Alfred L. Jones

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By Kristina Domitrovich
Photos by Lindsay Pace Daffron

Coffee stains are usually pesky, but Alfred L. Jones is putting them to canvas to create magnificent images you won’t want to wash off.

On the average weekend, shoppers file into Relics to peruse through booths, searching for treasures. Hit songs from the ‘80s play through the speakers, banter among the shoppers muffles throughout the cubby-holed framework as the sun stretches through the massive windows, giving the building a glow.

Upstairs, opposite the train tracks, a bearded man sits near a window, quietly working. His booth is less cluttered than most in Relics, but the walls are lined with sepia-toned artwork, a few splashes of color here and there. The man, Alfred L. Jones, doesn’t dip his paint brushes into a palate; instead, three small Rubbermaid containers. In them, coffee.

Coffee art has been around for millennia. Not latte art – coffee art, applying coffee to a canvas. Jones said it likely started in Thailand thousands of years ago and has been an art form in the Philippines as well, but has yet to catch on in the United States. He has only been able to find a handful of artists who use coffee as their medium in the United States. Jones’ discovery of coffee as a medium was a happy accident of sorts.

“I was doing a graphite drawing, and I wanted to put some kind of tint to the background,” he explained. “I had a cup of coffee sitting there, so I just dipped a brush in it and did the background, and that started it.”

He has been working with coffee off and on for a few years, but his curiosity has spurred him to dabble in other mediums as well. He’s worked with Kool Aid, Covergirl eye shadow, Skittles and teas, and he soon plans to experiment with soy sauce, too. He has learned some mediums do not work as well as others: the Skittles are too waxy, and he cannot steep the tea to be as dark as he would like.

Through trial and error, he has found certain coffees work better than others. In fact, perhaps to the dismay of coffee connoisseurs, this coffee artist uses instant coffee packets – Nescafé or Foldgers brands work best. He makes his coffee in batches of three: the first cup has one packet, the second has three and the third has five. Jones said this creates the values he needs. He can get roughly a dozen paintings from a single batch of coffee, so long as the coffee is properly stored between his work sessions.

Working with coffee has its pros and cons according to Jones. For example, coffee can be challenging because it never dries. Jones said he could hose down a painting, and the canvas would be washed completely clean. He joked this feature comes in handy sometimes, because he can “correct mistakes” using a wet Q-tip. He said he learns about using coffee every single day.

 He found a new way to utilize this seemingly downfall to his advantage when painting a rose. He wanted to create a rose with raindrops on it, but did not want to use a Q-tip to create them, fearing it would look unrealistic. Instead, he placed individual drops of water scattered about the canvas, and let them air dry. This process pushed the coffee’s pigment to the outer ring of each droplet while drying, creating a dark circle around each raindrop on the rose. This gave Jones the exact effect he wanted.

He combines different mediums on occasion, but typically sticks to one medium throughout the piece. When he does add in new elements, he typically grabs gouache, an opaque watercolor that he has found pairs nicely with coffee. Sometimes, he will add gold leaf to a coffee painting, and has found those elements work together stupendously.

“When the sunlight hits it, it just explodes,” he said.

To preserve the coffee once it’s on the canvas, Jones seals his works with clear enamel. At that point, it is good to go. Until he finishes a piece, which usually takes him anywhere from a few days to a few weeks depending on the subject, Jones learned he has to keep his batches of coffee in the sun, otherwise it will grow mold.

Jones has been an artist all his life. However, aside from art classes in high school, he has never had formal teaching. All his skills and techniques have come from a lifetime of discipline and practice.

“This is me, this is what I do,” he said.

As a child, Jones started out with dinosaurs and cars. He believes every child is “born an artist.”

“When you’re young, your mom or dad will give you a sheet of paper and a box of crayons and say, ‘Go for it.’ And then you outgrow it as you’re getting older – push it aside,” he said. “And if kids would keep it, keep doing it, they’d (still) be painting. I strongly believe that.”

In high school, Jones earned a scholarship to an art school, but turned it down because he did not want to attend that particular college. He joined the Navy for three years during the Vietnam War, and when he got out, he dabbled in the tattoo world. He said it was fun for a little while, but he grew tired of it quickly.

He was a biker for several years. His preferred bike was a Triumph, “chopped out — very chopped out,” he said with a grin. At one time, his favorite show was “Sons of Anarchy,” a true biker’s show. He said he completed over 300 portraits of its cast members, and some of the actors even own some of these pieces.

He played guitar for a while, back in his “hippie days.” An artist at heart, Jones said, “Anything that has to do with art, I do.” He stays young, and said his body may be 71 years old, but his mind is 20. He will even do an occasional portrait with Crayola crayons.

Throughout his life, he has drawn on inspiration from fantasy artists like Frank Frazetta, Borris Vallejo and Luis Royo. While he does commission pieces and portraits, he also paints or draws whatever images or ideas come to his mind, and classifies himself as both a portrait and a contemporary artist.

“It’s straight out of my head,” he said. “I have visions. I see things, and I’ve gotta put it on paper in order to do something with it.”

When he is not painting in his booth at Relics, which he has had since February, he’s working on his art at home. He said he’s been committing himself to his art since his wife died, about three years ago.

“I’ve thrown myself into my art basically to keep sanity, or lose it, one of the two,” he laughed while pointing at a self-portrait titled “Artistic Suicide,” and said “like this.”

 “Art is everything I breathe for right now, it really is. I enjoy it that much,” he said.

 He multitasks several pieces at a time, and prefers to watch TV while he works. If nothing good is on, he will turn on some classic rock and “go to town.” Though he is constantly creating, he doubts he will ever finish his artistic to-do list.

“I’ve got stuff that I thought about in the ‘60s doing, and I still haven’t done it,” he said. “I can’t paint fast enough. I have too many ideas in my head.”

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