A group painting class at Serena Art Factory in the middle of Curaçao’s desert is one of those experiences where you don’t expect very much, but then it turns out great. The fact that someone brought a bottle of red wine helped too. We were on-island to check out the newly rebranded Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort Curaçao, operated by Benchmark Hotels who took over from Hyatt last year.
Before arriving in Curaçao almost a decade ago, Serena Janet Israel sailed for eight years from her native Germany to Barbados aboard a not quite fully constructed, 30-meter Norwegian gaff sailboat, with a year-and-a-half stop in Africa. Today, she runs her factory with five full-time employees, a handful of part-timers and a stable of local freelance painters who help keep the place running.
A mold-maker by trade, Serena creates ceramic “Chichi” dolls of various sizes, from just a couple inches to larger than life-size. Tourists and groups can make reservations at her little workshop and boutique store out in the middle of the desert, where they come to paint the little figurines. Serena’s breezy, laid-back studio is surrounded by large Chichi statues, lots of cacti and brilliantly colored bougainvillea and plumeria sprouting out from everywhere. It’s an altogether very charming environment.
The Chichi doll, typically portly in stature, is important in Curaçaoan culture.
“Chichi represents the oldest sister who is protective and fun loving, because the mother works so it’s the oldest sister who typically maintains the household,” Serena said. “She hears more stories than her mother, so she kind of knows everything about everything. And just because she’s round doesn’t mean she isn’t healthy.”
We first toured behind the scenes and met the various artists creating the Chichi dolls in different stages. Then our group of six gathered around a table in the backyard under a shady tree next to the studio to begin painting our own Chichis. People came up with all different color schemes, but you’ll find that after only a few minutes there’s a common, shared purpose that inspires easy conversation.
Make sure you pronounce “Chichi” with the first sound like cheese versus sheet, because the latter has a much different meaning that’s not really appropriate for polite company.
For planners, this is a great event for people who haven’t met each other before. As we painted, Serena told us stories about her personal and professional lives and answered our questions about Curaçao, while her assistant Elly provided painting consultation.
“I have a lot of understanding about the Caribbean because of the year and a half I spent in Africa,” Serena said. Because she is an employer, she’s somewhat of a role model in these parts, and people come from all over seeking her business advice.
She added, “I fell in love with Curaçao because people told me about the bus drivers with short dresses, red heels and red nail polish. I mean, what’s not to love? You know, Curaçao people have such a wonderful mix of European, North American and African influences. I felt accepted here the first day.”
Once a year, Serena hosts a workshop for all of her employees and freelance painters. She organizes them into groups of like-minded painters who share the same style so they can help each other improve their individual techniques.
“The most interesting thing is how we inspire each other,” explained Serena. “It’s like the Chichi. She tries to hold everything together when everyone wants to do their own thing.”
Sound familiar? More than a few planners can relate to that.
For groups or individual attendees, prices average around $140 for 2-12 people, plus the Chichis starting at $24 per. If there are only a couple people, they can work in the studio with the other artists, which makes it kind of special.
Serena has also set up operations at the various resorts around the island and facilitated workshops for up to 70-pax groups.