A Brush With Inspiration

I stood before the blank canvas with a paintbrush in my hand, a palette of colors to my side and my apron protecting my black and white shirt.

It was a strange and new sensation. I’ve never painted before. Maybe watercolors on paper when I was a kid, but never at an easel like this one.

How empowered I felt. Just me and my paintbrush. Where would I go from here?

I had a clue … the painting chosen this particular night at Moon River Studio, formerly known as Paint & Sip Wheeling, was a brilliant flower – shades of oranges and yellows with a deep purple center on a bright blue background. That was what my group of fellow painters and I would attempt to emulate.

Moon River Studio is the creation of Mary Ellen Bennett at her 1856 Federalist-style, historic mansion on Wheeling Island. Inside the Phillips-McLure House at 203 S. Front St. is a room set up with more than a dozen easels.

You go, you sip, you snack, and you paint.

More importantly, you have a great time and bring home your own masterpiece. You can bring whatever beverage you want to sip during the evening, and light refreshments are provided. Also provided at the paint and sip parties are your brushes, canvas, apron, mason jar for cleaning your brushes, corkscrews, wine glasses and, most important, inspiration.

Our instructor, Jess Wheaton, who is Bennett’s daughter and a graphic artist, told us to draw a few concentric circles on our canvas, and then some arcs. These would be our guides that we would eventually fill in with oranges and yellows and blues and magenta. Then we began to work on the flower center, starting with yellow and adding a dark purple. We added layers and textures and wide brush strokes and little dabs.

We admired each other’s work. One of us strayed from the blue background. That was fine; there is nothing that shade of blue in Celeste Diehl’s house. Diehl, and her daughter, Chana Baker, organized our painting adventure.

At each Moon River Studio painting party, an “inspiration piece” is selected.

The pre-selected “inspiration piece” can be seen on the Moon River Studio website, www.paintandsipwheeling.com.

“We try to have paintings anyone at any level will feel comfortable with,” Bennett said. “If you’ve never painted, it’s something you can do step by step and be happy with. If someone is more experienced, they can take off.”

She recalled a night when a group had brought shrimp to snack on during the break. The inspiration piece that particular night was a seascape. One creative painter incorporated the empty shrimp tails into his work.

“People are amazed at what they are capable of doing with the right instruction.”

Other Moon River Studio instructors are Debbie Wagner, Ruth Keim, Ginny Mancuso, Julie Boyd and Lynn Sweeney.

Bennett shared that Boyd picked up her childhood passion again because of coming to a Moon River painting party.

“She would run home to watch Bob Ross when she was 10 years old,” Bennett said, referring to the creator and host of “The Joy of Painting.”

Bennett has a background in art, she said. “I’ve painted all my life, since I was 12 years old, off and on. That’s what I think the beauty of this is … people who have painted and quit or people who have never painted can -without going out and buying lots of supplies – can try it. I’ve had people say ‘I’ve started painting again because of this.'”

Creativity oftentimes is something we lose as we become adults. “You grow up and become a responsible adult. You are busy cooking, cleaning, raising children … being what you should be. You don’t take time to nurture your creativity,” Bennett said.

Paint & Sip allows you to do just that, even if it’s just for one evening.

Bennett’s inspiration for her latest business venture came from her cousin, Karen Plunkett, who saw an event in Florida, and from another friend who attended a “Cocktails and Canvas” in Colorado, and told Bennett “it was the most fun she ever had.”

The idea is out there under a myriad of clever names: Corks and Canvas; Paint & Wine; the Drunken Easel; Canvas, Paint and Wine, Oh My!; Paint. Sip. Party; the Uncorked Artist; Sip ‘n Paint; Sip Swirl, Paint; Pinot’s Palette; Painting With a Twist; and more. Bennett’s business is her own, and not a franchise, as many others are.

The McLure-Phillips House under Bennett’s ownership has been home to little girl dress-up parties, a tea room, a special event venue and a holistic health center.

“I’ve never done anything so immediately accepted by the community. Everyone who comes says they are coming back, or they’re planning the next visit before they leave. All the events are a sell-out,” she said.

One attendee who went to a similar event in Savannah, Ga., told Bennett that Moon River Studio “knocked it out of the park.”

Some nights, painters get a bonus. When an event at Heritage Port happens to be presenting fireworks, the show is in plain site from the McLure-Phillips House front porch.

Bennett also takes her show on the road. She’s done some events at Black Sheep Winery in Adena, where the artists that night sip on the Black Sheep wines. And some companies have taken advantage of Paint & Sip as team-building exercises or parties for summer interns. A group came from Pittsburgh the other night, and there’s a regular bunch that comes from Cambridge, Bennett said.

Our group had a grand time, and gathered on the front porch at the end of our evening to have photos taken of our masterpieces. We were all a-flutter with our newfound talents. Some were satisfied; others wished they could keep on painting to get that flower center to look just so. But all agreed that it was one fun evening.

But before we gathered to celebrate, I swirled my brush in the Mason jar of colored water one last time. I set it down and stared at my painting, on which I had just scribbled my signature in the lower right-hand corner.

MY painting. I did this. I really did this, I thought to myself.

Wow. Pretty cool.