I spent a few blissful years studying art history in college and graduate school. It entailed spending countless hours in a cool, darkened auditorium, enjoying my professor’s eloquence and watching luminous paintings and portraits slide across the screen, each with a story to tell through the composition, the colors, the lines. I loved memorizing artists’ styles, learning how history was reflected in a certain scene or the washes of a watercolor. It was mesmerizing, highly seductive and nerdy all at the same time.
Although I loved studying art, until recently, I had never been to a “paint-and-sip” venue before. I couldn’t understand why people would pay money to paint with booze in public, rather than just buy a few bottles of wine and make art at someone’s apartment. When this guy suggested we have our first date at ArtJamz, one of the many paint-and-sip businesses that have sprung up over the past couple of years, I was skeptical but also secretly delighted. I hadn’t painted in years, except for a few watercolor classes I took with my ex, who as with other shared activities in our relationship, turned it into an competitive, tense experience. But painting next to a stranger, enjoying a glass of wine or two? I couldn’t wait to pull out some brushes and acrylic and get crazy on a Friday night. Why not?
We agreed to meet at ArtJamz at 8:30 p.m., just late enough for me to get a quick bite to eat before meeting up with him. Dinner after painting for two hours seemed unlikely and a bit too much for a first date, and I didn’t want to pass out from hunger. My date was shorter than I expected, but very nice, asking me a few questions, sharing a little about himself. He had paid for our reservation in the painting session, and it became clear it was up to me to buy our two medium-sized canvases and my cocktail to ease myself into this structured scenario of creativity. Fair enough.
// Art school
We walked downstairs to a room that reminded me of art classes in elementary school: there were smocks spattered with paint, plastic cups with paint brushes in dirty water, bins filled with pencils, scissors, tubes of glitter. We placed our canvases at our stations while I took big sips of my cocktail and thought about what I would do. At first, the contrast between my empty canvas and the overabundance of art supplies was overwhelming. I didn’t know what to make and was still mentally unwinding from my busy work day, so I reached for some masking tape to carefully map out some geometric stripes that would remain clean, protected spaces no matter how crazy I got with my colors. It was a small step to “unleashing my inner artist,” as ArtJamz’s motto suggested.
My date searched for a picture of one of the spaceships from Star Wars on his phone, not the Death Star but one of the other random ships a better Star Wars fan than me would remember, and started sketching. He began drawing very meticulously as we talked. He told me about his job in software security, which sounded like it would require astute attention to detail in the same way he was trying to capture his Star Wars scene, which he filled out in muted grays, black, a little silver.
I gamely made conversation at first, but started to drift off into the process of painting. I grabbed a few greens and yellows, a bright magenta and a rich, dark blue, and began filling up part of the canvas. It felt so freeing to make bold, rough strokes of color. I attempted to draw a few geometric-looking sections with pastel, remembering that their waxy residue might resist the paint’s moisture. I wasn’t sure if they belonged in my painting or not. A little worried, I stood back and looked at everything, thinking too hard about it. I really wanted to create something good that night, and everything I had done so far looked a little haphazard and disconnected. Not unlike the way I was feeling on this date. He was kind, but the chemistry wasn’t there. It was like hanging out with a brother of a good friend. Sweet but passionless.
// Mixed-media mayhem
There was a stack of old magazines, and I found an old issue of Washingtonian, which often had glamorous ads I loved. Flipping through the pages, I discovered a disco ball, a red-headed woman in a green dress. There was an ad for a science organization with a pink cell formation, a giant photo of a dollar bill. I cut them out, too. Then I looked through a travel magazine and found some flowers, along with bubbles floating through blue water in an ad for vodka. Somehow the scattered fragments of images were just the thing I needed. Now completely lost in my process and no longer talking, I pulled up and removed my masking tape, revealing the white stripes of untouched canvas. I began laying different pieces of the magazine photographs in and around everything else, gluing them strategically across the white spaces that had been taped over. I cut the disco ball in half so it balanced above the woman in the green dress, which flowed out behind her, hiding her bottom torso as if she were a mermaid. The pink cell formation found its perfect place, blossoming out of a magenta section in the corner like a flower. I wrote bits of a Dylan Thomas poem and simple words and phrases I loved on the white taped-over sections. From afar they looked like a graphic print even though they were really words. Then, dipping my fingers into the paint as if I were applying makeup, I smudged color along the written sections, giving them some messiness, blending them into the whole composition. It felt great to completely abandon tidy brushes and structure for touch, texture.
“That’s nice,” said the young woman who worked at ArtJamz, who was walking around admiring everyone’s creations and had stopped in front of my work. “People don’t ever use our magazines. I like how you did a little mixed-media collage.”
I looked up from what I was doing, and surveyed the room. A few other couples stood shyly side by side, contemplating their painting projects and laughing together. One college student had painted a cartoon-like whiskey flask. A young woman who perhaps knew about Georgia O’Keeffe had painted a giant pinkish-yellow flower and written “Power to the Pussy” underneath it. A husband and wife had purchased the biggest canvas available to work on together and had barely started filling it, though our ArtJamz session was almost over.
My date complimented me on my painting, and I made sure to look at and admire his. It was a much cleaner palette of cool greys and black, a very realistic representation of the image on his phone. Mine was luscious, messy, fanciful. I had blue paint all over my fingers, glitter on my arms. My mezcal cocktail was gone.
I felt a rush of affection for him because he had given me this night I didn’t know I needed to just cut loose and paint, which sadly led to me barely talking to him because I was enjoying it all so much. We walked out together and I leaned in to hug him, thanking him for a lovely time before making my way down the street. The evening breeze passed over me, and I looked down at my new art work in my bag and felt a mixture of joy, guilt and disappointment. I had fallen in love with my painting. I had not hit it off with him.
An older gentlemen sat smoking outside a busy restaurant, watching my progress as I strolled down the sidewalk. Realizing I was still wearing my paint-spattered smock, I stopped, saw him and blushed.
“Ooops. I was having so much fun I forgot to take this off!” I told him, and he laughed as I turned around to return it.
Maybe I was so enamored with the experience of creativity, especially the art of creating a life on my own, that I wasn’t ready for a relationship. Maybe it was just another first date, a canvas that neither of us could fill because we were too dissimilar to one another.
Later that night, I received a text from a man I had dated off and on my first few years in D.C. We were still quite fond of each other after a very passionate time together, and liked to occasionally check in and see how the other was doing. I sent him a photograph of my new masterpiece.