Business owners encourage creativity and expression in rural Nebraska town

Small Towns

Justin Carter contributed to this story.

When Gris Grimly and his wife Lynnette moved from California to raise their kids in the slower-paced peace and quiet of Gris’ hometown of West Point, Nebraska, they noticed something missing in their new rural community: the arts.

Gris spent the past 20 years discovering the arts and becoming a successful children’s book illustrator, and he and Lynnette have become huge supporters and lovers of all things artistic.

Upon exploring West Point to find activities for their homeschooled children, they noticed the community had sports clubs and academic activities but offered nothing to encourage freedom of expression.

“These things are offered in cities,” said Lynnette. “Why aren’t they offered in rural areas? They need it just as much here, if not more. We really wanted a space where people could come here and work in a social environment where kids are meeting new people and interacting in a safe space.”

The couple decided they could offer their children, and all the residents of West Point, a great outlet to express themselves as individuals. And, in April 2020, they signed a lease on a building that would hold the BAT (Building Artistic Thinking) Academy, which opened in December of that year.

“It was a calling that was bigger than I was,” said Lynnette. “If your community is lacking something and you’re aware of it, there’s no one else better to do it.”

A tactile art studio, BAT Academy provides art materials for all ages. Its philosophy is rooted in uniting the community by providing creative experiences in a judgment-free and encouraging environment.

“We’re a self-corrected maker’s space for the arts. Rather than people coming in and having us tell them what to do, people can use all our materials and express themselves, whatever they’re feeling,” Gris said. “We’re not controlling their creativity or putting them in a box. We’re as involved as the individual wants us to be.”

Lynnette added that they try to be facilitators rather than teachers, and they encourage people to express themselves and not worry about being as structured as they may have to be elsewhere.

“We want to help develop skills further for the kids, with what they’re drawn to,” she said. “Whatever their natural inclination is—to paint, draw, etc.—we encourage them to explore that.”

The business owners say everyone can benefit from their place. From edible finger paints safe for babies to use to professional art supplies for sale, the academy is open to all ages.

In addition to their regular studio hours, Gris and Lynnette have hosted special events at BAT Academy. The TeamMates Mentoring Program asked them to demonstrate how to tie-dye shirts, for example. And they hosted a dreamcatcher workshop at which women from the Lakota and Umoⁿhoⁿ Tribes came to the studio to talk about the history of dreamcatchers and what they mean to their people.

They host a summer program for kids, and they stay busy thinking up future plans for their business.

“We want to hold more workshops, host more special events, do things like book club, game night, and give the kids in this community safe, entertaining options for social activities,” Gris said. “We also want to bring in authors, illustrators, and have book signings.”

While working toward these plans, they want to accommodate their community while staying true to their vision for the academy.

“There aren't a lot of things in this community that let people focus on the individual, let them discover who they are in a safe place,” said Lynnette. “Finding yourself when you’re young is a great time to explore when it’s safe. We’re trying to educate the community on what we’re doing here, and that it can benefit everyone.”

Gris said educating parents to understand certain aspects of their business goals has been one of the biggest challenges.

“We’re not only here for the kids, and to show what they’re capable of, but it’s also for the adults to show them what their kids are capable of, and for themselves to see what they can do,” he said. “Some parents see it as unnecessary, because they have art supplies at home. This place is a social club for children and adults to meet others who are into the arts as well. Friendships blossom between kids at different schools, who may never meet otherwise.”

Gris and Lynnette also want to encourage other artists to keep creating, even if it takes time to get where they want to be. They recommend the same thing to artists and makers wanting to start their own businesses.

“Just do it—create,” Gris said. “People have doubts, but you have to overcome them and just get out there and try. Don't let fear hold you back. If you’re passionate about it, it’ll be successful.”

Added Lynnette: “It’s hard, but you can do it. Bumps in the road can take you off the path, but stay true to what you love and you’ll succeed.”

In January 2022, Justin Carter, senior project associate with the Center for Rural Affairs, sat down with Gris and Lynnette and interviewed them about their hopes for the business. To watch the full interview, watch below or visit Connect with BAT Academy on their Facebook page.