Painting the town with Nicole Ciliberti

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In a packed art studio in Nakameguro, a woman turns to her neighbors and says, “I never thought I could do something like this!”

She’s talking about her painting: a twilight-illuminated city lining a bay beneath a bridge reminiscent of the views found in Odaiba. It’s her first time picking up a brush. As it turns out? She’s a natural.

Other students crowd around, admiring the painting as the artist grins widely. But it’s not just the newly discovered prodigies that get attention: Even my sad, physically unfeasible bridge gets a few compliments. The studio buzzes as people share their work and admire that of others, and in the middle of it all stands Nicole Ciliberti, a small smile on her face.

The key is to find something that will be engaging both to someone who’s an absolute beginner and someone who has more experience

“That’s really the best part,” she says. “We get people in the studio, some who have never painted before, and we get to see them get excited over their work and leave with something they’re really proud of.”

Ciliberti is the owner of Artbar Tokyo, a studio that offers acrylic painting sessions in a relaxed environment complete with wine and appetizers. An artist leads each session, demonstrating a painting’s creation step-by-step and offering help along the way. All materials are provided. Attendees range from people who have never touched paint to people who majored in studio art, and Ciliberti and her artists design art for each session with this in mind.

“The key is to find something that will be engaging both to someone who’s an absolute beginner and someone who has more experience,” Ciliberti says. To do that, she and her artist instructors create paintings that are open to interpretation so students can stick as much or as little to the example artwork as they’d like.

Ciliberti, an American, came to Japan and studied the language before getting an MBA at Globis, a one-year, English language program in Tokyo. During this time, she both worked as a freelancer and developed her business plan for Artbar.

Ciliberti says her time at Globis taught her to go out and make things happen – and gave her the connections she needed when she did. Sometimes, doing business as a foreigner can be difficult because of the entrenched culture of long-term relationships in Japan’s business world, but Ciliberti forged alliances while in school that she says work in the place of such relationships. A former professor of hers, for example, is now Artbar’s wine supplier.

Of course, while Ciliberti credits much of her success to Globis, it’s evident that her attitude and aptitude played a key role. Starting a business anywhere is hard, and doing so as a foreigner can exacerbate the challenge. But Ciliberti focuses on the good.

“You can use the fact that you’re a foreigner to your advantage; it doesn’t have to be a disadvantage,” she says. “Because I had an outside perspective, I was able to see that there was a gap in the market – that the Artbar-style business wasn’t in Japan yet.”

Ciliberti hopes to forge the way for approachable, no-stress painting sessions in Japan. The business model is hugely popular in the United States, and she believes it will be in Japan as well. She may be on to something: Her studio has been operating for just a few months, but already, she’s increasing her number of sessions and thinking toward future things Artbar could offer, like open studio time.

“My biggest piece of advice is just to take every chance,” she says. “There are roadblocks, but there are also a lot of opportunities here. You just have to keep looking for them.”

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My masterpiece!

For more information or to sign up for a session at Artbar Tokyo, visit artbarcreative.com to register for their next class.

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Journalist, photographer, travel addict.

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