While volunteering three times a week kept me fairly busy, I still managed to find myself with enough leisure time to rival a resident of Downton Abbey. Luckily for me, Chiang Mai is full of ways to help the idle expat while away the day.
Walking around Chiang Mai’s old town, I saw a sign for painting classes for only 200 baht (8 dollars) at Noina’s Art Studio. I’d spent a fair amount of time painting before my trip, (though usually just alone in my bedroom, with an appropriately angst-filled mix playing) but never found the time to take actual classes.
Given that eight dollars would barely buy a brush set in the United States, I easily rationalized room in my travel budget.
The space is a giant open two-story room down a quiet alley in the old city. The walls are covered in Noina’s and her students’ paintings, ranging from photo-like charcoal drawings to colorful abstract animals. Several people sat quietly at easels working on sketches.
After signing up, Noina asked if I’d ever painted before. I was torn between wanting to impress her and wanting to lower expectations by feigning total ignorance. What came out was a confused and vaguely defensive:
“I’ve painted before. Maybe.”
Unfazed, she set out a canvas, acrylic paints, and brushes. She then had me choose a photograph for inspiration from a box of hundreds of postcards and polaroids. I selected a picture of an empty hallway and handed it to her. She nodded and left me to my canvas.
After a few frozen moments of panic, I randomly picked shades of yellow for the floor and ceiling. Then I added a mix of blues to create the walls of the hallway. I became intensely nervous that for the first time someone else would actually see what I was painting.
As I finished each section, Noina would stop by to give me feedback and offer suggestions. Sometimes she would take the brush and show me what kind of strokes she thought would fit. But to me, even her simplest movements were swift and effortless compared to my labored imitations. She was always careful to offer feedback without telling me exactly what to do — and all I wanted was her to tell me exactly what to do.
Hours and a fair amount of frustration later, I had a painting of what some might call a hallway. We stood considering it for a few minutes in silence. Finally, I spoke.
“I’m going to come back and do it again.”
“Ok,” she replied.
“It’s, um, not super great.” I added.
“Ashley. Relax. This is just supposed to be fun.”
Well, it will be fun. As soon as I do it right.
But I did think about what she said. Perhaps, I could be prone to be somewhat of a totally neurotic, judgmental perfectionist. Perhaps, I could work on toning that down a little next time.
When I went back the following week, I took a deep breath and pretended I was alone in my room. I pretended I was doing something no one else would see. And slowly I started to enjoy myself. I was smiling. Half-way through she stopped to check on my progress. After a moment she said “Ah, now you are finally painting from inside.”
OH YEAH! WHO’S GOT TWO THUMBS AND IS PAINTING FROM INSIDE? THIS GUY. And then I spiked the brush.
While I hadn’t managed to internalize that painting classes are in fact not a competitive sport, she at least taught me how to take myself slightly less seriously… for a few hours anyways.