The night's assignment was "Afromation," a full-figured black woman, sporting an outsized afro, with affirmations written in her hair. Twenty black women sat at easels in a makeshift studio, ready to paint.
Music and laughter drifted through the space, which during the day toils as a north Minneapolis business incubator but on nights like these draws African-Americans eager to bond, build friendships and try their hand at some art.
"You're not going to find art like this in Uptown, let's be honest," Michelle Jones, a north-sider, said as she took in the scene recently. "This was all tailored to us: the food, the art, the music. It was great."
Paint-and-sip parties have become increasingly popular the past five years around the country and in the Twin Cities, although they're relatively new to north Minneapolis, where poverty, redlining and disinvestment have stifled business growth, leaving mostly bars and clubs catering to a lower-income and younger demographic.
But in the year they've been running out of the Northside Economic Opportunity Network on West Broadway Avenue, the paint-and-sip parties have become a popular nightlife destination for African-Americans. In the process, they're also helping build a new kind of north side culture.
"I didn't initially know how it would impact the community," said Kenneth Caldwell, the artist who began hosting his painting sessions there. "They've really embraced it, so many people have realized their hidden talent as artists."
Caldwell, who grew up in north Minneapolis, has led dozens of classes with step-by-step instructions in drawing mostly Afrocentric canvas paintings as students sip wine and eat.
"I know this community and this was needed," he said. "There's beauty in our neighborhood. The community was calling for this, so I said I'm here."
The Northside Economic Opportunity Network provided business counseling and a space. He charges $40 per person. "They love it," he said of his students. "I get great feedback."
In north Minneapolis, a community with limited entertainment options, Caldwell's offering was an instant hit. And with the metro's overall dearth of an upscale social scene, he also attracts black professionals from the suburbs.
In the past three months, the City of Lakes chapter of the Jack and Jill of America, the venerable organization of African-American mothers and their children, has organized just as many events with Caldwell.
"It's an opportunity to come together and do something more refine, if you don't want to go to bars or clubs," said Shalonda Glass, president of the organization and a human resources consultant, "It's also an opportunity to support a business in the African-American community."
Cultural specific activities, like Caldwell's parties, are increasingly important as the region grapples with losing professionals of color at a disproportionately higher rate than whites.
A University of Minnesota study found the region was No. 1 in retaining white professionals but No. 14 in the retention of minorities out of 25 major metropolitan areas.
A recent survey conducted by Make It. MSP., an initiative to bolster the region's workforce, identified the region's lack of diversity and cultural awareness fueling the disparity in retention rates.
Dissatisfaction with the region's cultural specific activities was one of the reasons for the flight of professionals of color.
"Work and life are not mutually exclusive," said Janine Sanders Jones, a University of St. Thomas professor who developed the survey and analyzed its results. "People could be really happy at their jobs, but what do they do after work? Part of the research was this difficulty connecting or having spaces where people of color can feel authentic, where we can let our hair down and be ourselves."
Sanders Jones, who is an African-American, said Caldwell's parties help to fill a void she's personally familiar with.
She relocated here from Philadelphia 16 years ago for graduate school and felt isolated. She struggled making connections and found very few entertainment offerings marketed to the African-American cultural sensibilities.
"Take something like a paint night. There are plenty of paint nights all around town, but they don't cater to professionals of color," she said.
It's not a knock against diversity or a desire to self-segregate but cultural differences are significant, she said.
"Oftentimes as a professional of color, you want to share time and space with people who have similar experiences as you," she said. "It provides a greater level of comfort; it's about being comfortable."
But more businesses must become aware of the distinct needs of different ethnic groups to stem the tide.
"If the region doesn't provide amenities and experiences that make, what we call the, 5-to-9 enjoyable, people are going be more likely to leave," she said.
Sanders Jones and some friends are planning to book a session with Caldwell soon. She'll have to hurry because Caldwell is booked at least a month out.
The Jack and Jill chapter with its 53 members is confirmed for April 1. North-sider Thomia Tolliver, who organized the ladies' night, quickly rebooked for a weekend in May.
"Everyone loved it; it was so refreshing," she said. "And it brought us together as African-American women and we had a great time bonding and being creative."
The evenings have become a destination as well.
Brittany Franklin and four friends were out celebrating her 31st birthday when they came to paint "Afromation."
"I've never done anything like this," said Franklin, a resident of New Hope. "We're really excited because there's nothing like this for us in the Twin Cities."
"Afromation" marked the third time in Caldwell's class for Alice Washington, a contract analyst from Inver Grove Heights. She'd brought her friend, Jennifer Stewart, a software project manager from Columbia Heights, to the ladies' night party.
"I'm a veteran," Washington said. "I've done about 18 of these classes in different suburbs, at restaurants, art studios. I've painted landscapes, flowers, sunsets, you name it."
But Caldwell's classes are her favorite because "it's a celebration of me, my culture, my people" she said.
Caldwell, a full-time art teacher at Sojourner Truth Academy, a Minneapolis charter school, is so busy he can only do private parties on the weekends.
He's also done team building groups for companies, like Target, and youth parties. He wants to bring on more art instructors to broaden offerings, including open classes, and additional locations.
He believes his successful niche is also a calling.
"People come and they sit down and say, 'I can't draw anything, I can't draw a stick.' But leaving one of my classes, they are completely amazed," he said. "It gives them a sense of accomplishment."
Franklin also discovered her hidden talent. She left with a special birthday gift, a stylish self-portrait with an afro she filled with words that define her, including "successful," "mom," "trustworthy," "confident."
"We'll definitely do this again," she said. "Next time, it'll be a bigger group. I'll invite more friends."
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