Sunday, September 14, 2008

Coffee, a Great Equalizer, Says This Artist

Photo by Reuters

Filipino visual artist Sunshine Plata doesn’t drink her coffee (she actually prefers tea). She paints with it.

Sunshine started using coffee as a medium in 2000, when she discovered a nineteenth-century signature rendered in coffee at the Ripley’s Museum in Shangri-La Mall in Mandaluyong City. That was her lightbulb moment.

Then a psychology student dabbling in watercolor and oil,  Sunshine was looking for a medium that was accessible, cheaper, and unique, saying she felt guilty that her parents would readily shell out money for her art materials.

That was the start of her love affair with coffee, and she hasn’t looked back since.

Universal medium
“Unlike other medium, coffee is eco-friendly and gives off a distinct aroma.  It’s also a lot cheaper than oils and watercolor,” says this former preschool teacher. In fact, one of her works, “Bagong Umaga [New Morning],” a painting inspired by coffee farmers, was produced with just a bottle of instant coffee costing P150.

While she’s been painting with coffee for eight years now, Sunshine admits that she’s still learning the ins and outs of the medium. She’s mastered producing dark hues on watercolor paper with just a few scoops of coffee and knows just how little to add to produce a light stain similar to aged paper. These coffee-rendered images should last longer than 75 years.

Thankfully, her craft isn’t brand loyal, and she can easily shift from imported to local coffee brands.

“I tried Maxwell when I ran out of Nescafe, and my dad scolded me because it was very expensive. I’ve also used Great Taste and even coffee grounds from Figaro. Using grounds can be tedious, however, because you have to heat water and filter the mixture. With instant coffee, just tap water will do,” she shares.
Sunshine was featured in a Ripley’s Believe It or Not special edition cartoon in March 2008 as the artist who creates lifelike pictures with coffee grounds.

Overcoming limitations
Sunshine’s images of fairies and fairy-tale characters come from her dreams and children’s books that she reads, only they’re rendered in browns and whites. While many are quick to say that the medium is limiting, Sunshine sees it as a challenge. “It should make you more creative and encourage you to explore the medium,” she says.

She does miss the colors and plans to work with mixed media soon so she could bring the colors back in her work. She recently bought some Chuck Taylors and plans to paint on them as well.

Part of her advocacy is to make people aware that there is more to art than just oils and watercolors and that anyone–rich or poor–can paint as long as he has some coffee in his kitchen. Her artist credo encapsulates her sentiments for the art of coffee painting: “I wish to make coffee a unique medium to be used by anyone, anywhere in the world, regardless of race, religious or political belief, rich or poor, in their creative expression in the field of arts.”

Which is to say, it hasn’t been smooth sailing for this artist. “Many galleries wouldn’t let me exhibit in the past because they say that coffee isn’t a legitimate medium, and I feel that creative expression shouldn’t be limited. What if you don’t have access to traditional art media–does it mean you can’t express yourself anymore?”

She’s recently found a supporter in Nestle Philippines, manufacturer of coffee brand Nescafe, which sponsored her first solo exhibit in January this year. Twenty-seven of her 33 displayed works were sold in one night. The Ripley’s Museum in New York was also interested in two of her works–“Fairy of Sorrows” and “Reina de la Luna”–which it bought for $2,500. One of the paintings was featured in the Martha Stewart show for the April Fools’ Day special, which had the audience guessing what medium was used.

After coffee, what’s next for Sunshine Plata? “I’m hoping to try out a different medium–anything organic and anything that stains.”

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