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September 4, 2007 > Wine adds creative edge to art classes in Birmingham

Wine adds creative edge to art classes in Birmingham

By Lisa Osburn, The Birmingham News

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP), Aug 30 _ Taking a sip of wine, Tiffany Taylor leans back and looks at her half-finished painting of a martini glass and then over at her friend Tekesha Jackson's canvas.

The two women from Hoover managed to get into a Wendy LoVoy art class on a recent Friday night before it sold out.

``I can't draw; she can't draw,'' Taylor said of her friend. ``But everybody's painting still looks nice.''

That's the ``Sips N Strokes'' phenomenon.

LoVoy, 32, started the alcohol-friendly classes about five years ago but the massive popularity hit last year when she moved to a bigger studio off U.S. 280 near Inverness.

Since then, word-of-mouth advertising has attracted a cult-like following. Art lessons fill up weeks in advance, which has prompted LoVoy to open another studio in Vestavia Hills in September.

``It has gone mad,'' LoVoy said. ``It is just wild. I love it. You never think that is going to go that well so quickly. But it has just been booming.''

Spending an evening drinking and creating art has quickly become the thing to do in Birmingham _ and not just at LoVoy's gallery. Artists are discovering that people are tired of the normal social options and want something different.

Examples of other venues: Fran Nagy started Clay and Cocktails a year ago at Imagine Clay Studio in Avondale; Kristi Love and Elise Cowgill, owners of Art Buzz in Pelham, started alcohol-friendly painting classes in January.

``I'm a new mommy so going out to bars is not what I do,'' said Courtney Simmons of Chelsea who participated in a recent Sips N Strokes class. A bucket filled with ice and three wine bottles sat at her feet.

``One for each of us,'' Simmons laughed while pointing to her two friends.

Standing on an elevated platform with a handsfree microphone hanging near her mouth, LoVoy has the essence of an aerobics instructor/motivational speaker as a room full of students await her next move _ or brush stroke in this case.

She and her assistants instruct about a 100 students each night, except Sunday, in a simple step-by-step way of painting. They keep the students' attention and keep them laughing.

After a few hours and a $25 to $40 investment, participants leave with a painting fit to hang on their walls, LoVoy said.

Susanne Pugh, of Chelsea, recently took her fourth Sips N Strokes class.

``I couldn't even draw a stick person,'' she said. ``My friends saw my paintings and couldn't believe it. This makes you look very talented.''

Denise Dexter, facilities design director for Children's Hospital, has participated in LoVoy's painting lessons on her own and as team building exercises for employees of the hospital.

``It is so relaxing and so enjoyable,'' she said. ``To create something that you didn't have the ability to create before. It is actually something you are proud to take to your home and hang.''

Dexter said many students opt not to bring alcoholic beverages and have just as much fun.

``People bring whatever makes them most comfortable,'' she said. ``That can be wine. That can be Mountain Dew.''

LoVoy started painting mostly murals at 19. Private art lessons for children and adults followed for several years, but she found that many people were unwilling to make a commitment of several classes.

About five years ago she noticed that some of her adult students enjoyed a glass of wine during their private lessons. The idea for Sips N Strokes soon evolved. People could take just one class, bring their own beverage and leave with a finished piece of work after one evening.

``We have been sweating and tearing it out for years,'' LoVoy said. ``Really, Sips N Strokes has been the money maker. You only make so much with private lessons. And now we can pay our rent in one night. I didn't have that luxury back then.''

She has had 150 requests for a franchise, which she is considering. And LoVoy hopes to open two more studios next year, she said.

Other Birmingham artists are hoping for some of the same success.

Art Buzz in Pelham attracts people wanting a more intimate setting with more one-on-one interaction, said Kristi Love, one of the owners. They average 18 to 20 people per class.

Love and her business partner Elise Cowgill, both decorative painters by trade, got the idea in October.

``We were driving back from a job, and we pulled over in a church parking lot because we were so excited,'' she said. ``It was one of those defining moments. We really wanted to do this. Most people are stuck behind a desk all day. We wanted to give people a chance to be creative and go out and have a few drinks without necessarily having to hit a bar.''

Fran Nagy found that people were reluctant to make a four-week commitment for a wheel class at Imagine Clay Studio. So Clay and Cocktails was established as a way to get people into the studio for one night with a fun atmosphere.

In a few days they could return to pick up a mask or dish or other clay concoction.

``I saw a need in the community and a desire that people really want to do something and have experience in a real art form,'' she said. ``There was not much available. I am from New Orleans and there is always something going on, a festival or something. In Birmingham, there is not much. People desire to have a social environment, but not necessarily in a bar.''

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