I HAVE BEEN SPENDING MY entire adult life trying not to spill my coffee. In the car, I have an uncanny propensity to take a sip just as my husband brakes. And if you watch me shuffle the ten feet from my kitchen to my home office, cup in-hand, you’ll notice I’m wearing a pained expression of brow-furrowing concentration.
So it’s with little surprise during a private “spill class” with Coffee On Canvas artist Jon Norquist organized by Motif Seattle, that I’m “spilling” with great restraint. Meanwhile, my husband’s canvas enlivens with layers of the brewed beverage. It would appear, we have an artist in the family. Spoiler alert: it’s not me.
COFFEE ON CANVAS IS the expression of Jon Norquist, an engineer by trade who cultivated his signature style in which images are created in the masked-off negative space which is peeled off once layers of coffee dry on a canvas. He then uses a fine-tip marker to outline the abstract patterns. To his knowledge, he’s the only artist spilling coffee as an artistic medium. “I think I’m the only guy,” he tells me. “I haven’t found anyone who makes art this way.”
And he’s garnered the attention of some big-time clients. Norquist has collaborated with Folgers, Dunkin Donuts and even earned a few local television appearances which led to a gig for the Seattle Seahawks. For International Coffee Day 2019, the art-obsessed Motif Seattle invited Norquist to spend the day spilling in the lobby. The 14-hour result? A gorgeous piece of branded artwork created by 80 or so participating hotel guests.
Jon Norquist poses with the artwork that Motif Seattle guests helped create on International Coffee Day 2019 | Jennifer Hubbert
What I find seriously fascinating is that Norquist’s background is that of the sciences, not the arts. Ex-army and a civil engineer by profession, Norquist says he was “always painting and sketching.”
“I have five kids and I never had time to be a civil engineer, dad of five and be creative,” he explains. “I had my eyes open for opportunities to find creative outlets in my everyday life.”
Everyday life – exactly the place he’d find the inspiration for Coffee On Canvas.
“I had a coffee pot and every time I would pour coffee it would dribble and splatter everywhere. One day I spilled as I was pouring [a cup of coffee] and I saw a design [and] thought, if I could outline that in black ink, it would be really compelling abstract art. I literally started taping paper to all of my countertops.”
Coffee On Canvas came online in 2016 but Norquist tells me he’s been messing around with coffee for seven years. Spilling was the easy part, creating the negative space was the real challenge.
I originally guessed that Norquist was using painter’s tape (which he did experiment with in the early days) but being an engineer he has innovated a paintable mask. In fact, it’s a process that demands a special type of artist: one with a mind for art and science.
“When you are innovating a new-ish art form, you realize a lot of artists have to go through a ton of innovation. The engineer in me really likes that.”
MY HUSBAND AND I complete the spilling process. I have a hard time picturing how it will all shake out and truthfully, I’m not confident it even will turn out. For someone who has spent years spilling her coffee, suddenly I’m feeling quite insecure about my ability to do so. But Norquist is endearingly reassuring.
“It’s totally foolproof,” he says. “It’s cool because I spill coffee like you spill coffee. It’s very accessible to people and they can be a part of the creative process.”
As we wait for a heat gun to dry our canvases, I ask Norquist if Coffee On Canvas has found success because of Seattle’s obsession with coffee (Seattle is Starbucks’ hometown) or in spite of it.
“I didn’t think the coffee culture was truly just the Pacific Northwest, because coffee is so ubiquitous,” he remarks. “But there’s definitely a different vibe, or at least response to this kind of artwork with coffee.”
I ask the next obvious question: Can he spill with wine or beer?
“Wine is harder to work with. It’s more expensive and I drink too much while I do it,” Norquist quips. “It’s hard to work with because of the sugar in it. When it dries, it stays sticky. I do it because a lot of people ask [but] … wine oxidises. After a year or so it turns brown. And at that point, it just looks like coffee.”
Finally, it’s time for the big reveal. I agitate the mask that I painted onto the canvas well before I started spilling. It gives me a satisfaction akin to peeling a sunburn. Slowly, the negative space reveals the message “LOVE EACH OTHER.” I gently use an eraser to remove the last clinging bits. To finish the piece, I trace a fine-tip pen along each spill’s edge.
It’s the first time in my life that I’ve been pleased to spill my coffee.
When You Go:
Where to Stay: Motif Seattle
Following a $10 million renovation in 2014, the 319-room property debuted as Motif Seattle, built on four pillars: design, fashion, community and music. Central to the hotel’s identity is its Visiting Artist Program. Every two years, a local artist is selected to design a new motif which is reflected across the entire brand’s collateral from stationary to key cards to coasters. Rebranding every other year is an ambitious undertaking, but it demonstrates that Motif’s dedication to art isn’t just lip service.
“A lot of art programs have been getting cut throughout the country because of funding and we don’t want that to happen,” explains Motif marketing manager Lauren LeVasseur. “So we do as much as we can to support the [arts] community.”
In the past, visiting artists have included accessories designer Jordan Christianson, cut paper and visual artist Celeste Kooning and glassblower Julie Conway. For its next collaboration, Motif wanted to support an emerging artist.
“No other hotel in the city does this,” LeVasseur says. “You’re ours for two years and we’re going to give you as much exposure as possible. [We’re] really trying to help build their careers.”
Last November, after considering multiple submissions, Motif announced University of Washington MFA student Todd McKinney as the next visiting artist. McKinney’s signature “drip method” of painting is a technique he honed in 2010 following the diagnosis of a non-cancerous brain tumour which causes his hands to tremble.
"It means a lot to be recognized in a field that is highly competitive. Not everyone can get into a gallery straight out of the gate," says McKinney, when asked what the residency means to him. "As an artist concerned with social practice narratives, it is important to me to work with those who can help foster communities. Motif is just that, a corporate business model contributing to an art community in a unique, positive way. Not only are they supporting my emerging career but they are also supporting other artists, displaying artwork throughout the building. It is truly a beautiful thing to witness. AIR’s are a bridge to other opportunities, but they also represent unique chances for ideas to coalesce both formally and conceptually. I imagine a not-so-distant-future where artists can create for corporations but also offer consultation on a variety of issues relevant to today’s society."
McKinney’s logo officially rolled out on January 1, 2020. The design’s name is Algorithm 102 – birth of light and was inspired by Seattle’s vibrant community, as well as the complexity of its past and present infrastructure.
He says of his design: "Birth of Light is a reference to Seattle’s great fire of 1889. Although the fire caused $20 million in damages, it also changed Seattle for the better. Stone and brick replaced wood as the standard building material; rats and vermin were exterminated by the fire; city officials took over the management of Seattle’s water and the population soon doubled from 20,000 to 40,000. I found it interesting that such a chaotic event could come with such blessings ...Recently we had a string of 90 days without the sun in the Pacific Northwest which illustrates my next point: the PNW can be a gloomy place in terms of an everyday palette. I wanted to express that everyday absence of colour through the heavy use of white and grays seen in the picture. But I also wanted to comment on my everyday experience with the PNW local population. I am originally from California but after being up here for almost two years, I am proud to call the PNW my home. The people here are some of the nicest, most caring people I have ever met in my life. They surprise me every day with their actions; actions like bringing a stranger’s dog water to a food truck server concerned about a patron’s sleep. This vibrant experience is expressed through cool colours such as blues, violets, pinks which are seen throughout the picture plane."
MOTIF MIGHT BE ART DRIVEN, but it isn’t just for aficionados. During my stay I notice a bevy of millennial guests; couples and fashionable girl gangs on city getaways are especially well represented. LeVasseur tells me that Motif attracts a good number of business travellers during the week (part in thanks to its lofty corporate meeting spaces) and interestingly, mother-daughter duos. But for many guests, LeVasseur admits that art is not the primary booking motivation. After all, Motif’s rooms are stylish (designed by acclaimed Seattle-based architectural and interior design firm DEGEN & DEGEN), the hotel is located in a highly walkable downtown zip code, it’s pet friendly, complimentary wine tastings are served each afternoon and with rates starting at $225 USD (plus a daily destination fee; parking not included), it offers affordable luxury.
Where to Eat: Frolik Kitchen + Cocktails
Frolik Kitchen + Cocktails | Jennifer Hubbert
Boasting the largest rooftop in downtown Seattle, Frolik Kitchen & Cocktails could get away on just its good rooftop looks. Diners seated next to outdoor fireplaces choose from seasonal cocktails or a concise but well curated selection of craft beers, which they imbibe alongside waterfront-facing views. Despite it being enveloped by the downtown urban cityscape, daylight – and the happy hour crowd – lingers long on this sunlit patio. In summer, a concert series warms the atmosphere and with it overlooking Fourth Avenue, Frolik affords some of the best view of the city’s annual Pride Parade. While the interior dining space feels less inspired than the restaurant’s playful concept and mix-and-mingle rooftop, General Manager Scott Thompson’s menu punches well above its weight. There are unfussy pub-style comforts (burgers, spinach artichoke dip and tacos) and surprise dishes, too: orecchiette, fennel-crusted roast chicken and insalata burrata.
Poring over the smoked salmon and beluga lentil salad, I’m teased by textures dressed in a savoury marriage of citrus and onion. A tender filet of seared salmon is jacketed with a crispy skin and plated on fluffy jasmine rice, complemented by a creamy yellow curry sauce. I’m full after the two dishes but "somehow" find room for a dessert trio. I loll my tongue over bites of velvety-soft cheesecake that crown a salted pretzel crust with Beecher’s cheese caramel garnishes.
What to Do & See
Space Needle, pictured from the Glasshouse at Chihuly Garden and Glass | Jennifer Hubbert
Spill with Coffee On Canvas artist Jon Norquist: A private, catered spill class can be organized for Motif guests by Lauren LeVasseur (Lauren.firstname.lastname@example.org); book four weeks in advance of arrival to best ensure availability.
Tour the city: Located on the doorstep of downtown Seattle, Motif is well situated for urban exploration. First-time visitors or those who want a smorgasbord sampler of Seattle’s most popular attractions won’t find better value than that of a CityPASS. For one flat rate ($99 USD for adults 13 and older; $79 USD for children ages 5-12), visitors save 46% on admission to four of seven museums, tours and attractions. The pass includes a visit to the Space Needle, Seattle Aquarium, a one-hour harbour tour aboard Argosy Cruises, a choice of the Museum of Pop Culture or Woodland Park Zoo, and the Pacific Science Center or Chihuly Garden and Glass. CityPASS tickets are valid for nine consecutive days, meaning there’s no reason to rush through these creative, thought-provoking and engaging attractions.
Disclosure: Our editor's Seattle visit was comped by Motif Seattle. Opinions are all her own and this article was not reviewed by her host prior to publication.
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