AR Workshop: Crafty sisters make art accessible

Sisters Jen Mills and Megan Waters opened AR Workshop in February. (Photo by Denise Hilton)

Long before starting a business together, Jen Mills and Megan Waters, owners of Newport News’ AR Workshop, were typical sisters. Waters recalls that they weren’t always the dynamic duo that they are today. “She’s four years older than I, so I idolized her—and I wanted her to be my friend,” she says, as Mills giggles in affirmation. “And she was just so cool. So, now she thinks I’m OK.”

The AR Workshop is a cozy studio showcasing wood plank signs, wall hangings and lazy susans, featuring inspirational quotes and whimsical graphics. Various tools rest in metal containers to create these very projects. More pieces are featured in the windows, which overlook William Styron Square, the picturesque, tree-lined anchor of Port Warwick.

Perched behind a rustic wooden table, blanketed in white paper and art supplies, Mills explains the business’ concept. ”We are a DIY boutique. We take it up a notch, where you can decide exactly what type of project and what type of graphic you get to make.”

Named after founders Maureen Anders and Adrian Ruff, the AR Workshop has franchise locations throughout the U.S., extending as far west as Arizona. Each location hosts workshops that allow participants to create individualized decor pieces in an easygoing environment.

Mills finds that it takes some time for newcomers to fully grasp the concept: “You come in to the raw materials out in front of you. If you’re doing a wood class, you have your raw wood and your stencils. Next you’re picking your colors, and then we guide you through distressing and assembling, using power tools. And there’s steaming and painting. You go through the whole thing,” she says.

Customers can personalize their projects with details such as last names, special dates, bible verses, wedding songs or favorite quotes. Waters says, “To the smallest detail, you’re in charge of making exactly how you want project to look.” Mills adds, “You can decide if you want the wood to be flushed, if you want it staggered. There’s a number of ways to make your piece unique and your own.”

The sisters explain that the group art class concept is similar to paint night, but perhaps less intimidating. Mills says, “We have staff guiding you through the steps. There’s no freehand—we use stencils, so you really don’t need any artistic capabilities.” The staff also suggests color combinations for those who need advice.

Participants register for classes based on project type, providing details of their proposed finished product. The workshop edits stencils based on an individual request and has them ready to use in class. Customers can choose from existing graphics or have a custom graphic created. Waters says, “You might see something online that you really like, and many times the costs are less expensive, and you can pick your exact colors.”

The AR Workshop is popular among groups, especially small family groups.

There are projects that fit all skill levels, and even special workshops and camps for kids. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of environment,” Mills says, “so we really market to all ages and experience levels.” The workshop can add a youth option to any class, even if the class isn’t specifically for children.

Mills and Waters opened the Newport News AR Workshop in February. Mills was previously a stay-at-home-mom of three children for seven years. “My son turned two, and I was looking for something to do,” she says. Waters has four years of small business experience as owner of a Williamsburg clothing store, and Mills enjoys doing home renovations and DIY projects with her husband, so the business was a natural fit. “When we stumbled upon this company, it just made perfect sense,” Mills says. “It was the right timing.”

Mills recently moved to York County, where Waters also lives. Both sisters agree that becoming business partners has brought them closer together. Because they see each other more often, their children see their cousins more often too. Their closeness has translated into smooth business operations as well.

“I feel like we’re on the same page for everything business-wise. It’s been seamless.”

AR Workshop
Address: 2120 William Styron Sq. S,
Newport News, VA 23606
Phone: 757-750-0650
Contact: Jen Mills and Megan Waters

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