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The Artful Ambassadors


"Paint Night Group right away became an organism unto itself; it belonged to no one and everyone. It has been bohemian, artistic, unbridled laughter——the best of all who attend; nothing but positive; a positive light in a sometimes tiresome and negative world.”
——Matt Forderer

LATE LAST JUNE, 11 of Southern California’s less-fêted visual artists descended on one of Europe’s most celebrated capitals. Inspired by the ancient specter of Rembrandt, and separated from the living memory of erratic Van Gogh by a mere 117 years, Amsterdam played ideal setting for the informal diplomatic mission.

Jason Farai was one of those 11 ambassadors. A painter with almost a dozen years in San Diego, he’s been with the loose confederation of local artists that calls itself Paint Night Group (PNG) for more than a decade.

“We’re creating a future . . . for the art scene of San Diego and for art on the West Coast,” Farai says. “Paint Night has been a great coming together of artists and poets and musicians who want to get away from the rat race and interact with people who are looking and feeling and breathing and talking and creating on the same plane, in the same language.”

Nobody can say when the Amsterdam idea was born— only that it had been hatched on a whim, sometime in the preceding two years. In the midst of scribbling, clipping, painting and drum playing, somebody suggested Paint Night Group—which has hung roughly 20 shows in its dozen years—should exhibit work in a gallery overseas. Amsterdam was voiced almost immediately, and the group (liking the idea but lacking any real conviction it would bear fruit) agreed the Netherlands would make a fine inaugural international venue.

In early 2006, fate intervened, and things fell rapidly into place. Nathan Phelps, a PNG regular, followed his girlfriend (who was studying at university) to Amsterdam. Phelps talked to a gallery owner there who was enthusiastic about a PNG showing. Word spread among the artists who orbit PNG (anywhere from half a dozen to a dozen regulars and semiregulars meet at a different house every Wednesday night). And a plan was mapped out.

Within months, that 11-person PNG team was sitting in a flat in Amsterdam, drinking beers and beating on drums, framing art and smiling those goofy, this-has-to-be-a-dream smiles.

“It was the wildest thing, because you look around and see all these familiar faces, everybody laughing and carrying on, but you’re in Amsterdam, having a Paint Night,” says PNG cofounder Matt Forderer. “We couldn’t even say anything, we just smiled these huge smiles . . . it was like a dream. Even though everybody was hung over the next day, we managed to do a clean job of framing all the pieces, and the show was a smashing success.”

BRUCE COHEN is a no-nonsense builder, a man with a construction background and the pragmatic sensibilities that come with it. If it was a surprise his youngest boy fled the confines of the contiguous United States for the Peace Corps, the fact his middle son became a professional painter was devilishly ironic.

“I don’t think he really got it when I was studying art at UCLA,” Deron Cohen says. “But now that I’m supporting myself, I don’t think it makes any difference to him.”

The middle of the three Cohen boys returned from Los Angeles more than 12 years ago with an art degree. He found a job restoring vintage photographs in Oceanside, where he met Forderer, a Michigan native who’d studied at the Colorado Institute of Art before pushing on to the sunnier climes of San Diego. The two made quick friends, and both realized they weren’t putting enough time into their shared passion. Forderer had just moved into a house on Oregon Street in University Heights, and the two began meeting for a few hours on Wednesday nights to paint.

Those inchoate Paint Night sessions went on hiatus while Cohen pursued a job in San Francisco, but a year later he was back, and the two artists picked up where they’d left off. A third, Rudolph Ciarfella, joined the duo and eventually introduced them to architect Jim Darroch. Darroch—who makes creative furniture when not designing houses—rented space behind the 3060 Gallery on University Avenue (a space that eventually became a home away from home for the group). Darroch also brought in a local contractor named Jim Bourke from Ocean Beach; through a decade, the two have become perennial members.

Along the way, roughly 50 (following the laid-back PNG ethos, no hard statistics, dates or historical markers have been recorded) local artists have fallen into, fallen out of—and often back into—the group’s forum. The only strict mark of order is Wednesday night; somebody in the group volunteers to host the event each week. The focus has always been artwork, but it’s hard to get a group of artists together without libations.

Around drinks and artistic endeavor—attendees pull up seats wherever possible and begin drawing, painting, coloring and clipping—a festive atmosphere of good conversation ensues; most weeks a drum circle breaks out. Everybody in PNG works a day job (less than half a dozen group members are able to support themselves and their families strictly through art careers), and so the stories, laughs and beats normally wind down before midnight.

But the wrap-up hour, like most things with PNG, fluctuates. Consensus is a challenge with any group; add to the mix a liberal disposition and an ingrained aversion to top-down, hierarchical structure (a key idea behind PNG was, after all, to escape the banalities of convention), and arriving at final decisions regarding shows and collaborative work can be prickly. One of the group’s first major collaborations involved a series of bird pictures. Each 12-by-12-inch piece carried a standard print that was worked on by two or three artists—a system that worked with great success—and many of those works made it into the Amsterdam show (the series can be seen at paintnightgroup.com).

“Who’d have thought Basquiat and Warhol would have collaborated, but there it was—and I think some of the strongest pieces of either artist came of that union,” says PNG member Steve Gefrom. “If you look at our individual works, I don’t think people would come away with the idea we even know each other, much less that we can discuss art on the same level without bursting into an argument. But we’re all great friends, and we all love the process.”

Last year, PNG completed a 24-foot, oil-on-canvas painting called The Curious Path (a title that’s indicative of the group’s own accidental journey). The piece was first shown at an opening at the Lyceum Theatre; it currently resides in a downtown architectural studio. The headaches in working such a monstrous piece were manifold—there was the threat of overworking (dozens of different brushes on any given section would be overkill) and of creative differences among collaborators, but spaces were allotted, artists worked together, and the outcome lived up to expectations.

The group is hopeful the piece will fetch enough money to underwrite its next diplomatic mission (each artist paid his or her own way to Amsterdam). The plan is to send two dozen ambassadors to Puerto Rico—the native land of towering PNG-adoptee and resident conguero (congo phenom) Gabriel Troche—sometime in 2008.

“I really can’t use words in any language to describe it,” Troche says of the plan to take the PNG experience to his homeland. “This group has been a mind-blowing influence in my life. I feel its fire in the bottom of my heart.”

The work of PNG founders Matt Forderer and Deron Cohen is being exhibited at Limbo Fine Arts in Hillcrest (1432 University Avenue) during May. Information on future PNG shows can be found at paintnightgroup.com.

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