Paint Like Nobody’s Watching

Imagine trying to invite a group full of computer tech pros, coding geeks, budding entrepreneurs and startup nerds to lay down their phones, switch off their laptops or alpha-grade desktop machines – and make some art.

Mighty intimidating. Some would say near-impossible. Ya right. Good luck.

But after taking a few stabs at it, at a local coworking space, the fear factor has taken a back seat. I’m getting a feel for this tribe, these digital nomads, location-independent workhounds, desk-a-holics – who may seem to be lolling about in paradise, whereas they are, more likely separated by only half a degree from their truly-cubicled corporate colleagues.

Sure, instead of suits and cubicles, they muck about in shorts, and hunch over desks made of bamboo. But most are perpetually connected to one charged piece of metal or another, and resistant to being torn apart.

Love… good to the last byte.

But experience has also taught me about the tripartite of exceptions; people, food and a bottle of Bintang (Bali-grade beer, for the uninitiated.) Aka Happy Hour. Amplified by the prospect of a birthday bash. Reason enough to disconnect.

And so, in preparation for the journey to this startup-incubating hive in the distant outskirts of Ubud, for what’s been touted as a Creative Splash, I’m heavily armed – with brushes and tubes of paint. Down a gravely and unmarked road, I arrive at a gate behind which I see a dozen or so pairs of flipflops parked at the door. Beyond is a rambling, three-floor villa, with a pool, multiple bales (outdoor pavilions) and unobstructed views of jungle and rice fields.

A pack of twentysomethings are scattered around the building, most out of sight, deeply immersed in their projet-du-jour. On the top floor, a trio is seated around a circular table, brainstorming ideas. Fans are whirring, ACs in some closed-off rooms are buzzing, and a sign posted on the door of a locker indicates pick-up days for laundry. Welcome to coworking + coliving. A 21st-century phenomenon that’s sprouting around the world.

Some say this is the future of work. In Bali, it’s already present and accounted for.

I’m shown to an outdoor bale, overlooking the pool and rice fields. The paper, paints and brushes are prepped, the cups filled with water, the banana leaves configured into palettes. Then they come. In dribbles. But they arrive nonetheless, ready to code talk text make art.

I notice that each carries a phone. Of course. It’s an extension of their arms. I boldly invite them to leave their devices at the front sink. One guy balks. I ask him if he’s working on an urgent project, or if he’s on call (yes, it’s a thing in startup-land). Meekly, he nods. Got it, you can keep yours.. but can you please turn down the volume?

They get up. They stretch. They laugh. There is banter. Cheekiness. Maybe a bit of nervous anticipation. But there is also an adorable pint-sized girl named Ami. She says her mother works in accounting. (Later, someone will point out Ami’s painting, assuming it was created by one of their colleagues. Hilarity ensues.)

With eyes closed, they’re transported to the beginning of time. The great void. Pre-Mac. Pre-internet. Pre-startup. Can they even imagine such a world?

Then they go their own ways, find their hideouts – and paint. In silence. With the sound of chirping birds, water rushing down the stream below, and the shuffling sounds of staff moving things around indoors.

Most dive right in, while others glance about, perhaps seeking inspiration – or solidarity in the not knowing. Eventually, they are all hunched over, deeply engaged and immersed. Resistant to being torn away.

The wrap-up discussion brings to light the absence of artistic expression, the fears, the unearthed memories of what it feels like to paint. Some are surprised at their own creations, use of color, the process, the results. A fine yet unspoken thread of catharsis runs through the conversation.

Then it’s time for food and beer. And a foot-high, white frosted cake with a cute little sign that  reads Happy Birthday March – this month’s group celebration. When the first slice is cut and handed out, I glance at the cake’s innards and find myself gawking, imagining that some jokester injected his color into the cake: Top to bottom, it’s the brightest, sparkliest, Smurf-bluest cake I’ve ever seen. Yes, on the inside. (I pass.)

Hours later, after the driver meanders up the busy roads of Gianyar towards Ubud, I’m back home, scanning photos from the event. Against a backdrop of a slowly setting sun, I spot humans bitten by the art-bug; surrounded by bits (and bytes) of outstretched joy and abiding calm.

So… go ahead, paint like nobody’s watching.

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