"It was a very innocent experiment," artist Ruby Silvious recalls. "I had something like 30 followers." She's referring to 2015, when she decided to paint one picture a day on a teabag for the entire year. Two thirds of the way through the project, her images went viral on Instagram. The resulting book, 363 Days of Tea: A Visual Journal on Used Teabags (Mascot Books), was a hit. "Reclaimed Canvas," Silvious's show at the Woodstock Art Exchange, runs through December 2.
Pictures on teabags seem impossible, because one imagines the surfaces being wet. And Silvious's teabags do start out soggy. After each bag has yielded a cup of tea, she empties it, dries it, and irons it. Actually, unused teabags make poor canvases. "They're too porous," Silvious explains. She doesn't prep any of her surfaces with gesso or any other underlayer.
Silvious's miraculous minimalism flourishes in the digital world, where there's no sense of scale; a teabag is as large as a skyscraper on an iPhone screen. But in a gallery, one can closely admire her touch with a watercolor brush. (Yes, Silvious poetically chooses watercolors to decorate teabags, adding gouache only for white accents.)
Her subject matter ranges widely, from snowbound crocuses blooming in her hometown of Coxsackie to visual puns to her "Museum Goers" series, where silhouetted art lovers gaze at teabag-scale versions of art masterpieces. "I want to try everything!" Silvious exclaims.
Once a personal obsession becomes successful, it's known as a "gimmick." Before that, it's merely a lonely and rather shameful ritual. A series of interlocking obsessions creates these works: the desire to recycle everything in one's life, the urge to post pictures on Instagram, and the compulsion to drink lots of tea.
Besides teabags, Silvious chooses other unorthodox mediums: eggshells, fallen leaves, paper scraps. These studies are documented in her new book, Reclaimed Canvas: Reimagining the Familiar (Mascot Books). With pistachio shells, Silvious abandons her commitment to figurative art. The super-bright patterns she produces—with color markers—make the pistachio hulls look like tropical beetles.
One of Sylvious's intentions is to encourage other artists—particularly those with little money—to use nontraditional art materials. Through the Internet, she receives photos of new teabag paintings. "I do not mind if people copy me; go ahead!" she responds. "I must say, some are even better than me—and I commend them."
This year, Silvious began fashioning women's dress shoes out of cardboard and paper. Influenced by Art Deco and Grimms' Fairy Tales, they gleam with girlish sophistication. One of them appeared in Vogue Italia.
At first, I didn't recognize the two life-size kimonos as part of the show. It's not obvious that each is composed of over 600 teabags pieced together, whose monoprints form a continuous pattern. (The brown stains of tea serve as muted coloration.) Besides, a kimono is huge compared to most of Silvious's work. But small, persistent pieces eventually grow large; 363 minuscule paintings become a book. Silvious teaches us the fruitfulness of daily practice.
"Reclaimed Canvas" runs through December 2 at the Woodstock Art Exchange.