Share Your Stories: Keisha Whatley, A Creative Force Rising in Germantown

PHILADELPHIA250
5 min readSep 12, 2023

As we wind down our summer series focusing on revolutionary women, we take immense pride in shining a spotlight on local artist and entrepreneur, Keisha Whatley. Keisha is the creative director and founder of Custom Arts Studio, a comprehensive fine art and design company. She is also the visionary behind Germantown ArtHaus, a vibrant community hub that fosters creativity and unity in Germantown. We first met Keisha last year, when she created original art interpreting Shared Prosperity — one of PHILADELPHIA250’s four guiding themes — as part of our Dare to Declare! conversation cards, which explore core ideas of the Declaration of Independence.

Raised in West Philadelphia since she was three years old, Keisha has been surrounded by art all her life. She recalls, “Since I was a little kid, my interest in art was nurtured. I was always making stuff and always drawing on all my grandma’s printer paper and getting in trouble because I was always making something. But I come from a pretty creative family.” Keisha’s father was a self-employed artist right out of high school and was continuously making different kinds of art. Her maternal grandmother, a fashion designer and business owner, played an integral role in nurturing Keisha’s artistic talent. Spending time with her after school and on the weekends, Keisha was able to really lean into art and artistic expression.

Keisha’s artistic journey led her to graduate early from the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. Instead of a typical senior year in high school, she found herself in New York City, attending the Parsons School of Design. When she returned to Philadelphia, Keisha pursued a degree in interactive media and web design. However, for the next 17 years, her fine art took a back seat. It wasn’t until 2014 that Keisha dusted off old canvases from her closet and reignited her passion for painting.

Custom Arts Studio, created in 2014, was a natural progression for Keisha, given her exposure to entrepreneurship. Her mother was a psychologist who ran her own private practice for more than 40 years, and Keisha gained the skills of business-level thinking from her. Keisha says, “I kind of always had something going on, some other multi-level marketing, so business was kind of natural for me. When I started painting again, I gave my mom a gift of a painting of her grandkids, and she showed it to people, and then people wanted me to do art for them. So it kind of grew organically. It wasn’t really like I sat down and wrote a business plan. I was like, this is what I’m gonna do.”

After her business was created, Keisha founded Germantown ArtHaus with the goal of equipping fellow artists with professional skills and systems for achieving success. Her inspiration comes from her grandmother, Maxine Whatley. “She was all about community,” Keisha reflects. “She’s the one that was a fashion designer, and while she was still living, she aspired to start a black mall where everything in it is black-owned. Like, there’s a black-owned dentist and a black-owned doctor. It’s just a kind of self-empowerment and cooperative economics. In thinking about how I can help the community, I created this nonprofit that focuses on supporting and empowering artists to be more successful and expand their work.”

Out of all the accomplishments in Keisha’s professional career, she is most proud of creating Philadelphia’s first Juneteenth Mural this year on the side of the ArtHaus building at 6228 Germantown Avenue. Over 1,100 square feet, the mural took almost three months to make and honors the history of Black people at the moment of their freedom. On the day the mural was unveiled, Keisha said, “To have a story really reflected from beginning to freedom, I think, it’s just really powerful, and I just look forward to the community being empowered by the image day in and day out as they travel throughout the community.”

Keisha labels herself “Keisha ‘I make everything beautiful’ Whatley” as a constant reminder of her commitment to bring positivity and beauty to the world. As a mother of two children, her end goal is to leave a world that is good to and for them. Keisha is not looking to be overly successful and famous, but rather she wants to be significant. With the 250th anniversary of the country coming up, Keisha evaluates what that means for the country today and in the future. “A lot of us are still waiting for justice, and still waiting for freedom and opportunity to be granted to all people. So, I see the 250th anniversary as a celebratory reckoning, to really look at the reality of what we’re celebrating, and to see if we can come together to create something that works.”

This blog is part of PHILADELPHIA250’s Share Your Stories program, which celebrates all Philadelphians, past and present who are a part of our history — making sure no one is left out of the story. If you have a story about a special person or place you’d like to share with us, please contact us through this form.

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PHILADELPHIA250

Coordinating the United States’ 250th anniversary in Philadelphia. Creating a commemoration that is truly by the people, for the people.