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Canvas Talk: How strokes of paint nourish community and well-being

by Jennifer Lythgo

I walk into Islands Café, a new coffee spot in the ‘Five Corners’ neighbourhood of White Rock, and scan the already busy room. Paddleboards hang from the ceiling, and the aroma of fresh Hawaiian coffee fills the air. I watch as one woman indulges in a poke bowl, an Islands Café specialty, and notice that the table next to her was free – something that rarely happens in such a popular place. I’m meeting Gail Simpson, a White Rock local and recent art entrepreneur, to discuss her business, A Palette of Fun – Paint Parties for my Master’s project entitled Canvas Talk: How strokes of paint nourish community and personal well-being. I’m curious about the recent popularity of paint nights, and the reasons why people attend them. Paint nights are ‘taken up’ by some people over others, and I look to explore why.

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Gail walks in the room and hugs me like she’s known me forever – you know, one of those soul-warming hugs you only get from a good friend. It’s Friday morning with typical west coast rain and grey skies, so we both grab a hot tea and a baked treat, and sit back down at the table I saved for us. After catching up with what’s new in our personal lives, I hit record on my device and begin the interview:

How did you discover your passion for art?

I’ve always been creative and crafty, and very detailed my whole life. We are born with gifts, and I’ve always had the gift of creating things. I first started painting with watercolours. I moved back to White Rock after being away for about 30 years and was walking down the street when I saw a sign that was for beginner watercolour classes. I went and fell in love with the medium and the camaraderie of the group – I really joined a family of people who were like-minded. I realized I had a bit of a gift. A group of friends convinced me to teach my own classes, which started small, but here we are two years later with multiple locations and a growing business!

How has creating and teaching art benefitted your well-being?

I left my “real” job two years ago, which was a big leap of faith. I wasn’t fulfilled going to work. I just wanted to paint, so I just said one day, “Okay universe, you’re going to support me,” and it just snowballed. The universe gave back, and I started getting more locations for my paint nights. This whole process has gotten me through some pretty rough times recently, and I feel like this is all happening on purpose. This is what I’m supposed to be doing. I’ve had a lot of trauma, and grief, and sadness in my life in the last ten years, and teaching art heals me. To put myself out there, and give myself emotionally to other people fills me. This has never been a task for me, I am just so excited to prep and get things organized. Whenever people say they’re scared to try painting, I say “Just trust yourself and trust me that I will get you through this process”. I read every single person and see what their needs are when they walk into paint nights. I watch them and see this transformation, and I feel like I could cry. The emotion seeing people step out of their comfort zone and be creative is just so fulfilling for me.

How has your artistic passion influenced the way you communicate with other people?

The painting, to me, is the vehicle to helping people get in touch with their emotional side. You never know what’s going on in people’s lives – especially when they show up to paint night. Emotions vary with each person, from detachment to annoyance to embarrassment. I’m a people watcher and see how they’re communicating with others. I try to treat each person like an individual, a guest. I always touch base with people and see how they’re doing. I tell people, “This is for you, so let go and get outside your head!” I want to relate to them one-on-one. There is such a feeling of community, a space where people lift each other up, no matter their age, gender, or race.

How have these paint nights nourished community?

I encourage single people – young or old – to attend, and I know exactly who I will seat them with at events. I connect people based on personalities. I want everyone to leave having a fantastic experience – either artistically or socially. Bonds are created. Friendships are created. Hopefully new bonds and friendships continue after paint nights are over as well.

Why do you think we are afraid to “go outside the lines”, metaphorically speaking?

I think we live in such a competitive society. People do not choose to live simply, they want more and more, bigger and bigger. Stress follows people, and I see it on some people’s faces when they come to paint nights. Those are the people who I keep an eye on. They are sometimes scared to make mistakes, afraid that their painting won’t be ‘perfect’. I tell them to follow along, or to go crazy, to scribble and let loose. I tell them to close their eyes and just let the paintbrush do the work. Some people fight this act of freedom more than others, but that’s okay. The fact that they’re here and trying is all that matters. It’s their canvas, not mine.

Why is trying so important?

 Technology scares me, especially for our youth. It is like a big blanket draped over us. It stops us from being human, and we take the easy way out all the time. We rarely call, we text. We are always on our computers, always wanting an upgrade. We are downloading and finding new ways to keep our ‘left brain’ on top of everything all the time. People have tapped out of feeling, but when they paint, they start to feel again. If people show up to my paint nights, and are afraid to try, I will do everything in my power to get them through the evening, and watching them discover the benefits of being creative, of just trying, is fascinating to me.

What do you see differently when working with children versus adults?

Well, first of all, the kids aren’t drinking (laughter). I teach at schools and have taught for the city of White Rock, and I am in touch with this younger generation and how connected they are to their devices. Kids’ anxiety is at an all-time high because of social media, and most of them don’t have, or seek out, creative outlets anymore. As these anxious kids grow up, they start making bad decisions, and opportunities to be creative are stripped away even more. I try teaching them that this project is going to be fun, and we need to honour each other’s paintings and see each other’s differences. I explain how being creative helps them with being mindful of themselves and others. I especially enjoy watching how art brings out different parts of the student’s personality. I believe students who struggle with special needs are so misunderstood. Allowing them to figure out how they fit into a creative environment, and how they perceive art and beauty, is so wonderful to watch. It’s all about love.

Gail invites me to her next paint night. I jump at the chance, and decide to join Gail at her next event.

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The Wooden Spoon is a well-known restaurant in White Rock, a place where people line-up on Sundays for their famous brunch, or drop by for mid-week burgers and beers. Host to a number of themed evenings such as Bingo Night, The Wooden Spoon has also become home to A Palette of Fun. Twice a month, Gail reserves spots at The Wooden Spoon for people of all ages to join her in an evening full of creativity and good vibes.

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I look inside the restaurant, peeking through Halloween decorations that are hanging from the window, and watch as Gail carefully places the easels her late father made by hand at each of the polka dot covered tables. She looks up as I step inside, and I am immediately greeted with a big smile and hug. She holds a list of to-dos, and continues checking off the items as she introduces me to how paint nights are organized. I watch as she lays out individually wrapped aprons, like place cards, showing people where they are to sit. The phone keeps ringing, and with every conversation, a similar response, “No, I’m sorry, we are full tonight”. A wait-list was made days ago, and, like most of Gail’s paint nights, there just isn’t room for everyone.

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As people start filing in to the restaurant, it reminds me of a family dinner – hugs, boisterous welcomes, warm introductions, and laughter. Gail greets everyone individually, and makes connections with them as they find their seats. As people sit down and get acquainted with one another, I circulate and discuss my research. Almost everyone was eager to participate and share his or her experiences and feelings towards paint nights, some even sharing stories or anecdotes from paint nights from the past. Leaving them time to complete an anonymous questionnaire, I turn to help Gail in any way I can.

The restaurant filled with the noise of soft murmurs and cutlery gently tapping the plates, interrupted every so often with the clanking of glasses and a cheer. The majority of people had just come from work, and are either regulars or are ‘newbies’, as Gail calls them. Two women came individually, partly to try something new, partly to meet new people. Others were celebrating birthdays, girls’ night, or date night. The servers quickly cleared the tables, and plates were replaced with individual canvases. Gail stood in front of the group, and after a brief introduction, she began her lesson. As they painted, I walked around and struck up conversations.

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I began by asking them questions about their day, followed by “So, where will you hang it?” and point to their painting. I quickly discover that most people were embarrassed to display their art, ashamed of their lack of artistic skill. A few people, however, had told me they already started galleries of their art at home. I saw people bonding over their insecurities towards their artistic skill and this intrigued me. In a safe environment, insecurities were used as icebreakers between strangers, as they laughed about their so-called “lack of talent”.

People opened up and shared with me that art has become a stress reliever for them, an outlet for daily frustrations from work and personal life. Many people commented how when they paint they “let go of everything else and just be” or that they “like letting [their] right brain FREE”, the right brain being the “less bossy side” one woman explained. One woman uses paint nights as “an escape from daily responsibilities”, while others claim they were “dragged out by friends” and let out a giggle as they roll their eyes towards their group.

In the anonymous questionnaires completed by participants, many people listed “disconnecting” as reason for attending paint nights – disconnecting from the pile of dishes at home, from uncomfortable phone calls, from their devices or even homework. Others listed “connecting to other people” as a reason to attend Gail’s events, a chance to be social with a new group of people. While a few people wrote about being scared to paint for the first time “since childhood”, they told me that once they relaxed, they discovered the simple joys of being creative and “forgetting about real life for a minute or two”.

The night manager of The Wooden Spoon mentioned how “people leave [paint nights] feeling more relaxed, friendly and happy compared to when they arrive”. She added that people “make friends while they’re here, expanding their networks and connections with the community … their neighbours are no longer strangers.” A Palette of Fun has become a welcoming, judgement-free ‘zone’ for the community of White Rock, giving people the space to learn, create, socialize, and network with locals. Paint nights provide people with creative outlets to help with their own personal struggles, and give them a unique environment in which to meet new people.

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During our first meeting at Islands Café, I asked Gail what she saw for her future – a big question to ask. She began describing how she wants to donate her time to help spread the benefits of art in the community. She has plans to connect with people working in seniors’ centres and prisons to organize painting classes in hopes of helping patients and inmates who suffer from mental health conditions. She discusses how she would like to spend more time at her new home in Mexico and establish an art studio for local children. “I just want to grow my business in the exact way the universe has planned it, without me forcing it. I want to be grateful for my life every single day. I’m all about building people through art, a type of art therapy”.

As someone who has now attended Gail’s paint nights as a participant and as an observer, I can relate to how addicting painting can be. Painting allows people to tap into that part of their brain that doesn’t get to ‘speak’ very often. Creative opportunities rarely present themselves to most people in their daily lives, which is one reason why Gail’s paint nights have become so popular. Paint nights provide a safe environment for people of all ages, gender, and race to nourish their well-being by enjoying an evening of delicious food, engaging conversation, and artistic freedom. After an entertaining evening with friends or strangers, who knows, you may even walk away with a painting you would want to hang on your wall.

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“To have reached the age of forty without ever handling a brush or fiddling with a pencil, to have regarded with mature eye the painting of pictures of any kind as a mystery … then suddenly to find oneself plunged in the middle of a new and intense form of interest and action with paints and palettes and canvases, and not to be discouraged by results, is an astonishing and enriching experience. I hope it may be shared by others.” – Winston Churchill, Painting as a Pastime 

 

Edited by Gail Simpson