Thanks to synthetic paint, modern-day artists may employ every hue imaginable in their work. Yet creating color proves a far more intimate process for Stephen Arboite, a Miami painter who uses coffee to compose ethereal, fragmented portraits.
Splashed with washes of sepia and delicate layers of collaged tissue paper, his depictions of androgynous figures appear to be made with traditional art supplies instead of everyday materials. Steeped in history, these subjects and their matter relate to the personal narrative of their innovative maker, a New Yorker born to Haitian parents. “My work is inspired by many cultural and social references dealing with my upbringing here in the United States as well as my cultural roots,” he says.
Arboite stumbled onto his primary medium more than a decade ago, during his sophomore year at the State University of New York at Purchase. Realizing he didn’t have enough paint supplies to complete a class assignment, he cleverly fashioned a portrait by dipping his brushes into coffee culled from discarded cups. “At first, I thought of using these found materials to make a piece about overconsumption,” he recalls of the experiment. “But I fell in love with the staining process itself.”
Working with the brewed beverage soon evolved into a creative exploration of Arboite’s Haitian background. He became fascinated by coffee’s historic connections to his ancestral island, once the producer of half the world’s supply during the late 1700s. The country’s traditional coffee-making process is itself a complex art form that involves roasting the beans over charcoal and hand- grinding them with caramelized sugar.
When preparing coffee for his art, Arboite, who relocated to Miami in 2010, uses an array of beans and manipulates the hue and viscosity, from thick espresso to the golden softness of cold brews. The results offer a varied palette for his subjects: abstract silhouettes that exude Haitian characteristics, such as dancing folk carnival figures. “I love referencing themes and subjects of Kanaval, symbolism, human form, overall creative expression and spirit,” Arboite says. “I consider the process the driving factor in the work, and the finished painting is just a by-product that feeds into a larger narrative.”
Arboite often begins a piece by placing it on his work space floor in The Fountainhead Studios, letting gravity compose the initial layers as he pours and splashes coffee onto six to eight sheets of paper at a time. The composition then becomes “a process of addition and subtraction,” he says, letting sections dry or dabbing excess liquid away.
Next, Arboite punctuates the sepia silhouettes with ink and iridescent acrylics diluted with coffee. He then adds line and defined form with streaks of charcoal—another nod to a product of Haiti. Scattered organic pigments provide bursts of color, as does tissue paper dyed with paint- and-coffee mixtures—the result of an additional eureka moment. “I found the tissue medium melded so well to the work,” the artist says. “Sometimes it’s difficult to tell what’s hand-drawn and what’s collage.”
Reusing materials that would usually be disposed of is a point of pride for Arboite. “Being resourceful speaks to the spirit of the Haitian community,” he says. “Whenever times got tough, they had to be creative.” The proximity of Miami to Haiti has allowed the artist to make more frequent visits to the island, exploring coffee farms and studying traditional cultivation. Innovative inspiration from Haiti is also close
at hand in his studio, which holds treasured mementos from his trips: seashells, coffee beans, a jar of earth, shards of charcoal.
Arboite, who showed his work during the recent Miami Art Week, is represented by N’Namdi Contemporary and will have a solo exhibition in the gallery’s Detroit location later this year. The painter’s newest creations include his first foray into applying coffee on canvas, exploring the liquid’s dynamic against a new surface. Although Arboite continues to introduce more mediums, coffee’s organic alchemy remains the core of his work. “I have a symbiotic relationship with the process,” the artist says. “I just let it speak to me.”