Local artist and teacher Celia Ma thought outside the box while stuck indoors, and the result is cause for celebration

Landscapes… because can you ever really tire of a gorgeous view? (Image via Paint the Town’s FB page)

Sure. The first virtual wine night or two were great. But how many “Zinfandel and Zoom” sessions can we stomach?

When COVID-19 hit, Celia Ma, San Mateo resident and owner of Paint the Town (a paint party entertainment service serving the SF Peninsula and the greater Bay Area), wanted to take care of her team of instructors while spreading joy to people sheltering in place. A shared activity and experience seemed just the thing to break up the repetition of unstructured video chats.

Can you tell Celia loves what she does? (Image via Celia Ma)

To this end, Ma started hosting art nights over Zoom. Prior to each event, participants acquire painting kit rentals (free for those who can pick them up in the Bay Area) — or forego supplies completely with the “Sketch and Sip” option. Ma and her team then host groups of friends, family and coworkers for a time of instruction. At the end of each session, participants turn their artwork toward the camera for a time of show and tell. It’s an empowering reminder that everyone is capable of creativity.

Let Ma’s video chat ventures, insight on art and personal story fuel your own creative journey during the quarantine — then channel your inner Monet… or Michelangelo or Matisse. We know you have it in you.

You might not be able to travel right now… but imagine you’re in Hawaii by painting palm tress. (Image via Celia Ma)

The Truth About Creativity

If that art history class in college taught us nothing else, it’s that one size does not fit all when it comes to art. Artistic expression won’t be boxed into a certain style or space.

Although we might be contained by our physical environment right now, Ma observes, we don’t have to let this season lock down our creativity: “It’s been really fun pushing myself to be innovative and think outside the box during this time.”

In fact, breaking down those mental barriers is half the battle when it comes to creativity. Ma understands this better than most when she reveals she only recently returned to the arts. “I think part of it was inertia and part of it was a fear of failure — ‘What if I’ve lost my skill or my inspiration?’” she recalls thinking. “I had even gone out and bought art supplies, and then they just sat in my closet for years collecting dust.”

But here’s the secret: starting is the hardest part. Ma mentions that people are often intimidated when they first see the example painting for her parties — but as she breaks down the creation process step by step, there’s a noticeable rise in confidence. “[That’s why] we demystify the process of making art,” she explains.

One of the pre-shelter-in-place classes (Image via Paint the Town’s FB page)

Party Time

To cultivate artistic confidence, Ma seeks to give each artist the space they need to express their own voice. She also tailors the subject matter of her painting projects to accommodate group interests and requests — from pets to portraits, from seascapes to succulents.

One of her recent sessions was for a company with an inside joke about a goat. Guess what creature ended up on their canvases? To give each employee the chance to showcase their individuality, Ma encouraged them to accessorize their animals. “When you throw out ideas for people and give them permission to deviate and do their own thing, it’s super cool to see what they come up with,” she explains. At the end of the session, she wasn’t disappointed. “I had everyone turn their paintings around and lo and behold some people had a sunhat, a top hat or different flower crowns.”

For another one of Paint the Town’s one-of-a-kind events, a wife planning her husband’s 40th birthday requested a Bob Ross themed experience. Participants entering the chat found one of Ma’s instructors in a curly wig. With the soothing voice and mannerisms of the beloved PBS host, he guided them in mastering a misty mountain landscape. “We definitely got to use the words ‘happy little trees’ multiple times,” Ma smiles.

Community and creativity… two things we can never get enough of! (Images via Paint the Town’s FB page)

Kids’ parties have become popular too. “My heart goes out to all the kids that have birthdays during this time,” Ma empathizes, recalling one girl she connected with from Boston. The girl’s father expressed his own creativity by surprising her with a cake. “The really cool thing was that he had mailed out cupcakes to each of the recipients so that when she blew out her cake and was eating a slice of it, they all took out their cupcakes and were eating at the same time.”

A few more in-person sessions. (Image via Paint the Town’s FB page)

Personal Inspiration

It isn’t the first instance Ma has seen creativity blossom out of hardship. “Sometimes you have to get knocked off your track a bit before you realize, ‘Oh, there’s actually a different path I can take — and this might be the better one for me and I didn’t know it,’” she says. It’s a lesson she learned a few years back when a car ran a red light, hitting her at 45 miles an hour.Despite days in the hospital and months of recovery,she considers herself fortunate. “It wasn’t lost on me how lucky I was that I not only escaped alive, but also relatively unscathed for that type of accident.”

It was through this harrowing wake-up call that Ma rediscovered her love of painting, a passion dormant since her high school years. “I was always known as the artist growing up… but at the crossroads of deciding what to major in at college, I kind of chickened out and decided to pursue a career that was more ‘practical,’” she confesses. “Ultimately, I think I was too scared to take the risk, to take that leap of faith.”

But realizing that life is short prompted Ma to post Craigslist ads for private art lessons. “I really needed to get back into art and find my passion and my creative outlet again,” Ma recognizes. “I also wanted to share that experience and path with other people.” This mindset eventually evolved into Paint the Town.

Ready to rediscover your own creative side during the shelter-in-place? Book yourself a Paint the Town session or find your own practice. We look forward to the result.

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Johanna Harlow

Journalist with a fondness for micro-cultures and all things quirky.

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