By Maria S. Judge
Coffee. It’s not just for drinking anymore.
Somerville artist and graphic designer Julia Tenney discovered another use for her favorite drink one day last year at the True Grounds Coffee Shop in Ball Square. After spilling coffee on her watercolor paper she picked up her cup to see it had left a ring behind.
“Once I realized what I could do, I put a coffee ring in the middle of the paper and decided to use that as the basis for the image,” she explained. That ring forms the basis of her Coffee Mandala series of paintings recently exhibited at True Grounds.
Mandala [muhn-dl-uh] is a Sanskrit word that means “circle.” Hindu and Buddhist sacred art is often created in this circular form and mandalas are commonly used as an aid to meditation. Tenney had recently considered taking a mandala-making class through the Somerville Arts Council, so when she saw the circle formed by the coffee cup, she was inspired not only by the art form, but also by a new medium: espresso coffee.
Creating coffee art was a relaxing experience for Tenney and she understood how people consider this a meditative process. She felt a real sense of flow as she worked on the paintings.
The coffee part of art was done at True Grounds over a period of several months. She used high grade markers for the rest of the work and because she could carry them with her the creative process continued in other places. People who knew her coffee preferences wondered if she painted using the lattes she drank, though she assured them she used black coffee. Some people encouraged her to use tea, but she found coffee oilier and therefore better for staining.
She also found that the size and shape of the coffee mug gave her a variety of circles, some larger, some smaller, some not exactly circular. And the coffee dried in interesting patterns, changing shape from the first wet drops to the later dried image.
One of the baristas at True Grounds noticed her working on the project and suggested she submit it for a showing. It took a year before she got on the schedule, but once the art was hung, her exhibit received positive feedback and she sold several of the pictures. Many people didn’t realize they were made out of coffee, or True Gounds coffee at that, until they read the labels.
An art history major at Vassar, Tenney worked as a newspaper publisher in upperstate New York before she moved to the Boston area. She now lives near Davis Square and divides her time between graphic design and her own art work.
She admits a great love for coffee: when she headed to Australia for a month-long vacation, she feared she would find only tea-drinkers down under and worried how she would manage for so long without her favorite caffeine delivery system.
“I even took a picture of Ball Square along with me so I could have it to reassure me,” she said with a laugh.
To her great relief, she found Australians and New Zealanders to be such coffee connoisseurs that even tiny roadside snack stands had espresso machines. She returned with a new appreciation for really good coffee.
Tenney looks forward to another showing of her Coffee Mandala pictures and relishes the experience of creating them.