- Michael Tonn
Creative types have long hit the bottle for inspiration. So perhaps it's no surprise that arts organizations and businesses would lure newbies to art class with the promise of liquid courage. Night-out events that combine art making and drinks have popped up around the country and are catching on big-time in Vermont. Indeed, the state just got its first dedicated space for booze-infused art classes: Burlington Paint & Sip Studio.
While the details of these gatherings vary with the organization and location, they share a formula: An artist-taught class is spiked with a complimentary adult beverage to temper any painting-in-public jitters and get the creative juices flowing. Supplies are generally included in the entry price and, at the end of the night, participants take home their own original piece of art.
The progenitor of art-and-drinking events in Vermont was the cabaret-like Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School, a local branch of an international movement that appeared in Waitsfield five years ago. (Dr. Sketchy also popped up in White River Junction in 2011, with actor Rusty DeWees volunteering as a model.) The concept came to Burlington in November 2013, when the South End Arts and Business Association began its aptly named Art Under the Influence series. It proved immediately popular.
"We were looking for an opportunity to really connect the community through creativity," explains Adam Brooks, SEABA's executive director. "We wanted a monthly event that would bring people together, to get people back to their creative roots and get them interacting with an artist — and interacting with each other."
The first Art Under the Influence event, taught by Burlington painter Katharine Montstream, sold out in three days. SEABA has consistently filled the evenings ever since, increasing the frequency of classes to twice monthly and rotating them among its long list of member artists. Venues have included Citizen Cider, Magic Hat Artifactory and Vin Bar & Shop. The art produced in the classes varies with the teaching artist's style and medium.
"The piece that makes Art Under the Influence a little bit different is that we have access to a lot of different artists using different mediums," Brooks notes. "And I think the fact that we're able to move our events around to different venues is exciting to people. It allows people who maybe haven't been to Hotel Vermont or Vin Bar or the Artifactory to explore new things."
In August 2014, Stowe's Helen Day Art Center jumped on the trend, at the request of its members, with a Draw and Sip series taught by local illustrator Evan Chismark. Some classes take place in the gallery, where "participants are able to view, enjoy and engage with exhibitions featuring internationally and nationally recognized artists, as well as local Vermont artists," notes education coordinator Susan Holliday. Piecasso Pizzeria & Lounge on the Mountain Road hosts the events, too.
In Burlington, ONE Arts Center began hosting drink-and-draw events after moving into its new headquarters on North Champlain Street. The latest iteration, organized in partnership with ArtsRiot, is a class with a live burlesque model — akin to the Dr. Sketchy idea. "We have a really great atmosphere," says codirector Becca McHale. "It's not just a class where you show up and you go home. A lot of our artists know each other or are getting to know each other. It's much more of a social event."
Members of ONE Arts Collective get a discount, but McHale says the series has also attracted plenty of newcomers, both to the center and to art making in general. "We have all skill levels," she says. "There are definitely people who are very experienced, who come with their watercolors and can make a beautiful piece in no time. But then there are others who are very new at drawing, and it's very rewarding to see people brave enough to come out in a public situation, willing to improve their skills."
While local art-and-alcohol options are many, the state lacked a venue dedicated to the combo — until now. This month, New Yorker Catherine Hover opened Burlington Paint & Sip Studio on Church Street, a counterpart to her like-named establishment in Saratoga Springs. Hover's studio offers daily events and, she says, accommodates several dozen people at once. Most of the seats have sold out since Paint & Sip's soft opening in early January.
Hover, a Louisiana native, moved to Saratoga Springs a few years ago when her husband got a job in the area. As she looked for ways to meet new people in town, her mother suggested "just going to one of those paint-and-drink places and meeting people that way," Hover recalls. "There are a ton of these studios around the South," she explains.
But Saratoga Springs had none, so Hover decided to start her own. Saratoga Paint & Sip Studio opened in April 2012 and was so successful that Hover opened a second branch in Latham, N.Y., just a year later. Expanding to Burlington, she says, was a natural next step.
"We just had so many people coming from Vermont — I mean, driving two-and-a-half, three hours — and people from Montréal," Hover says. "Just coming from all over the place, because it was the only one in the region at the time.
"Now," she adds, paint-and-drink options are "kind of popping up all over the place, and in different ways. Some are in bars; some do traveling parties. But I find it's the best for us, at least, to have an actual, stationary place dedicated to it."
Burlington Paint & Sip seems to be settling in, despite the competition offered by similar events around town. The studio is open Wednesday through Saturday evenings, plus a day class on Sundays, and is available for private events.
A typical crowd, Hover says, might include couples on a first date, bridal groups or community organizations. "It's not a serious thing about art," she says. "It attracts a different crowd."
Hover acknowledges that the popularity of paint-and-drink events is probably cresting. But she's optimistic about her studio's potential to become an entertainment standby, "like bowling or going to the movies."
Besides appealing to art newbies, such events can bring working artists out of their solitary confinement. "I think people who normally might be inhibited or shy about coming to a class and painting in front of other people might decide, Oh, what the heck! If they're serving a beverage, how serious can it be? It'll be fun," suggests Montstream. "It takes on this whole other attitude."
Montstream, who first picked up a paintbrush in her twenties and is now one of the area's most acclaimed watercolorists, remembers feeling those inhibitions about art class. They nearly kept her from pursuing her passion.
"When I [went to] my first art class in 1987, I didn't want to get out of the car," she admits with a laugh. "I was terrified. I remember my fiancé at the time saying, 'Get out of the car!' and 'You have to do this!' And I was thinking, I don't want to! What if I'm really bad at it?"
Montstream will teach another Art Under the Influence class in February — it's already sold out. She says she enjoys the events because they offer both students and instructors a chance to relax. She also gets a kick out of the attendees.
"People come for different reasons," Montstream says. "Girlfriends will come together, like, This'll be really fun! And they'll just be excited to have a couple of cocktails and paint. Other people come and really want to learn about painting. And if they get to have a beer while they're doing it, that's a bonus."