Experimentation is part and parcel of being an artist. By expanding the boundaries of what we call art—or the methods by which we make art—we expand our collective understanding of what it means to be human. Artists have long evoked the human condition by incorporating food into their work, such as Los Angeles denizen Matthew Brandt, who incorporates everything from chocolate icing to sprinkles, and peanut butter to mouthwash into his silkscreens of mountainscapes, or Malaysian artist Red Hong Yi , who replicates images from pop culture or art history using everyday materials, like seeds and coffee stains.
Painters Alyssa-Ninja Weis and Amelia Harnas fit well in this tradition. Using “paint” made from tea and wine, respectively, these women perform a kind of artistic alchemy to celebrate nature, sustainability, and self-expression.
Translating Tea from the Cup to the Canvas
Weis grew up in Austria, nextdoor to Donau-Auen National Park. She often went hiking with her sister and her parents, which usually turned into a kind of “treasure hunt” where they collected the bounty of the earth for crafts: bark, pinecones, leaves, flowers, and abandoned snail shells all became incorporated into her canvases. “Growing up with nature surrounding me was definitely formative and laid the future foundation for N.nja Creatives,” her repurposed art.
Despite a lifelong interest in nature and crafts, Weis says she didn’t begin painting with tea and flowers until the start of 2018, a time when she’d lost her connection to creativity and was struggling to find balance with her work. She gave herself a 30-day challenge where she had to paint a different motif using watercolors every day, but she quickly became bored because “the colors were too predictable. My initial thought was, With what could I replace everything that is related to painting? This resulted in a big mind map with lots of alternatives.”
Weis’s paintings toggle between brooding and whimsical, between a kind of pseudo–folk art—such as a rooster in profile quietly considering the morning sky—to haunting abstract portraits. There is something about the muted hues of the tea and its warm transparency that offers a unique portrayal of the world.
Weis, who is a great quaffer of tea, began developing her newfound “paint” by grinding the leaves into a kind of acrylic paste, but that wasn’t quite right, so she started making her own version of watercolors, concentrating the tea liquid more and more depending on the depth and intensity she wanted for the palette. Just a few months ago, she began drying blossoms—“My partner surprises me with flower bouquets regularly!”—and following the same concentration method she’d developed with her tea “paint.”
She says she delights in the elements of surprise the tea and flower paintings bring her. Because every plant, leaf, and blossom is different, and the original color of the petals often doesn’t match the resulting paint, she can’t control or even predict the outcome or its ultimate evolution.
“This makes things even more exciting for me,” Weis says. “Repurposing leaves people surprised. The paintings can also change over time—sometimes the color gets darker; sometimes it changes from blue to gray. It really depends on the source.”
Weis doesn’t like wasting things either, especially food, so she celebrates working sustainably, with “what’s already there—nature—instead of spending lots of money on manufactured things.”
When asked what’s next on her creative horizon, she discusses the nature of boundaries. “In my opinion, making art is about devoting yourself to a form of creativity of your choosing and forgetting about everything that surrounds you. I don’t want this to be too organized.”
An Oenophile Finds Her Vision
Harnas grew up steeped in art: reared by two artist parents, donning clothes her mother sewed, watching Kurosawa’s “Dreams” on loop, and jumping on the couch to shred-rocker Frank Zappa.
And while she says that it was “pretty easy to get into art” because her childhood was forged in the fires of creativity, she never experienced the backlash that is typically accompanied by being a “weird kid in a small town in the middle of nowhere. By some twist of fate (and I thank my lucky stars all the time), I was never bullied.”
That freedom to be herself has resulted in a similar vein of “sporadic what-ifs” that echoes Weis’s painting journey. Harnas uses wine—often coupled with techniques and mediums like embroidery or white goache or wood burning—but it began with questioning exactly what a painting could be, and what it could be made of.
What if silk painting is just a watercolor on fabric? What if embroidery is just a very slow way of drawing? What if a stain is simply unintentional dye? What if you could batik a portrait instead of a pattern?
This series of questions was scrawled on a steno pad in Harnas’s studio, surrounded by cups of coffee. Her first attempt at painting with wine was coupled with the melted ends of candlesticks. She heated them in an empty coffee can on the propane grill in her yard, then patiently alternated layers of painted wax and wine stain.
“After enough layers of wax,” she explains, “it becomes tricky to truly know what is happening underneath, so when I removed the wax from the very first one and saw that combining them together actually worked to create a painting, it felt like plain old magic.”
Harnas, like Weis, has a good amount of reverence for the medium in which she works. “I have the deepest respect for wine: it’s almost as old as blood, and the good stuff requires intense craftsmanship.” She says that the wonderful fragrance of wine has become so coupled with art-making in her mind that when she smells a glass sitting next to her, “it triggers my brain into thinking I must be working on something!”
Harnas has done many series of paintings, embroideries, and wood burnings, many of which focus on the human face and form. Each medium, when coupled with the wine stains, evokes a very different feeling. “The wood burning has this beautiful primal permanence to it that couples well with the vulnerability of the wine stains,” she muses. The embroidered pieces feel richly textured, soft and vulnerable; you want to reach out and touch the faces before you. Harnas says, “since the wine stains are inherently monochromatic, embroidery offers a unique way to add color, which I have really started to miss.”
While she is “returning to embroidery” this year, currently she is working on paintings of the human body, both male and female. She is drawn to the human form, like “a mathematician is drawn to an unsolvable equation: it’s complex, so chameleonic, so full of secrets. To draw anything, you have to study it, question it, analyze it, and trick yourself into seeing it on hidden levels.” She wants to uncover and capture the fleeting story behind a smirk, the discomfort in one’s own skin. “A face can change in an instant.”
In 2019, Harnas has a host of projects on her radar, but she doesn’t intend to do wine stains forever. A year from now, she anticipates heading in another direction, but she’s not sure where or how. “My brain ceaselessly offers me wild ideas and new combinations to test, so I want to stay open. After all, that’s how the wine stains came to me.”
A blank canvas is pure, unadulterated potential and these artists using food to capture the world around them reminds us of the immense possibility that exists in unexpected places. Their work feels like an ever-evolving kaleidoscope—give your vision one small twist of the wrist, and your garden, kitchen cupboard, or trashcan can become a source of beauty, inspiration, or social commentary.