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There's nothing fishy about Ciel Gallery's Clambakes 

Finding one's inner artist

I have taken pottery, drawing, watercolor, oil and encaustic classes in my ongoing attempt to find some art form I'm good at. In each case, I was the shittiest person in the class.

Years ago, a pottery teacher told me (in a total grasping-at-straws moment) that my hands might be "too small" for pottery. (Word to Donald Trump: Pottery is not the right art form for you.) He eventually used my wheel and my mounds of clay for demonstration purposes and let me keep the pots he made. Humiliating? Sure. Luckily, I'm not proud.

But now that I've discovered the monthly mixed media "Clambakes" at Ciel Gallery, I don't need the teacher to start — or finish — my art.

Because with mixed media, it's not possible to mess up. This is wabi-sabi (the Japanese art of accepting the imperfect). When I think I've fucked up a canvas beyond repair, instructor Caroline Coolidge Brown, says, "Just glue something down on top of that." Or "Paint over it!"

A work by Ciel Gallery instructor and artist, Caroline Brown. (Photo by Caroline Brown)
  • A work by Ciel Gallery instructor and artist, Caroline Brown. (Photo by Caroline Brown)

It is the ultimate, liberating art form. A mishap can become something beautiful. You make a mistake? Paint over it! These gessoed canvases are indestructible.

Ciel Gallery provides all the materials (brushes, paints, stamps, ink pads, magazine pages, ephemera), wine and snacks. All you have to do is show up.

I asked Brown if this was truly an art form anyone can do. I was sort of hoping she'd say, "No way. You, my dear, have real talent."

Instead, she said, "It absolutely is! What I love about mixed media is that the techniques are really simple. It's all in how you put them together."

Brown calls these masterpieces we make each month "visual journals." Each class has a theme — maps, water, love, for instance — and the students, usually six to eight of us, create something with that theme in mind.

No journal? No problem. (I don't have one, either.) Brown provides everything you need. She brings all the supplies, but should you decide to take up visual journaling at home, you won't spend a fortune getting started. "You can use easy, cheap materials," she said. "We use craft paint, cheap brushes and magazine images."

Page Leggett’s “Happy.” (Photo by Page Leggett)
  • Page Leggett’s “Happy.” (Photo by Page Leggett)

Visual journaling, she said, "gives you the space to experiment, to respond to poetry or images and to write down the critical things in your head and then paint or glue over them. I find it really cathartic. And the pages that I start out with those negative thoughts, usually become really playful after I get rid of the nastiness in my head."

She has a page in her journal dedicated to the "Patron Saint of Getting My Shit Together." Another is themed "Embrace the Suck." At $33 per class, this is the cheapest therapy you'll find.

I cannot overemphasize how much I've sucked at every art form I've tried and how good (in my opinion) I am at this. Brown swears that if you can use scissors and scribble, you can be successful in her class.

Mistakes don't count. I think it's a great lesson that can be applied to life. My teacher agrees.

"I hope everyone gets this message," Brown said. "I tell students that we don't have mistakes; we have happy accidents. My style of painting tends toward messy layers anyway, so I consider all those layers to be the rich, composted soil of the painting."

Not everyone loves to make a mess and see a mess (even a controlled one) on a finished canvas. Brown said one retired accountant she taught couldn't get comfortable with paint bleeding from one page of her journal to the next: "I kept telling her that the pages were just talking to each other."

Visual journaling is a democratic art form. Brown has some students who are experienced painters showing in galleries alongside total beginners. Like me. "Both sets of students are using the same paint and bubble wrap to make patterns," she said.

While literally anyone can create a mixed media work, Brown actually has credentials. She graduated from Duke University with degrees in studio art and art history and worked in art museums (The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. and The Pensacola Museum of Art in Florida) "teaching people about other people's art," she said.

But 15 years ago, she had what she described as "an epiphany walking up the driveway and looking at my flowerbed of colorful zinnias."

"I wanted to paint them," she said. Her first canvases — and her first solo show — were all dedicated to flower paintings.

The tanking economy put a dent in people's fine art budgets and sent Brown into the classroom as a teacher. "Teaching has been a tremendous gift to me," she said. "Plus it gets me out of the studio; painting by yourself all the time gets a little lonely."

Her classes are anything but. She brings wine and snacks and has a great mix on her iPod. "I may get in trouble for saying this, but this is my answer to those paint-and-drink classes in which everyone paints the same exact painting. To me, that's just not creative."

Agreed.

Time flies at the clambakes. No one is paying attention to the clock or looking at their phones. There are no distractions. Brown said: "It's a loose structure of 'Here's your prompt, here's what I want you to try, but then see where it takes you.' Then I circle back and say: What's working? Where are you stuck?'"

"The blank white canvas can be a scary place," Brown said. "I think visual journaling is a gateway to creativity in any kind of art."

Not for me, it isn't. After spending a lifetime trying to find some art form I could do, I'm sticking with this.

You, too, are an artist! Caroline Brown's monthly "Clambakes" at South End's Ciel Gallery can turn anyone into an artist. About the name, she said, "With mixed media, you're throwing everything into a pot." And you never know what you're going to get when you dig in.

Another work by Leggett. (Photo by Page Leggett)
  • Another work by Leggett. (Photo by Page Leggett)

It's the same as being at a clambake (or making "Frogmore stew") and then laying it all out on newspaper. Some people get more shrimp; others get more potatoes and corn.

There's a different theme each month. Upcoming dates and themes:

• Sept. 15 – Cacaw: Put a bird on it!

• Oct. 13 – Body: Head, shoulders, knees and toes

• Nov. 10 – Feast: Edible still-lifes

• Dec. 15 – Hark: Tinsel and snowflakes

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