Arte Bella owner Jen Christiansen is bringing together art and cannabis at her Arte Bella shop on Fourth Avenue.
The new Arte Bella, which recently opened at the site of the former Irene's Donuts at 340 N. Fourth Ave., offers art classes and a safe place for pot consumers to get together. Her "Buds and Brushes" class has become a cornerstone of the new location.
An Air Force veteran, Christiansen opened the original Arte Bella at Park Place mall in 2011, offering fun art classes with adult beverage options.
But as a cannabis activist and believer in the power of pot as medicine, she decided this year to take a chance on her new venture near the university.
"All these people can get shit-faced and do all this fun stuff but they look [down on] moms smoking pot?" Christiansen asked. "So I was like, fuck you, I'm gonna do this. I'm this normal housewife or whatever, and guess what? We're smoking weed. It's medicine. That's the message that I was trying to get out."
When the opportunity arose, she moved into the space behind what is now Fullylove's restaurant, which offers burgers, shakes and "deep-fried SmOreos" alongside vegan menu items. So while customers learn how to express themselves through color and cannabis, they also have a handy supply of five-star munchies at their fingertips.
This Thursday (tonight, May 27) at 5 p.m., Arte Bella will kick off a monthly social with Southern Arizona NORML, offering space for like-minded cannabis users to meet once a month to relax in a welcoming public space.
The event has been facilitated by SOAZNORML secretary Zsa Zsa Simone Brown, a fellow veteran trying to carve out a space in the marijuana landscape to help vets who have received a raw deal in their separation from military duty.
Both Christiansen and Brown, who served in the Army in the late 20th century, came to cannabis in the wake of military careers that left them reeling from prescription drugs.
"It was not a good experience—it's usually not for women—so I think that's why I love to work with other veterans and advocate for veterans," Brown said. "I think about the things that you have to endure as a veteran, whatever you endure within the military, then you come home and you got to fight them to get your benefits."
Christiansen, whose father was a Vietnam veteran who died at his own hand in 2014, was so drugged with pharmaceuticals she successfully sued the Veterans Administration for benefits.
"They were giving me pills on pills," she said. "They make you into a drug addict and then they make you fight them to get the benefits."
Brown, a Black woman who experienced both sexism and racism during her time in the Army, was on so many different drugs she was given methadone to "wean herself" from addiction. It was then that she found cannabis.
Now, Brown is working to spread the word and normalize pot as medicine.
"It's a deficiency in education," she said. "If people really took the time to learn about this plant and learn about all of the different ways that it could help us, I don't think they would be so narrow-minded."
In addition to her advocacy through NORML, Brown is a cannabis coach, helping inexperienced patients learn the ins and outs of pot as medicine, and she also operates a mini bus equipped as a mobile recreational cannabis facility that hosts events in a safe manner with a sober driver.
In the end, it's all about bringing legal weed out of the shadows and into the open, like the legal substance it is.
"As soon as it went recreational, I was like, this is it!" Christiansen said. "We're gonna do this and it's gonna be mainstream."