It is 10pm on a Saturday night, and the narrow Meli Melo Living Arts Cafe on Wellington Street is packed with people ready to jam. To art jam, that is; to party with paint. Twenty-plus easels are lined up an elbow's width apart, adorned with huge blank canvases waiting for nervous artists to start splattering the acrylics. It's almost impossible not to squirt paint Jackson Pollock-style over your neighbours' shoes thanks to the caked-up nozzles on the paint pumps. Inspiring chill-out lounge music from Europe, the Middle East and Asia fills the studio, and the five-metre high ceilings of the skinny 1929 building in Central allow ample room for the creative spirit to soar ... but first a glass of wine. The hardest part is getting started. Too hard, I decide, and wander off to talk to braver, got-it-together souls - most of them novice artists - who have taken the plunge and jumped head, hand and heart first into creating something from nothing.
Businesswoman and 'first time ever in my life' painter Yan Shao, 34, is feverishly scrubbing away at a huge, swirling cream and chocolate-coloured eye. She's one of a group of nine, mostly in banking and finance, who have been before. A friend with blue paint-splattered hands nonchalantly smokes while watching Shao work. 'I didn't know what I was doing so it's come out quite well, it's really quite nice,' Shao says, breathless with effort. Hours later Shao is plastering over her boyfriend's more tentative, scratchy efforts with bold diagonal slashes of vermilion and blue. He watches her with unfettered admiration.
In contrasting style, Shanghai-based Jane Chao Sin-ho stares at herself in the mirror above her canvas, searching for a clue, before she moves to execute the next meticulous stroke in her haunting, Fauvist-style self-portrait. The 26-year old studied fine arts at school but admits it has taken her some time to stop being intimidated by the huge canvas.
Then there is the slightly annoying architect who wanders around offering more suggestions than are strictly welcome; the solemn Frenchman who crosses his arms and stares and stares at his monochromatic, moody double moonscape; and the bouncy advertising guy who paints a blue background over and over again because his friends sabotage it each time he stocks up on paint. 'I just came here to paint a tree,' he wails.
A succession of visitors pops in from the street, giving the evening a party-in-the-kitchen feeling as the crowd gathers against a stainless-steel trough where the artists clean their brushes. In the past 20 months, more than 2,000 people have joined the party, creating a community of artists of varying training, talent, background and skill. There have been other 'art jams' held in other cities, but none quite like this. One of the key differences, in true Hong Kong style, is that this is a business: first-timers jam on Saturday nights, members (anyone can join the club for $250 a year; sessions cost $500, or $400 for members) during the week. Art jams elsewhere tend to be one-off, artists-only events, or aimed at children.
So what's the attraction? Meli Melo co-founder Betty Cheung Yue-wan, 37, explains: 'We have many people saying, 'My painting was terrible but my mother liked it.' They come back again because they liked doing it. The value is not in the painting, it's in the sense of release or freedom. For the first hour and a half they don't know each other, but at one point something breaks and one of them speaks to the person next to them and suddenly they sound like the best of friends. It's a wonderful, bizarre and mysterious phenomenon. And what's interesting is when they lose the fear of trying, all these honest things come out of them,' she says.
'Somehow people lose their sense of community when they come to Hong Kong, their life is as a person earning money. What's interesting is they realise they can feel good about other people's achievements and not just their own. They'll come over to another person and say, 'Wow! That's fantastic, how did you do that?' People who have never met come back and paint together next time as friends.
'We've seen so many people set up studios themselves, or start writing, because they've discovered a talent which was lying there latent all along.' Cheung unearthed her own buried talent for painting during a particularly miserable period after she failed her final oral architecture exam. It cast her into a depression that lasted months. She turned to art, but found herself creatively crippled while she tried to paint alone. An experiment in painting with friends in March 2000 helped her rediscover her creativity and spawned the Art Jam idea.
Cheung had previously run an art gallery as part of the first incarnation of the Meli Melo concept, the Meli Melo Artists' Alliance. She saw the way people were intimidated by the works, treating art as a commodity in a shop rather than something they could appreciate or learn from. The gallery closed in July 2001 and the same month Cheung and co-founder Wilson Chik Wai-chi started Meli Melo. For Cheung, turning art back into an experience for ordinary people has been one of the biggest rewards.
Art Jammer John Chan Lap-man, who runs a software company, describes his working life in a poem he's written about artjamming as 'clockwork meals eaten in haste; and faceless phone calls at the desk'. Painting is bliss by com-parison. He says it gives him 'that same feeling you get when you sink your teeth into a juicy wonton stuffed with plump shrimps. I knew then I had found that something'.
Through Art Jam the 34-year-old has rediscovered his high-school love of art - a career path his parents once forbade - and now he's a regular. 'This is a safe haven for me,' he says. 'In a silly kind of a way I think it's made me happier, it feels like I have been going to some sort of group therapy.'
It can certainly feel like family therapy, with mothers and daughters and fathers and sons joining the self-expressive fray. Young children are showing their parents how it's done, says Chik: while the parents are asking for a smaller canvas, their children have started without them. 'One father was 70-something and had never painted before and he did a painting with his daughter,' he says. 'She painted a buddha and he did the calligraphy, and he was talking about how he used to like to watch her paint when she was younger. All these sporadic stories bubbled out, it was like when you're in the kitchen with your mum and the conversation just evolves.'
It was experiences such as these that led Cheung and Chik to produce a new book, The Art Of Art Jamming, a docu-mentary about creativity in Hong Kong and a series of three- to five-minute films by Chik. The short films will be shown along with works by the Art Jammers at West Bridge, between the Landmark and Alexandra House, at exhibitions from March 7 to 14, April 25 to May 2, and June 20 to 27. Meli Melo is also hoping to hold small group sessions for special-needs children and their parents on its more intimate second floor. And there are plans to introduce personal-development workshops. 'We under-stand it's not for everybody, but we want to give them the choice,' explains Chik, a 31-year-old personal trainer and performer. 'Those people who do talk about it have surprised us by the depths of their experience and how it connects and impacts with other aspects of their lives.'
Cheung notes that images of the circle and the hand, ancient symbols of the self, appear most frequently in the work. 'We always talk about how cave paintings were about society and community, not how much money you can make,' Cheung says.
One of the keys to Art Jam's success is that it is fun. As one of the book's contributors, journalist Geet Frank, a perfectionist who gave up painting at 12 when 'sheer genius' didn't shine through, writes: 'Art for pleasure was a foreign concept. [But] somewhere between cigarettes, a drink, banter with my fellow Art Jammers and the sloppy mess on my canvas, I somehow managed to separate creativity from association with genius or talent. There was no weight of expectation, no compulsion to 'produce', no requirement to make a statement. Instead there was simply pleasure in the moment. It didn't matter that I was never going to be Van Gogh. I was having fun.'
IT IS TIME FOR ME TO tackle my canvas. 'Hey, just let it all out there,' Mr Tree comments as he walks past my sudden furious attempt to cover the canvas with something, anything. My painting has thick stripes of gold, silver, black and white with blobs of blood-red paint smeared on by hand: the results of a frustrating week. 'It looks like wallpaper,' he points out. I suggest he goes to look for that elusive tree. At about 1.30am, after most of the patrons have left and the staff are lingering wearily, he sketches a black stick-figure of a leafless tree with theatrical flourish. He has been obsessed with this image since boarding-school days, he says, but he doesn't have a clue why or what it means. Not that it seems to matter. 'I've done it, I've finally done it!,' he exclaims with pride.
'The essence of Meli Melo is feeling alive and feeling creative,' says marketing manager Lisa Kirkpatrick, our 28-year-old host for the evening, as she cleans paint palettes. It looks like a big and messy job for this hour. 'Oh this is nothing,' she laughs. 'Sometimes they don't finish 'til three or four.'
When I leave, I'm not sure if I'll reclaim my masterpiece. Slap-ping paint on such a big canvas was physically satisfying, but I felt I didn't have time to express the anger I'd wanted to get off my chest. And for someone who had studied art at school, the result just wasn't good enough. Days later I pop in to see the Meli Melo crowd again and begin the long trudge up the surreal stairway-to-heaven staircase that stretches diagonally from Wellington Street to the third floor to find Kirkpatrick has left the picture out for me on the stairwell. It's a revelation. Seen through fresh eyes, it doesn't look anything like I thought it did. It does look angry, but also strangely luminous. It gives me a sense of peace and - this is completely unexpected - a small pang of pride.
The Art Of Art Jamming is available from Meli Melo (tel: 2581-3600) for $250.
Body of work
'As soon as you put paint on the body the giggles kick in,' says visual artist Martine Beale. The 38-year-old former artists' model creates prints from her body, and is teaching other women to do the same. It's obviously not a form of self-expression for the body-conscious, including as it does everything from full-frontal nude prints to rolling and twisting on the canvas or using different body parts - such as breasts or forearms - as stamps.
'This is a different kind of portrait, it's actually how someone feels [in bed], it's about how your bodies meet in some places and some places they don't,' Beale explains. The intimate pieces produced in her workshops have all been given as gifts to her clients' partners.
Actress Kate Allert, 41, gave her fiery orange and red self-portrait as an engagement present to her husband Daniel. 'I wanted to do something like this for Daniel because he'd really appreciate it, as well as thinking of me getting my kit off and rolling around on the canvas,' she says, laughing. 'It really expresses the feeling I want to get across. It's a strong painting, I wanted it very sexy, very warrior like, and with the flickering flames Martine made with her wrist it looks like the image is striding through fire. 'I liked the idea of wanting to make unusual images but because of my complete inability to draw I've done nothing about it. I'd certainly like to do some boob prints. This is the sort of thing I could get addicted to, hurling myself at a canvas.' But friends warn Allert, who is 'still resisting' having children, she had better be careful of the power of the portrait: hanging above her bed and surrounded by statues and candles, it looks like a fertility symbol.
Peta Rogers has two body-prints in progress. 'It was quite a big thing doing it, I was really nervous because it seems a vulnerable position to be in, but I'm amazed at how relaxed it all is,' says the 38-year-old riding-school operator, who had also never created an art work before. 'We talked about what colours I saw as representing myself, and I realised I was telling Martine the colours that describe how I used to be, not really how I am now.' The Rogers of 10 years ago was all hot pinks and turquoise; the new her is the deep burgundy and green of a favourite sweater. But she blames the muted tones on the move to Hong Kong a decade ago, where everyone wears grey, black and blue, rather than the maturing influence of being a mother to a 10-year-old daughter.
'But then when I was alone with Martine, being me, having a cup of tea and being girlie and chatty, suddenly all this yellow and red came out,' she recalls, bewildered. 'It's made me think about the influence of colours and how wonderful our bodies are really, it's incredible the shapes you can make as well as the wonderful feeling of the paint. It made me feel very young again, I was back to playing in a sandpit, and that was great fun.'
Rogers' exhibitionist husband Rob, a circus performer ('When people see him wearing a dress on nine-foot stilts they know we're not a run-of-the-mill family') also wants to turn his body into a paint brush. Beale is a little more concerned about how aesthetically appealing mens' painted bits are going to look squashed on a canvas, as well as how she will manage the myriad delicate issues related to paintings of naked men in her apartment. But if she works out a way to do it, expect a rash of his 'n' hers body prints on a bedroom wall near you.
Martine Beale can be contacted on 2537-1737.