Columbus, Ohio USA
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Painter of Nails
Natural nail therapist finds 'her own kingdom' at High and Hubbard
By Karen Edwards
January 2011 Issue

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Zoe Johnstone (left), was Denise Painter's first client at Stephen Colatruglio's in the Short North 25 years ago, and remains a faithful client to this day. Photo © Darren Carlson

It may be the ordinary nature of nails (the kind that shield the tips of fingers and toes, not the kind you pound with a hammer) that makes them so forgettable, so easy to take for granted. Bite them, break them, buff them, polish them – they are, at most, momentary distractions as we go through our day.

Maybe that explains why nail therapist Denise Painter was 42 years old before she received her first manicure. “I was too busy before that,” she says now, with a laugh.

“I didn’t have time to think about such things.”

After all, Painter, like the rest of us, was just trying to get through the day.

In high school, getting through the day meant dividing her time between academic classes at school and training classes at a technical college where she was learning to be a hair stylist. “I wanted to be an interior designer,” she says. But the cards weren’t there for that kind of training. So it was off to tech school for her.

Following her graduation, Painter began apprenticeships at different salons around the city – practicing her trade and realizing, with each unfortunate hour, that styling hair was not for her.

Enter her knight in shining armor – in the guise of her childhood sweetheart John Painter. The pair were married and soon enough, along came daughter Teffany and son John III. Stepson Anthony was already a fixture at the Painter home, so Denise was glad to give up the wash basins and cutting shears to become a stay-at-home mom.

“I was fortunate that I could do that,” she says. “Now my children tell me some of their fondest memories are of those times we spent together.”

But children grow up and become more independent. Parents become an afterthought in their lives.

“Come on. You need to get out of the house now,” a friend of Painter’s would cajole her. “We have this receptionist job open…”

The friend worked with (the late) Stephen Colatruglio at his Short North salon.

“Have you ever met someone who has profoundly changed your life?” Painter asks. “Mine was Stephen. He was the one who helped me see my potential.”

The career begins

Colatruglio hired Painter on the spot and began to move her up the fast track to management responsibilities. She could see the salon’s weaknesses and she’d point them out so her boss could fix them quickly.

One day, she approached Colatruglio and said: “We’ve gone through eight nail technicians in two years. We need to make that service more consistently reliable.”

Painter was not unsympathetic with the nail techs. They worked on straight commission and often didn’t make enough to stay and didn’t have enough time to market their services and round up more clients. “They need to be paid a flat salary,” she suggested.

At the time, the salon was “between” nail techs.

Colatruglio looked at her. “How would you like to go to school and become a technician?” he asked her. “Look around at the schools, let me know which you’d like to attend and I’ll pay for it. And I’ll pay you a salary when you start working here.”
There. Put up or shut up.

“I liked what I was doing at the salon and really had given no thought about returning to school,” says Painter.

So, she countered. “If I hate doing nails, can I have my old job back?” Absolutely, Colatruglio told her.

Painter went to school, became a nail therapist, went to work (for a salary) at the salon – and has never looked back. She loves the customers she sees, she loves doing nails, and she loves making an income and standing on her own two feet, something, she says Colatruglio taught her. Once her knight-in-shining-armor passed away, after 35 years of marriage, Painter was especially glad for the training. She knew she could make it on her own.

And Painter has. She continued to work as a nail tech at Colatruglio’s salon. After he died, Painter continued working at the salon a few more years while it was under the ownership of his sisters. She was there 16 years in all. Then came a short stint at Mukha Custom Cosmetics in the Short North, a brief partnership in a German Village salon, a short fling at another Short North location – and now, a spot in the Salons at High and Hubbard, owned by optometrist Daniel Koch of Columbus Eyeworks.

Home at last

Painter is thrilled with the new location. “The place is designed for comfort,” she says, making it easy for both operators and customers to be there. “It’s contemporary in design, but each of us can decorate our space according to our individual tastes,” she says. The Salons at High and Hubbard is a beauty cooperative, with 10 suites, each with a door for privacy. Five are currently occupied by hair designers. An aesthetician has just joined the group. And then there’s Painter. She’s thrilled, she says, to be in such a positive work environment, where everyone is independent and yet interconnected. “We help each other,” she says – whether that’s lending support and encouragement, or making referrals to their clients.

Zoe Johnstone is a longtime client of Painter. She was, in fact, Painter’s first client when she began her service at Colatruglio’s salon 25 years ago and has followed Painter to each of her locations.

“Denise just does the job perfectly,” she says. And Johnstone is thrilled with the new location. “It’s fabulous,” she says. And she’s happy that Painter has, what she describes, as “her own kingdom.” She’s needed that for a while, says Johnstone. “She needed to be independent and in her own business.”

Johnstone visits Painter once a month for a pedicure. Her feet are massaged, her toenails clipped, shaped, and polished. Generally, the entire experience takes an hour and a half. “It’s a healing experience,” she says.

Sandy Woolard, another client and now Painter’s friend, agrees that Painter’s pedicures are a deluxe version of what you would typically find in other locations around the city.

“I never used to get a pedicure,” she says. Now, she admits to being hooked, and visits Painter’s salon every four to five weeks. “The water in the basin is filled up so it rises past your ankles, and the water is churning. It’s relaxing. Then she massages your feet with moisturizer.” The whole experience, Woolard continues, is like a present you give yourself every month.

And Painter is scrupulous about cleanliness. “She is forever washing and sterilizing everything she uses,” Woolard says.

Painter admits the constant cleaning is her least favorite part of the job. “When you think about it,” she says, “there are two towels for every manicure, four towels for a pedicure, so I’m always doing laundry. I scrub and disinfect everything with a hospital-grade disinfectant.” And that cleaning goes on all day long, from first client to last. “Each client walks in to a clean, fresh presentation, just like they were the first client of the day.”

Telltale nails

When a client first appears at the door, they are offered a pair of disposable pedicure shoes if they haven’t worn sandals or other appropriate slip-on shoes, and offered something to drink. A warm-water bath begins the process, which, Painter says, helps lower blood pressure and encourages blood circulation. Next, she trims the nails, and exfoliates the skin with a salt or sugar scrub. If a paraffin wax is needed, she’ll do that. Then she applies a deep tissue massage and moisturizes. All of Painter’s products – exfoliants and moisturizers are natural products. She offers them for sale, but says any exfoliant would work – and any moisturizer would do the job, as long as its first two ingredients aren’t alcohol and water. “The moisturizer evaporates too quickly if those two top the list,” she says. She’ll polish the nail, if the client requests and buff it if they don’t. And the whole time, she educates her clients as to what she’s doing, why, and how to maintain the pedicure once they leave her shop.

After all, Painter recognizes the importance of cleanliness. She’s been in the business long enough to know that nails can be a source of infection. Their appearance can also signal other health issues the client may be experiencing – diabetes, for example, and heart problems.

“I’ll tell them to ask their doctor about it the next time they go in,” says Painter. On more than one occasion, a grateful client has reported back that Painter’s suspicions were right.

Painter also sees her share of ingrown toenails, calluses, bunions and other foot problems. She can refine calluses (not remove them), and with ingrown toenails, she can clip the nail to relieve some of the pressure and pain. “But I’m not a doctor,” she says. She refers clients with foot issues to OSU podiatrist Alan Block for treatment.

“The biggest problem I see with nails is they’re too dry and brittle,” says Painter. When they’re in that condition, they break easily. “It’s important to put the moisture back into them,” she says. And that’s true whether the nail shields the finger or toe.

Of course, the manicure is important, too, but it’s generally done for more aesthetic purposes than the practical pedicure. “The foot is assaulted every day,” says Painter. That’s why she allows an hour and a half for the pedicure, 20 minutes or so for the manicure.
“The manicure is like the cherry on the sundae,” says Johnstone.

Painter’s clients – usually 20 to 25 clients each week – come to her largely through word-of-mouth. She has a good reputation among stylists and other beauticians in town, and they refer others to her as well. And while a good share of Painter’s clients come from the Short North neighborhood, she draws clients from as far away as Powell and Granville. And her clients come in all ages. “From 13 years to 90,” says Painter. The youngest client she’s ever had was back in her day at Colatruglio’s salon. “The girl was only four years old,” she says. “And she tipped me.”

Like a safe

Painter also sees a fair number of local celebrities – but won’t say who. She’s serious about keeping her clients’ confidentiality. “She’s like a safe,” says Woolard, who has asked about people she thought might be on Painter’s client list. “She won’t say anything about anyone.”

Men are showing up in Painter’s studio more frequently these days as well. Many are business men who need to present themselves as polished and well-groomed. The private salon better suits their sensibilities.

Painter tells of one man who came into her studio who was planning to go on a cruise in five or six months. “I don’t judge, but his feet had not been well taken care of,” she says. She planned a treatment program with him that would have his feet shipshape and sandal-ready by the time the cruise ship sailed. The client came in every four to six weeks, and while he still needs some work, Painter says, his feet had improved 80 percent by the time he left.

Painter charges $55 for her pedicures; $20 for manicures. “It’s not expensive considering the service you get,” says Johnstone. Could you have your nails done more cheaply at a salon or spa? Yes. “But you get what you pay for there,” says Woolard. The nice thing about a Painter pedicure, says Johnstone, is that your feet will continue to look good for five weeks afterward.

A movie buff

Of course, Painter doesn’t spend all of her time at the salon. She and Sandy Woolard go to movies together. “We’re both single and we enjoy each other’s company,” says Woolard. And they both love movies. Sometimes, they’ll go to the movies three times a week if a crop of new movies have been released. “I go to a Web site where you can get free preview tickets,” says Woolard. So their indulgence doesn’t cost them a thing.

Painter says she enjoys any movie – as long as it doesn’t depict something gory, or portrays an injustice of some kind. But comedies, dramas, adventures – she’s up for it all. “I like the old movies, too,” says Painter. Gone with the Wind is a favorite, she continues, but she also likes Casablanca, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Some Like It Hot.
Going to the movies brings back some happy childhood memories. She moved to Columbus from Manhattan at the age of four, “but my mother only agreed to the move if my father would take us back to New York every month.” He agreed, and Painter remembers those trips vividly. Her grandparents were first generation immigrants from Spain, who had landed first in Puerto Rico, then arrived in New York, through Ellis Island. Painter says she was close to her grandmother and remembers shopping with her at various markets. Then there were those trips when her mother would take her to see movies at Rockefeller Center. “The Rockettes would perform, then the movie would start,” Painter recalls. It was a magical time.

So magical, in fact, that before 9/11, Painter found a sitter for her 12-year-old Rottweiler Jade and took her daughter and 11-year-old granddaughter Chelsea for a weeklong trip to New York. “We did all the tourist sites, including going to the top of the World Trade Center,” says Painter. When the 9/11 tragedy occurred, Chelsea told her class about visiting the top of one of the towers. No one believed her. Fortunately, Painter had documented the trip with plenty of photos, so Chelsea was able to do a “show and tell” for the class.

Generations of Painters

The most memorable photo from that trip, however, came at Ellis Island. Painter and her daughter were able to locate Denise’s grandmother’s name on the registry of names. Painter had her daughter and granddaughter stand next to the name on the wall, and took their picture. Counting the woman behind the camera, four generations of the family are present in that photo – the arriving grandmother, her granddaughter Denise, Denise’s daughter Teffany and Teffany’s daughter Chelsea. It’s a photo that Denise Painter treasures.

Her grandmother may never have envisioned her granddaughter as a nail technician, maintaining the nails of a wide variety of clients. But Johnstone, for one, is glad Painter is so close by.

“You know, 95 percent of your contact with the Earth is through your feet,” she says. “Doesn’t it make sense to treat them well, and have them well taken care of? It’s not a luxury as far as I’m concerned. It’s a necessity.”

Adds Woolard: “It’s a great way to look good and feel good about yourself. And it’s a lot cheaper than plastic surgery!”

Salons at High and Hubbard is located at 17 W. Hubbard Ave. in the Short North. To make an appointment with natural nail therapist Denise Painter, call 614-832-9376 or visit .

© 2011 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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