On a recent Thursday night, Cheryl Johnson scribbled with six other women to fill — and indulge — in the blanks.
The new acquaintances wore blue-and-white name tags, sipped on glasses of beer or water and munched on onion rings while sharing conversation whimsical enough for a first date, updates fit for a backyard barbecue and support often gleaned only from Mom.
But chatter wasn’t their main focus.
They were coloring. With crayons. And colored pencils. And coloring books. Just like kids — in fact, some of their supplies might have been stolen from their kids.
It was the weekly meeting of the Birdtown Coloring Club.
Diagonal from Johnson, 55, the club’s founder, sat Becky Flanders, 33, whose mother in Wisconsin was feeling “jealous” after her daughter e-mailed news of the club. Across from Flanders sat her college friend Alison Ulbrich, 31, whose first baby was due imminently. And then there was Donna Benson, 67, who recently started her own club to mingle with women at her senior apartment center.
Coloring no longer is just for kids struggling to sit still in church. Now it’s for grown-ups, too.
It has become an escape from work or spouses or regular social circles. Or a chance to “tell the same story you’ve already told 12 other times,” explained Flanders, whose creative yen is made visible by a spool of blue thread tattooed on her forearm.
The group had convened at 7 p.m. at the Lodge restaurant and bar in Robbinsdale. It was their third meeting. Top 40 music awakened the otherwise vacant half of the restaurant while they focused on their artwork.
Ulbrich dropped a crayon under the table, fidgeting to lean over her belly to retrieve it before someone else snagged it for her.
“When are you due?” asked Tery Haik, 59, glancing up from her markers.
“Fourth of July.”
“How soon can we get the baby coloring?” Johnson asked to a round of giggles.
Ulbrich pored over a velvety piece by Lisa Frank, the artist who designed the psychedelic dogs and unicorns on the stationery once flaunted by every girl in her grade school. Ulbrich now teaches third grade, recounting the humor of her students to the chuckles of the club.
The small square before Ulbrich reminded her of the hours spent bickering beside her sister, while they infused life into paper on a plastic table in their hometown of Rochester, N.Y.
“That sounds like siblings,” Flanders said.
The craft that drew the former strangers to a suburban restaurant has cropped up across the Twin Cities area as mounting demand hits local bookstores, invigorated by national media coverage and Amazon bestselling prints.
“This just gives you a little burst of joy for a couple hours a week,” said Johnson, whose mother died recently. The club’s meetings fill the hours that once were occupied by caregiving.
A hands-on experience
The coloring trend is a cousin of quilting bees or knitting circles for adults to relish in an active and social alternative to life’s demands. But there’s something simpler and more universal about coloring, absent of instruction manuals, structure or strategy. A judgment-free zone, there’s no “right” way to color.
“It’s almost like regression and service of the ego — to go back to when life wasn’t so complicated and so stressful, and it was fun to color,” said Craig Belfany, director of the Minnesota Art Therapy Association.
“It engages the brain and the body in a different way — it’s opening up different neural pathways for different people. They feel free to be more spontaneous and open in the process,” he said.
Like Johnson, seekers of creativity and calm have used social media as a virtual fridge and flier to display completed work, plan meetings or share book recommendations. They then meet in public places or homes over coloring utensils and refreshments.
A shot-in-the-dark pitch often prompts the clubs, such as Jenny Fenlason’s Ladies Coloring Club in New Hope. In January, Fenlason founded the club, which has spawned copycats as nearby as Robbinsdale and Willmar, Minn., or as far away as Texas.
“I think everybody likes a bit of nostalgia at times,” Fenlason said. “We’re always on social media — I’m always touching my phone, and rarely am I touching instruments of paper and pencil and crayon anymore.”
Lori Lofstrom, a friend of Fenlason’s, founded a spinoff called Ladies Coloring Club North that meets at the Panera Bread in Coon Rapids. Already a fan of scrapbooking and stamping, Lofstrom picked up coloring as a portable option to hang out with friends.
“I suppose we could go out to dinner, individually, but then you’re going out a lot,” she said. “Sometimes we need the option to just kind of stop to do something that is just for ourselves, to take that time away from all the decisions that you make in the day.”
Serious about having fun
Even the content of coloring books can shape an adult’s experience with the craft. One of Fenlason’s favorite series is designed by Theo Nicole Lorenz, a St. Paul-based coloring book artist.
One of Lorenz’s four series, “Unicorns Are Jerks,” features doodles of people texting in movie theaters or hogging French fries.
“There’s an innate sense of humor in it,” she said. “You can’t take yourself too seriously if you’re coloring.”
Hunched over pages of intricate patterns, youthful flowers or fantastical gargoyles, the coloring aficionados chatter while shading in outlines. They select hues. They report progress proudly.
“I like doing the background first, because then you don’t have to think.”
“We should put on an art show!”
“My husband is the social butterfly. … This is more my speed.”
Shortly before the Birdtown club’s two-hour meeting ended, Ulbrich accidentally knocked over her glass of water, and Flanders hopped up from her seat to retrieve napkins before it saturated anything important. Sighing, Ulbrich peered at her rounded bump.
“Blame it on the hormones, OK?” Haik said.
“Like everything — I blame it on the baby,” Ulbrich said with a wry grin.
“Did your water break, Alison?” Haik joked. “Hey, you’re in good company. You’re fine.”