I’m sitting with a blank canvas in front of me and that moment of panic hits – what can I paint? How do I start? Will it be good enough? Then the magic happens. A simple click of my smartphone and a projection of a favourite image – an ancient mandala – appears on my canvas. My angst evaporates. This is painting by numbers (without the numbers); a grown-up form of colouring but way more creative than the familiar mindful colouring books. I pick up my paintbrush and start to daub with a broad smile on my face.
I’m at MasterPeace, a new venture which heralds the start of an art accessibility revolution, aiming to bring drop-in art sessions to high streets around the country. It’s the creative child of Zena El Farra, 27, a former banker who discovered the healing power of mindful painting after a period of burn-out. ‘It was the first thing I did that totally tuned me out of my busy head and made it effortless to focus on just being,’ she says. Her enthusiasm is infectious as she explains how new research from UCL has backed up her belief that art really can heal. ‘Even a small amount of creativity can help you cope with stress, anxiety, and even the management of depression,’ she says. The researchers found that the best results came from exploring creativity face to face with other people and on a routine basis. Interestingly, total novices gained the greatest benefits.
I know from my own experience that art can be a sanity-saver: regular art therapy workshops pulled me back from a breakdown many years ago. Yet finding the right environment can be tough. When the centre I loved closed I struggled to find anywhere that was as supportive and non-judgmental. I tried various classes but they all felt intimidating and out of my reach.
Zena is adamant that you don’t need any natural talent and her mission is to banish the ‘feeling of superiority that hangs around galleries.’ She yearns to make art part of everyday life for as many people as possible. ‘Art should be as accessible and affordable as yoga,’ she says. ‘I wanted a place that I could book into as effortlessly as I book a yoga or spin class.’ MasterPeace does just that with a flexible schedule and pay-as-you-go classes starting at £20 (if that’s beyond you there’s also a weekly ‘Karma Class’ where you can paint on a donation-only basis). You can paint solo, with a bunch of friends or colleagues, with your child, with your dog (they’re very dog-friendly which I love). You can do as I did and start with the comfort of the light-projection ‘hack’ (a little like trainer wheels on a bike) or go freestyle.
The studio itself is warm and friendly with a large central table – cleverly set up to be sociable yet preserve the privacy of your painting. You also get a delicious grazing plate so you don’t go hungry –art builds an appetite. I walked out with my mandala (neatly framed) and a feeling of deep calm satisfaction. I’ll definitely be back once we’re able to move around again.
A version of this first appeared in Natural Health magazine