Coffee is grounds for art in javahouse

by Brian Clarey

You know the deal over at the Tate Street Coffee House: the sunlight leans through the front window, softening the baked goods, and there’s music’… blues, jazz, maybe some Grateful Dead that competes with the clang, drip and hiss from the coffee machines behind the counter and a caffeinated, hypercharged murmur that’s wired throughout the room.

The line at the register moves swiftly but never seems to grow shorter as people twirl their to-go mugs around their fingers or rustle through the paper.

The tables are full, or mostly so, with laptops, textbooks and novels, saucers and water bottles ‘— no ashtrays ‘— and truths laid bare in coffee-fueled conversations.

And the people’… some funky, some studious, some vaguely professorial.

Just now a crinoline hipster in horn rims stands and walks away from her 14-inch Macintosh to study closely a photograph on the wall. She gives a light sniff and a slight nod of approval before returning to her Mac.

The piece is called ‘“Taking Her Coffee in Style,’” a black and white photograph by Gerald Duffy framing a woman reclined on a beach chair with her bare feet on a rock as the shallow tide flows and crashes gently around her.

If there’s a coffee cup in there somewhere, I can’t see it.

But the art doesn’t have to be specifically about the java at this year’s Tate Street Community Coffee Art Show, the 13th annual display that makes contributors from local students and artists and other regulars at the district joe hole.

‘“One piece per person,’” says Matt Russ, who along with his wife Ann owns the coffee concern. ‘“We give them the theme of coffee and see what they do with it. It’s very personal.’”

Among the pieces created by working professionals ‘— Alan Foster’s ‘“Worms and Coffee’” depicting a neon sign advertising everything a stream fisherman needs to get his day going and ‘“Jolt’n Joe,’” a pen and ink of DiMaggio, in uniform, sipping from a No. 5 mug by Hiroshi (sold, by the way) ‘— are examples of outsider art that fit in well with the mosaic of work.

‘“I’m excited by the lawyer or doctor who’s making something for the first time in their lives,’” Russ says. ‘“A lot of the first-timers, their stuff isn’t for sale. A lot of the first timers want to take it home with them.’”

Among the items on display but not for sale is ‘“Seth Walker Band’” by Lauren Frazier, a scene of the coffee shop behind the front window. Another, an untitled piece with a papier mache coffee mug affixed to a spotted blue canvas by Christopher Burritt (who appears to be perhaps 12 years old), is priced as ‘“negotiable.’”

Russ’ own contribution to the exhibit is a sculpture titled ‘“An Honest Cup of Coffee,’” a bust of Abe Lincoln in a mug boxed and wrapped in the American flag. Don’t believe it when you read the artist card and it says ‘“Gerome Garcia.’”

‘“My inspiration,’” Russ says.

Squeezings of the coffee bean provided inspiration enough for most artists.

‘“Morning Fog,’” by Jaemi Loeb is basically a framed pillow with a hand holding a mug in quilted relief. A dialogue bubble says, ‘“aah.’”

‘“Ken Lays Shady Grown Beans,’” a title that is either a pun or lacks an apostrophe, is a framed certificate for 100 shares of Enron surrounded by roasted beans.

‘“Jack in a Cup’” is a line art piece by Richard Krol, showing a cat (Jack?) curled around a Tate Street Coffee mug.

There are some counterintuitive pieces as well.

‘“Coffee Couture’” is an outfit designed by Rebekah Raker. The shirt is dyed in Colombian coffee; the scarf stained with Tanzanian Peaberry and the jacket is colored with a Mexican roast and has coffee rings on the lapels and sleeves.

A series of faux movie posters by Ian McDowell and Jennifer Toff combine coffee culture with B-movies with titles like ‘“Blood Spattered Barista’” and ‘“Java Jezebels’” which has a slug saying: ‘“Cream and Sugah: no man could come between them.’”

My favorite, a take on Jane Fonda’s sexiest role, is for a sci-fi romp called ‘“Espressorella’” where the sexy and jolted space heroine fights off Emperor Decaf-Decaf and his minions the bean-niks, basically coffee beans dressed in black turtlenecks and berets.

The show, which runs through the month of April, clearly has Matt and Ann Russ jazzed, so much so that they’ve got the whole staff in on the act ‘— the team made art from an apron and now it’s hanging on the wall, emblazoned with, among other things, a ‘“no cream and sugar’” symbol and a Masonic pyramid with an eye at the apex and the word ‘“clarity.’”

‘“We try to get these kids to express themselves, you know?’” Matt says.

Today the whole staff is wearing orange and black.

‘“We just thought we’d make a fun day of it,’” he says. ‘“Orange and black. We were looking for a way to celebrate Thursday. I’m a sucker for an angle.’”

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