The pounding beat of the Gipsy Kings' Bamboleo bounces off the white walls of the high-ceilinged art studio. Bottles of local Merlot and Chardonnay chill in a cooler next to a plate of chocolate truffles.
Retired hospital executive Carol Kierstead executes some expert salsa steps before picking up a paintbrush and asking aloud whether she has made the sand on her seascape too yellow.
Color it whatever you feel, advise other women hunched over canvases to create potential masterpieces during a late-night painting party that's part of the three-day "Intuitive Abstract Painting" session from Artista Creative Safaris for Women.
The package, which includes lodging, some meals and yoga (plus daily wine to get creativity flowing) in this artists' mecca south of San Francisco, blends two travel trends: learning vacations and gals-only getaways.
A TripAdvisor.com survey of 2,500 travelers found that 32% plan educational activities on vacation in 2008. That's up 7% from last year. Such trips have been taken by more women than men (55% vs. 43% ), the survey found.
Girls-only getaways aren't officially tallied, but they're proliferating "because women are better educated and paid (than in the past), and they have more discretionary income," says Marybeth Bond, women's travel expert and author of 50Best GirlfriendGetaways. Today, women are jetting off for more than bachelorette parties, spa retreats or shopping vacations. "It's about learning something, too," she says.
Honing skills while shedding back-home responsibilities is "incredibly empowering" for women, says Bev Sanders, founder of Artista vacations. She also started female surfing and golf camps.
Empowerment, self-expression and bonding are the ideas behind Artista's abstract painting "safari," which started 2½ years ago in a dropcloth-draped hotel conference room and now is offered almost monthly in its own studio. Here's how a recent session shaped up:
6 p.m. Monday
Artista enrollees walk past dogs and owners socializing in the bar of the pet-friendly Cypress Inn, co-owned by screen icon and Carmel resident Doris Day. Here to unleash the artist within, they assemble in a private dining room and introduce themselves over crispy fried artichoke and calamari dipped in a garlicky sauce.
Students range from Indiana University senior Yaffa Wagschal, a painting novice whose mother, Sara, organized the trip as a spring-break bonding experience, to Kierstead, 65, a veteran of non-abstract art classes. The energetic blonde, who lives in Orange County, Calif., has taken trips to paint in Europe under instructors' supervision.
The evening's host, 48-year-old Artista general manager Chris Sanders — gregarious husband of founder Bev — loosens up students with a Carmel trivia quiz. Can you name its most famous mayor? (Actor/director Clint Eastwood, elected in 1986.) Under his rule, Sanders says eating ice cream in public was legalized in the upscale, virtually litter-free shopping, golf and art-gallery destination.
Sanders introduces artist Lauryn Taylor, 46, the "safari guide." Over the next few days "we will see doors unlock," the instructor assures her charges.
9 a.m. Tuesday
Students straggle into the sunlit studio, pour fresh-brewed coffee into white mugs, don Artista-issued aprons and choose places at long tables in front of square glass palettes surrounded by a container of brushes, 20 squeeze bottles of acrylic paint and a bucket of water. Artista can enroll a dozen students: This March week, there are six.
"Anyone care for a mimosa?" asks Sanders, who resembles the boyish fashion-magazine magnate on TV's Ugly Betty. He brandishes a pitcher of orange juice and bottle of Champagne, but no one bites.
Unlike the rest of adult life, there are few rules in an Artista art safari.
On the blackboard, instructor Taylor — in paint-spattered apron and Ugg boots she and her young son decorated with splashes and squiggles — has scrawled: "1) Try all your tools 2) Make lots of paintings 3) Play! Have fun."
She explains the curriculum: Intuitive painting means portraying what you feel without over-thinking. "Don't feel you have to be perfect," she says. "Take risks." The class starts off experimenting with brushes, sponges and steel wool on small pieces of paper, working in black and white so as not to have to make decisions about color.
"You have permission to do what you want," Taylor says. "I want you all to go back to kindergarten."
Typically, students are ready for their lunch break. Here, most want to keep working, carefully setting creation after creation to dry on wire racks. Taylor brings around small black frames to show how parts of an otherwise unremarkable work can look fabulous when singled out. Even the clumsiest student has something eye-catching.
Kierstead is surprised when what she thought was a throwaway looks like a Michelangelo-sculpted male backside. Everyone laughs and encourages her to frame it.
Studio manager Jessica Wishard brings in favorite cheeses fetched from a local shop: brie, Stilton, aged Gouda. Then it's time to discover color — Aztec gold, red oxide, raw umber, phthalo blue.
"Evolve your own style," Taylor encourages. Easy to say. But faced with an empty canvas and told to paint anything, the mind numbs.
Pick a few colors and start, Taylor suggests. Again, unlike adult life, if you make a mistake with the water-soluble acrylics, you can just wipe out errors.
Work stops for a stroll to the Provence-style garden of Casanova restaurant, where the amiable owner pours wines his brother makes and a local oncologist reads his poetry to the safaristas.
Sanders explains how Bev's getaways evolved. They started with her idea for women to gain confidence by surfing. Her Las Olas surf camps in Mexico became popular — Oprah Winfrey even wanted to bring two dozen friends to one. They couldn't accommodate her, he says, because the group was too big and "the idea was to make new friends," not just hang with women you already know.
The concept clearly works: This class of very different women already is bonding. Five decide to try to track down Eastwood, whom Sanders says often can be spotted at the bar of The Mission Ranch, which the star owns.
Sanders drops the five at the Ranch, warning his enthusiastic passengers that the star's car isn't in its usual spot, so he's probably not here. Drat. The consolation prize is watching an impromptu American Idol session: sitting in the piano bar as regulars belt out — or butcher — pop and jazz oldies.
Carmel closes down early, and there's no cab to be found at 10 p.m. The five trudge to their hotel rooms on a dark road lined with multimillion-dollar homes.
10 a.m. Wednesday
Chris Sanders strolls into the studio. "Mimosas anyone?" Unlike yesterday, he has takers. Three of the six students take a glass.
Today's subject is landscapes, but not the faithful renditions by painters and photographers (such as Ansel Adams, who once owned the building where Artista sessions are held). Go for your own vision, Taylor says, slashing turquoise and cadmium yellow across a canvas to evoke a beach scene.
After disbanding for lunch, a massage or a walk on the beach, students are back working on their canvases. Some create their own landscapes from memory; others copy from books. Copying is easiest. But somehow, their own personalities emerge in a bold swirl, a careful color or a liking for sharp lines vs. passionate curves.
It's painting-party night. The students are left alone, with a printed reminder of the Sanders' cell number and a joking admonition not to let in "shady dudes."
Earlier, Bev Sanders makes her first appearance, saying that five years ago she stayed at the Cypress Inn and decided to move to Carmel. "I love artists and I just enjoyed it and I said to Chris, 'I want to live here.' It was just the energy here … There's so much beauty. The trees are magical. I can't explain it."
When she tried to offer coed art workshops, men didn't sign up. "But we get heartfelt letters from women about how (Artista safaris) changed their lives. One woman quit her job" in real estate and started selling her art, she says.
Taylor, who teaches private coed workshops, says she has had male students. And they've had breakthroughs. "I would buy this," one wealthy man announced proudly, showing off a finished piece.
Later, as the final-night painting party cranks up, some women refuse wine, believing it will compromise painting ability.
"Look at all the drunks who were artists," Kierstead counters.
Wine "helps you let go," says Alexa Stuart, 39, of Hillsborough, Calif., who is painting some of the most admired work in the class.
Yaffa Wagschal, tentative at first, now is in full bloom. "Wow," she tells the class, as she redoes a painting that had been a muddy mess.
"I made something beautiful."
11 a.m. Thursday
The goodbyes and hugs begin as students start to pack up creations to be shipped home. Some — including accomplished artist Joy Yu of Irvine, Calif. — leave with two dozen works. Hers look as good as pieces for sale in Carmel galleries.
Yaffa Wagschal is loath to stop. The sessions were "therapeutic, relaxing," she says. "I discovered I was more creative than I thought."
"We painted for nine hours yesterday," Stuart muses. "It's hard to imagine that I still want to keep painting — but I do."