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In Back Bay, patrons put down cell phones, pick up paintbrushes

Posted by  November 1, 2013 10:30 AM

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Brianna Hollis/Globe Correspondent

Patricia Mallios and Griffin Ess show off their paintings after an Oct. 13 'Paint Nite' fundraising event at the Back Bay Social Club.

Keyon Ricketts, an avid football fan, sits in the downstairs area of the Back Bay Social Club, a drink in one hand, a paintbrush in the other. The Patriots game is on, but his eyes aren’t fixated on the blue and white worn by Tom Brady, but the blue and white on the canvas in front of him.

He’s chosen an unconventional activity to celebrate his birthday: a Paint Nite event.

Paint Nite, founded by Boston entrepreneurs in 2012, is an organization that sends artists to various bars and bistros across the country to conduct step-by-step painting instruction to groups of about 35 to 50 guests.

As the paint flows, so do the drinks. Patrons enjoy appetizers and a full bar, creating what organizers say is a relaxed atmosphere where people can let their inhibitions slide and their creativity take over. Tickets range from $25 to $50, with food and drink charged separately.

“I’ve never drank and painted before,” Ricketts said at the event, earlier this month. “So I thought that idea was pretty cool. And it’s a cool social event where you’re doing something different than just drinking and talking -- and it’s some sort of outlet, too.”

Paint Nite is available in 42 cities across the U.S., as well as in Vancouver, British Columbia, and London. In Boston, it has found special traction in the metro Back Bay area, where events are held weekly.

Griffin Ess, a freelance illustrator who joined Paint Nite six months ago, works frequently in Back Bay. He says that people come to the Social Club for birthdays, work events and even bridal parties.

The Oct. 13 event, which Ricketts attended, served as a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Participants paid $25 to attend, with 40 percent of the ticket proceeds going to the network -- raising a total of $680. Many organizations use the events as fundraisers.

“Every time I come into Boston, I come here,” said Patricia Mallios, grassroots advocacy coordinator for the Cancer Action Network, who briefly spoke about the organization to the 35 guests before the painting began. “I wanted to reach as many people as possible, and I specifically chose Back Bay for the event because I figured people would want to come here because it’s a fun area, and they could go out after if they wanted.”

In Back Bay, Paint Nite is a good fit with the Social Club, which has been hosting the weekly events for the past year, said Ess and Paint Nite co-founder Sean McGrail. Paint Nite artists and Back Bay Social Club employees have a friendly relationship, making the event a joint effort, rather than just one organization accommodating another, Ess said.

“The staff and I really click,” he said. “They make me feel like I belong here. I don’t feel like an outsider coming in.”

Back Bay is a big draw for both Paint Nite staff and partners such as the American Cancer Society, those involved say. Sessions usually end between 8 and 9 p.m., and customers can head upstairs to the main floor of the Social Club or down the street to some of the city’s popular bars.

For patrons, many who come from Boston’s suburbs, the event offers something different from the typical city-life social venues.

“It’s cool to be in the middle of Boston and do something like this,” said event-goer Travis Neely, who sat among family members. He also said he liked the idea of “third-party entertainment.”

“I really like this idea when I’m out with friends and stuff,” he said. “It’s not just the two of you hanging out. If you’re not talking, there’s something to entertain you. And for once, my phone is in my pocket.”

That was one of the motives behind Paint Nite, says McGrail, who wrote the idea for the business on a napkin, in collaboration with co-founder Daniel Hermann, and converted it into a reality six months later. The two men got the inspiration for Paint Nite after attending a birthday party at another friend’s home, where paintbrushes and canvases were spread out around the room.

“It allows people to actually gather together in a group and be social, in person,” McGrail said. “It addresses those basic human needs of wanting to interact with someone . . . [rather than] texting a friend or looking at Facebook to see what your friends are up to.”

The event structure eases interaction among people because they’re all connected to a specific subject – the painting – making it easy to find common ground and ditch their need to communicate via cell phones, says Ess.

Other entrepreneurs also have seized on the social paint-and-sip theme. A local competitor, Paint Bar, has two locations, on Newbury Street and in Newton.

Paint Nite’s biggest national competitor is Painting with a Twist, which has 99 different franchise locations in the U.S. Unlike Paint Nite, the Louisiana-based Painting with a Twist has its own storefront venues.

Back in Back Bay, Ricketts continued to casually follow the step-by-step instruction for painting the Boston skyline. As the session came to a close, Ess circled around, applauding guests’ progress and helping some with the final touches. Mallios sat at the front, smiling as she put her down her brush.

The guests’ signatures were the last mark. They joked about water color and cloud shape. The nearby bar was down a few bottles from when they started.

“This is such a cool event,” said Mallios. “Paint Nite’s been great to work with, and I would definitely say it was all a success.”

This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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