Pittsburgh companies bring art into bars and other nontraditional spots

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Unless you're an artist or you've decided to repaint your living room, there's a good chance you haven't picked up a paintbrush in years.

A small and relatively new crop of companies in Pittsburgh is offering to change that, giving you the opportunity to paint -- in a bar, if that's your scene -- without having to commit to weeks or months of classes.

"Long-term classes are more about the skill of painting, and ArtBar is something more fun, more relaxing. It's not about becoming a master painter," said Alison Bresnahan, who started the pop-up painting studio last September.

At ArtBar, PaintMonkey or Colors & Bottles, a client typically pays between $30 and $40 for a two- to three-hour class, often held at a bar or restaurant. Participants are provided with canvas, paint, paintbrushes, instruction from a local artist and the promise of one's personal version of a masterpiece to take home.

At Colors & Bottles and PaintMonkey -- named after the expression, "Monkey See, Monkey Do"-- the instructor repaints a masterpiece, for example, a Van Gogh, a Klimt or a Warhol, and the class follows the instructor's every step as he or she replicates the painting.

ArtBar tends to be less stringent; sometimes a class will be about a movement, like Abstraction, or about a local artist's style. Participants are encouraged to do their own thing if they so choose.

"It's just fun to listen to a professional artist who shows you some books, and then you get to bring your painting home and show it to your family," said Nicole Battle, a manager at Benjamin's, a bar on the North Side. Benjamin's has hosted ArtBar, and Ms. Battle has also attended an ArtBar event. She was so enthusiastic that she is considering using ArtBar for a private event for her birthday.

Classes are often organized privately, but public classes are also offered. ArtBar and Colors & Bottles provide painting classes in bars, restaurants and other venues around Pittsburgh. Some of the venues ArtBar has collaborated with include Industry Public House in Lawrenceville, Club Cafe on the South Side and Marty's Market and Bar Marco, both in the Strip District.

"It's a unique activity, as opposed to just going out and drinking or eating," said Ms. Bresnahan, 28. "People just need to bring their bodies ... and a willingness to let loose on the canvas."

PaintMonkey, owned by husband-wife Joe Groom and Mary Lou Bradley, holds about 95 percent of its classes in Ice House Studios in Lawrenceville. It is home to a variety of creative enterprises, such as the Lawrenceville Corp. and photography, fashion and design studios, including those of Mac Miller's parents, the architect Mark McCormick and photographer Karen Meyer.

PaintMonkey events are BYOB for those 21 and older.

Ms. Bradley and Mr. Groom started PaintMonkey when they moved to Pittsburgh from New York City via Florida, after Mr. Groom's sister told them she had done a similar event with her co-workers at Deutsche Bank in Singapore. As a result, PaintMonkey catered to corporate companies from the beginning, and has organized what Ms. Bradley calls team-building events for large companies such as Heinz and American Eagle.

Ms. Bradley and Ms. Bresnahan emphasized the Pittsburgh identity of their companies. Both are Pittsburgh natives who left the city only to come back years later.

"I guess I just want to bring a service to the people around Pittsburgh, and maybe bring awareness of the artist community," Ms. Bresnahan said. "In addition to bringing attention to the overall arts culture in Pittsburgh and introducing local artists, it provides an opportunity for guests to try new restaurants."

Ms. Bradley, who is in her 50s and worked in the corporate world for 35 years before moving back to Pittsburgh, said that most of her clients are between ages 25 and 45, although they also organize birthday parties for children and the occasional garden club.

"We've had people as young as 5 and as old as 90," she said.

Ms. Bresnahan said her events attract people of nearly all ages -- 75 percent of whom are female.

"A lot of guys come in with their girlfriends or wives and they're skeptical. By the end of the night they don't want to leave," said Deborah Hromanik of Elizabeth Township, a retired art teacher who now teaches Colors & Bottles events in Pittsburgh.

Representatives of all three companies emphasize that they are trying to provide a relaxed and fun atmosphere.

Like PaintMonkey, Painting with a Twist does BYOB events in its Robinson studio. Now a national franchise, it got its start in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. In part because of the circumstances surrounding its birth, it emphasizes local charity events.

"Painting with a Twist is big on giving back to the local communities," said Nicole Orlando, owner of the Pittsburgh site, and explained, "Once a month, we pick a local organization, and donate 75 percent of our profits to them."

Although it is a national franchise, Painting with a Twist hires local artists.

As far as mixing bottle with brushes in these businesses, does drinking affect the quality of the painting?

"People get so occupied in their paintings, they don't even talk," Ms. Bresnahan said. "Although I had somebody put their paintbrush in their drink once."

Maggie Neil: mneil@post-gazette.com.

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Maggie Neil: mneil@post-gazette.com.


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