digital artists working together at a Panera Bread bakery-cafe

How Art Comes Alive at Panera Bread

At a time when the art world is being challenged by a tough economy, a group of artists rely on gatherings at Panera Bread to inspire their endeavors. Here’s a little encouragement to follow your dreams as well.

The only art Michael Frank Clark can manage at home, with a 2-year-old scrambling around, is the occasional finger painting. But once a month, the 37-year-old mural artist and plein air painter, who also creates T-shirt and poster designs, gathers with a group of like-minded painters, illustrators, and digital artists in St. Augustine, Florida.

Group members make room among cups of coffee to open their sketchbooks or iPads. They might show off a new charcoal pencil or a smartphone photo of a work in progress. For several hours, amid the cheerful bustle of their neighborhood Panera Bread bakery-cafe, these artists exchange news, make connections, and form friendships.

Bringing Art to the Table

They call themselves the Anonymous Society of Artists, a name taken from the French impressionists who startled the established art world in the late 1800s. Like those artists, says Michael, members of the society are eager to show their work in venues other than traditional galleries; one member had a recent exhibit at a wine market. And like their centuries-old counterparts who broke free of the studio to paint outdoors—en plein air—some of these contemporary artists part ways with traditional methods and use new digital technologies to create their work.

While at Panera, they gather around a big table and begin working on whatever individual project each has chosen to bring along. There’s chatting, laughing, and sharing information about art supplies, techniques, the ups and downs of the latest project.

Reclaiming Dreams

Michael, who cofounded the group in 2011 along with two artist friends, says the gatherings were a way to reenter a field he’d abandoned after college. Although he graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, he spent the next decade doing Web design. The birth of his daughter called him back to creating art.

“I thought if I wanted her to follow her dreams, I was going to have to follow mine too,” he says. Michael painted a whimsical safari-themed mural for his daughter’s room, and when he showed the image to their pediatrician, she requested a mural for her office.

“When I wanted to make art again, it wasn’t working out for me to be all by myself ‘on an island.’ I wanted to connect with other artists in town,” he recalls.

About 200 people are on the Anonymous Society of Artists’ mailing list, and anywhere from seven to 12 attend the monthly gatherings, which also include painting sessions outdoors in various St. Augustine locations.