I do whatever she says,” he says. She chuckles.

The business is far more than sketches. The Kaman’s kiosks also offer glitter body art, hair wraps, leather and custom jewelry, and silhouette art.

Tricia Kaman, back in the day

The Kaman empire

Go to Cedar Point, Idlewild, Hershey Park, the San Diego Zoo, or Disneyland, and once you’re through the gate, you’ll likely come across a kiosk where your child can get a henna tattoo, and you and yours can pose for one of those antiqued family photos.

Kaman’s Art Shoppes is the largest concession company in theme and amusement parks in the United States, and there’s one location in Canada. At its peak some four years ago, Kaman’s was a $34 million enterprise, with about 2,500 seasonal workers, 400 full-time, year-round staff, and more than sixty accounts. The pandemic hurt the Kaman enterprise, and social distancing is still tamping down some of its business, but it’s coming back. COVID shut everything down for three months starting in March 2020, but all the accounts the coronavirus closed have reopened. In 2020, revenues dropped to $9 million, but with just over fifty accounts for 2021, current projected revenue is $18 million.

During summers, after the June Art Walk in Little Italy, Tricia would visit the family’s accounts, tweaking the product, coaching the artists, and generally working on quality control. Her husband, meanwhile, would fine-tune the business. “She would actually go to the stands and work with the artists, making sure they were still doing the art part of it right,” Rich says. And over time, he and Tricia developed a succession plan whereby son Ben gradually took over, buying Kaman’s Art Shoppes from his parents piece by piece. He’s now vice president and chief operating officer.

In what used to be predictably warmer climes like Southern California, before global warming turned the heat deadly, their employees worked largely full time. At Cedar Point, too, before COVID, “we had two year-round employees and about 150 seasonal employees,” Rich says. Keeping managers working year-round is a strategy; “we paid them all through the off season,” Tricia adds. Health insurance, disability coverage and 401(k) also come with a full-time Kaman’s Art Shoppes position. Such benefits help retain good workers, she says, modeling the company’s operations on the teaching profession—but “instead of having summers off, like teachers do, they get the winter off.”

A deeper purpose

Tricia Kaman readily acknowledges that Kaman’s Art Shoppes frees her to paint portraits and figures, using oils and pastels; and even though she recently retired, she remains busy.

Two of her paintings will be included in Ohio Small Towns, a juried exhibit of plein air paintings running from August 3 to October 24 at the Canton Museum of Art, and her gallery will be open to the public December 4, 5, and 6 during the Murray Hill Art Walk.

She loves “working from life,” suggesting the act of painting a person is intimate and spiritual. Tricia senses a kind of communion with her subject, whose presence provides a “sacred dimension” to the work. Even at Cedar Point, she took her work seriously. “I never looked at it in a commerce fashion,” she says. “I figured if I did what I loved, the money would follow.”