In high school Maggie Stewart had an experience that would change her life: “I was getting a pedicure, and the nail tech asked me if I wanted nail art. She did five dots, and that was a flower, and I thought, I can do that.” She was right. Stewart started out with drugstore nail art supplies, cutting down brushes and using bobby pins for detail work and dots. From there, she attended cosmetology school, where one of her teachers challenged her to create more advanced nail designs, which eventually included recreating Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night. That’s when she realized, “I can take everything and put it on a little microscopic canvas.” This experience inspired her to think of every set of nails as “10 tiny canvases” ready to be painted.
The Cincinnati native didn’t take the traditional path to becoming a nail technician and artist. While most people in the field start out working in a big, open salon to build clientele, Stewart decided to take the risk of jumping straight into the “booth rent” phase of her career, setting up her own space in a local salon. “I always wanted to work for myself,” she says. “There were 20 very successful hair stylists around me, and I thought, If I can’t be successful here, surrounded by these people…” Four years later, Stewart had built up a nearly full clientele—her leap of faith was paying off.
Then the pandemic hit. Stewart describes the mid-March COVID-19 shutdown as simply terrifying. With restrictions in place to prevent the spread of the virus, salons like the one Stewart works out of were closed. “Being told that I’m not allowed to go to work was so nerve-wracking,” Stewart says. “I had no idea what my job was going to look like going back.” Fortunately, Stewart was able to find ways to make the most of a scary situation. She took the opportunity to start creating more paintings—this time on actual canvases, many of which have sold since the shutdown. She also realized that the forced time off provided the perfect opportunity to start searching for her own commercial space. Now Stewart has plans to open her own nail salon and art gallery—called Ten Tiny Canvases, of course—in Walnut Hills within the next few months.
Coming out of the shutdown, Stewart feels blessed to have gained back a majority of her pre-pandemic clientele. Sanitation is a major priority for Stewart, and she takes a lot of pride in making sure every client’s experience is as clean and hygienic as possible. “Everyone should feel comfortable where they get their nails done,” she says. Her advice for anyone who wants to head back to salons post-shutdown is this: “Speak up and be comfortable. Ask questions. You can ask, Hey, what do you sanitize this with? If you have a concern, voice it.”
Ultimately, Stewart is thrilled to be doing what she loves again: creating unique works of art that help her clients express themselves. “Nails are personality,” Stewart says. She hopes her nail art can inspire customers, just like a nail technician did for her in high school. “I feel like if I can make it, anybody else can too,” she says. “I just try to share my story and build confidence in other women.”
You can admire Maggie Stewart’s nail art on Instagram at @magsnails.