By Karen Fredrickson
Photos: Courtesy of Ruby Silvious
Ruby Silvious was born in the Philip- pines and currently resides in Coxsackie. She works in many mediums and is a painter, paper artist and printmaker whose award-winning work has been shown throughout New York State. Most recently, Salvaged was displayed at the Atlantic Gallery in New York City. Creative and environmentally conscious, Silvious’s artwork begs the onlooker to rethink preconceived notions of what art is.
Her inspiration happens internally rather than being triggered by daily things. Working with teabags grabbed her right away. “I was totally hooked!” Silvious says. “I wanted to print, paint, stitch, fold and do everything with it.” Silvious collects the used bags from her own tea-drinking endeavors, as well as from family and friends. Within the last year she has re-imagined several hundred, some making their way into quilt panels while others have found a home in an upcoming book of art, 363 Days of Tea.
Silvious’s very first exhibit was in Chelsea, NY, in 2014, where she showcased her work using repurposed materials. Back then, her collection had pieces that were mostly brassieres folded from crumb wrappers and paper bags, and painted pistachio shells. In trying to come up with more work using discarded or recycled objects, she discovered the used tea bag as a potential canvas and support medium.
In addition to doing recycled art, Silvious continues to work on monoprints from the Ragged Edge Printmaking Studio in Cohoes. She has also done a lot of pastel and graphite work— something she’d like to do again someday.
Q: How did you get the idea to make art using?
A: I often reflect on how it all began. The theme of my very first exhibit in New York City in 2014 was inspired by salvaged materials, found and recycled objects. I experimented with painting on whatever I had available in the house, including pistachio shells, eggshell shards and origami-folded crumb wrappers, paper bags…you name it!
Then one day, I was having tea with my sister, who is also an artist. We were discussing all these possibilities when I came up with the idea of the used tea bag as a canvas. It sounded preposterous at first. We carefully opened the soggy tea bag and left some tea leaves on the tea-bag paper, forming something abstract on it. But when it dried and some of the tea leaves didn’t stay in place, we knew we had to continue with our experiment. I started to love the sepia stains of the used tea bags, and immediately knew I would later use them in my designs. My sister was also inspired—she went back home to Maui and incorporated used tea bags in some of her collages.
Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages for you as an artist in using such a unique material for your art?
A: Because the used tea-bag paper is such a unique support medium, people find it to be unusual. There are actually so many other tea-bag artists out there, but there aren’t that many who paint on tea bags like I do. I guess that’s the primary advantage. Also, tea bags are easy to source out, and used tea bags are cheap (sometimes free!) and easy to come by.
Another upside to the small canvas (it’s a mere 4 x 6 opened up, and even smaller if left in its original size) is that it’s portable: you can take it with you anywhere, and you are likely to finish an artwork in a lot less time than [you could with] your standard-size canvases.
It would be easy to say that the disadvantage to using such a unique material is that everyone has access to these materials to be able to try and copy my art. On the contrary, I want to inspire people to bring new life to everyday, familiar things. People have this notion of what traditional art should be. Re-imagining the discarded as art inspires new forms of creativity. I think everyone should try it.
Q: What was the idea behind the projects 52 Weeks of Tea and 363 Days of Tea?
A: One of my resolutions for 2015 was to push myself to create something every day. It took me until the third of January to decide how I was going to accomplish that (hence the 363 as opposed to 365): by creating a year-long visual journal. My goal was to see if I had the discipline to create something every day for an entire year, using tea as my subject. The first several weeks’ worth of artwork consisted mainly of photos of my tea consumption, but the project quickly evolved into paintings and collages with the used, emptied-out tea bags functioning as small canvases.
Sharing images of the pieces on social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr, was an important part of this project. Having an audience of followers kept me motivated to stay on track with the daily regimen I’d set for myself. Receiving “likes” and comments provided incentive to continue to share my work. I was thrilled when my first piece received 10 “likes” on Instagram. I never dreamed that by the end of the year, my art would be viewed and enjoyed by so many people all over the world. Not only did the number of social-media followers increase exponentially, but my art has now been featured in magazines, newspapers, radio stations and blogs across Europe, Asia and Africa.
Q: What made you decide to start incorporating waste into your art?
A: There is something about rescuing or resurrecting discarded materials that appeals to me. There’s an old saying that when the Japanese mend broken objects, they enhance the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that if some- thing is damaged and has a history, it becomes even more beautiful. This, and the wabi-sabi philosophy—which is a commitment to the everyday, the somewhat broken and the imperfect—is true to my design aesthetic and discipline.
In the process, if I can contribute to the environmental health of our planet by minimizing waste even in the smallest way, be it reusing or incorporating recycled items into my art, then I feel that I have done a small part.
This year, Silvious’s main focus has been on compiling her book—363 Days of Tea: A Visual Journal on Used Tea Bags, to be released in the fall—and on continuing with her tea-bag art on a weekly, instead of daily, series. With her upcoming art residency in Fukuoka, Japan, she has been busy preparing for the kimono pieces that she’ll be creating using repurposed materials such as produce mesh bags, laundry tickets, packing paper and, of course, used tea bags.
To purchase Ruby’s work or to follow her 363 Days of Tea, visit her website at www.rubysilvious.com. █