By Pooja Shah
One of my favorite parts of my morning ritual pre-pandemic was to go to the local coffee shop tucked safely behind my large law firm building. Even if I was running late because of the dubious subways, I knew there was a hot cup of Joe waiting for me and a sea of people chatting about their evening plans, dreaded meetings, kids’ music recitals, and other topics of small talk.
Post-pandemic coffee runs feel different. Yet, there’s something universal about coffee—so much so that it has even found its place into art.
When one thinks of art, often the underlying medium is acrylics, watercolors, or oil. Coffee, however, is rarely associated with creation of art and was an underused tool until recently.
I stumbled upon the works of lifelong Tennesseean Michael Aaron Williams funny enough because I was trying to learn how to make lattes (one of my many lockdown endeavors) and searched the hashtag “coffeeart.” Instead of an Instagram grid complete with intricate latte designs, I came upon a collection of Michael’s works featuring intricate portraits, landscapes, and birds series.
At first, I thought he was working with brown watercolor. I was quickly awestruck by how he was able to create complex portraits with an everyday item, demonstrating the versatility of an ingredient that goes largely unnoticed.
“I fell into coffee art because I like the taste of coffee. I started working with antique paper from the late 1800’s to early 1900’s by doing portrait studies on ledger paper from my great, great grandparents rural Appalachian store. I tried coffee and it was the perfect dull tone that paired well with the natural aging of the paper. Other pigments didn’t work as well. I also realized in art school how expensive paint is,” explains Williams.
Not only is coffee an inexpensive alternative to otherwise pricey mediums that are not affordable to all, it’s also relatively simple to prepare for use. All Williams does is use his espresso machine to brew a hot pot each day. He will water it down slowly to match the specific ledger paper he is using as a canvas for his paintings.
The fact that coffee is affordable and accessible is a key influence for WIlliams. His works have been sold to people worldwide, and he’s exhibited shows in Asia, Australia, Europe. The common theme in these shows is that coffee speaks to all, and also his successful sales illuminate the growing interest and community of coffee artists despite geographical differences.
“Since my time in art school, I have always longed to connect with people. I continue to do work that is appreciated by all in an accessible and affordable way,” he confirms. Williams even notes how he has found a small, but growing community of coffee artists in other parts of the world, further highlighting how coffee art is connecting people across borders.
Williams explains how there is a great deal of beauty in using coffee; it doesn’t penetrate paper and it’s possible to go back and lighten up the piece. What I found particularly interesting is the ways in which coffee is a social, cultural and physical experience that transcends all religions, genders, ethnicities, and races—and how people are catching on and exploring art-making with this medium regardless of where they live.
For example, Filipina coffee painter Sunshine Plata-Alimango has been painting with coffee for over twenty years. She started experimenting with the medium in 2000 where she worked as a preschool teacher with arts and coffee painting as her hobby. Her love for painting with coffee was inspired by a school field trip to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum where she saw a 19th century signature written in coffee among the artifacts.
“I thought, if that guy signed his name in coffee, made it last a hundred years, then I can paint with coffee and make it last a hundred years as well,” she thought. Her art, made up of spontaneous swirls and patterns, focuses on children, fairies, and farmers as its primary subjects.
Sunshine’s message behind her craft is especially empowering in a world that is currently highly divided and contentious. The use of coffee is environmentally friendly and conscious of peoples’ economic standing.
“I have been reaching out and sharing my craft doing workshops and introducing coffee painting as means of self-expression especially to the marginalized communities because having no access to the traditional art media should not hinder them in expressing themselves freely through the arts. Also to the disadvantaged people hindered by health issues, I try to reach out to them by introducing this non-toxic and eco-friendly medium in helping them recover and be closer towards their physical and mental wellness. They can release their frustrations and or deep-seated yearnings in expressing themselves in coffee painting as a form of art therapy like dancing or playing music.”
The use and consumption of coffee has evolved over time. Historically, coffee is one of the world’s most traded commodities. According to legend, the first coffee bush was discovered by an Ethiopian farmer, Kaldi. Consumer consumption spread over the centuries to different countries and regions, replacing wine and beer as the breakfast beverage of choice. Modern usage is not only as a barrage, but as a social exchange. So many of us offer to “meet for a coffee” when we are interacting with old friends, prospective suitors, or professional contacts.Coffee is an adaptable and multifaceted item in all communities and cultures.
So, how come more people don’t know about coffee art and what can we do to change it?
For starters, art professors and instructors are giving students the option to tap into their creativity in whatever way they suit, including using coffee that is likely found in their kitchen pantries.
Sarah Crowther, also known as the Arthy Teacher, is a high school art teacher for over twenty years. At the height of lockdown last March, she gave her students the task of creating an abstract artwork inspired by tree bark within the structure of a spiral with coffee.
“The benefit to teaching students to paint with coffee is that you can create different tones by mixing up different strengths of coffee and that all students could get access to coffee at home, so their learning didn't need to stop during lockdown,” she emphasizes.
There is an inherent advantage for students to learn and grow their talents by experimenting with different techniques, and ultimately picking one that best suits their interests.
“Students should experiment with a broad range of different media for many reasons. Firstly, if we don't introduce them to different media they might not know they exist. Also, different media can give very different results and students might find success with one medium over another. A student might excel at creating bold, gestural charcoal drawing whilst they find pencil drawing boring or difficult. We should give our students as many different experiences as we can. Working and making marks with a dip pen is very different to working with watercolour. As art teachers we are lucky that so many different media are available for our students to experiment with.”
College student Nevaeh Ryals, majoring in Fine Arts Painting at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, talks about her experience with coffee art and how her artwork is inspired by exploration and transformation of the African American diaspora.
“My entire artwork is surrounded around the beauty of African-Americans. As a child, I rarely saw portraits of African-Americans, but the majority of White/ Caucasian...I decided to create my own artwork to celebrate the history and culture of African-Americans and their heritage today. I believe that coffee art can connect anyone anywhere because every artist will come to a decision in taking a risk of stepping outside their comfort zone.”
There are many divisions and divides plaguing our society right now. Every day the news is inundated with violence, hate crimes, political tensions, and pandemic discussions among other contentious matters. Coffee art is in no way a solution to any of these issues—but maybe, temporarily it can offer solace that whatever our issues are, we experience them as a community and are capable of getting through them together.
Pooja Shah is a freelance writer and lawyer living in NYC.