Coffee and Portraiture and the Associations We MakeArts, Visual Arts — By Stephanie Nikolopoulos on November 21, 2011 at 6:00 am
Associations are revealing. This morning, as I was drinking a cup of horrid office coffee, my brain leapt from the specific brand and flavor of coffee my mom drank when I was growing up to a seemingly unrelated bit of biographical information about a photographer I’d researched while working on a blog post on his efforts to Save the Whales. The photographer is Louie Psihoyos, the film director of The Cove, the Oscar Award-winning feature documentary that uncovers the horrifying mass slaughter of dolphins. Psihoyos is from the Midwest, as is my mom (he was born in Iowa, my mom in Minnesota), and his immigrant parent came from the Peloponnesus, the same region of Greece my dad grew up in and where both of my parents now live. That wasn’t the association I made this morning, though. Instead, I was recalling that I myself had recently taken a photograph of my coffeemaker and a bag of hazelnut Eight O’Clock Coffee, while photographing some other food in my kitchen, and that I always associate hazelnut Eight O’Clock Coffee with my mom. From there, I remembered I’d recently read about a photographer who’d photographed people with their possessions. At first I didn’t even remember that the photographer was Psihoyos. As I started to write the blog post about how I associate coffee with my mom, I kept thinking about the significance of Psihoyos photographing people with their possessions and what the objects we’re associated with impart about our identity.
Louie Psihoyos’ traveling show of portraits of families around the world with their material possessions was part of the UN-sponsored “Material World Project.” The photographs illustrate how the physical items we own convey information about our interior selves. As much as the photographs depict personal familial identity, the “Material World Project” represents collective cultural identity as well. Taken a step further, no matter how individualistic or even ethnographic each singular photograph is, viewed as a collection sponsored by the United Nations and given the similarities between the material possessions, the photographs indicate that on some base level humans are all the same or at least more similar than we’d care to believe. In some ways, the way we understand the content just depends on the vantage point from which we view the photographs. Do specific details individualize and separate cultures, families, and individuals? Or do larger trends unite people?
Back to coffee. Here in Manhattan there are something like 171 Starbucks coffee shops. That wasn’t always the case, though. Starbucks started out as one little coffee shop in Seattle, a shop that I visited on the first-ever vacation I took with paid time off from work. I took a Greyhound bus across the United States. There’s that word again: united. Since then, I’ve traveled far and wide. Two and a half years ago, my friend Christianna showed me the Starbucks in Seoul, South Korea, and let me in on the trivia that it is one of the only foreign branches that has permission to use non-English lettering. There are also several Starbucks in Athens, Greece. Naturally, I’ve been to the one in Plaka with my mom. As much as I associate coffee with my mom, the fact that Starbucks has opened chains around the world signifies the far-reaching popularity of the beverage. Sure, my mom drinks coffee—but so do my coworkers, as evidenced by the fact that someone besides me keeps drinking the office coffee no matter how horrible it tastes; so does Burnside Writers Collective’s Kim Gottschild, as evidenced in her yearning to savor it (and life) in this Cupcake Countenance essay; and so do people in South Korea and people in Greece. In fact, people have been drinking coffee for years. According to Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K. Bealer’s The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug, coffee was first drunk in the mid-1400s in Sufi monasteries in Yemen. And if you want to know a funny association, every time I hear Yemen, I recall the episode of Friends in which Chandler, desperate to get out of a relationship, tells the ever-annoying Janice he is moving to Yemen. Friends, meanwhile, can easily be associated with coffee via all the characters hanging out at Central Perk.
Commercial break over, let’s return to Psihoyos. He is by no means the first artist to incorporate a person’s possessions into their portrait. For centuries, artists have been including possessions and symbols in portraits to convey a message about the person they’re painting, sculpting, or photographing. There’s rich symbolism in saint iconography, in particular. If you happen across a painting of a woman with a dish of eyeballs, for example, you know you’re looking at a portrait of Lucy. Strange? Yes. Memorable? Definitely. Persecuted for her Christian faith, Lucy underwent the torture of having her eyes plucked out with a fork. Her martyrdom is so closely associated with her identity that centuries later we recognize portraits of Lucy from the plate of eyes she holds. While Christian martyrs are associated with certain symbols, the common man may be associated with particular possessions. An artist, for example, is depicted next to an easel. A sea captain is painted wearing a tell-tale captain’s cap.
The captain’s portrait was an easy example of a painting showcasing a prop, a possession, for me to think of. It’s a matter of association. When I try to think of a portrait, I think of the framed painting of a stoic-looking captain that hung next to two stacked saltwater fish tanks in my childhood home in New Jersey. The painting was not of him, but my dad was a sea captain. My dad drank coffee. Or at least, he always wanted a cup. My mom savored cup upon cup of hazelnut coffee with milk in it. My dad loudly slurped a few sips of black coffee. Later we’d find the coffee, cold and barely touched, dangerously close to the ledge of our round, wooden kitchen table, where he’d abandoned it. He emptied tall glasses of Tropicana orange juice and short glasses of Glenlivet, but rarely even drank a full third of a cup of coffee. I began drinking coffee, black—like my father but not because of my father: I thought drinking black coffee was cool—when I was in high school. Although I began drinking coffee at a much earlier age than she did, my sister is a bigger coffee drinker than I am. In fact, she recently questioned why I order coffee in restaurants at all. See, I often don’t always finish the full cup. I don’t associate coffee with my father—I associate captain’s hats and anchors and saltwater fish with him—but when my sister questioned my coffee-buying habit, I thought of my dad. I realized that I am just like my father, a phrase I hear in my mom’s tone of voice. I desire the coffee, but I don’t necessarily drink the coffee. So although one may not associate an object (in this case, coffee) with someone (in this case, my dad), variables (in this case, not drinking a full cup) can trigger an association.
The fact that coffee specifically reminds me of my mom is telling. After all, coffee possesses the power to link a fifteenth-century Sufi monastery to a twentieth-century American sitcom. As we see with the coffee example and with example of the possessions in Psihoyos’ portraits, something personal can be universal and something universal also can be deeply personal. This also plays out in common portraiture symbols. Take the bee, for instance. Saints Ambrose, Bernard of Clairvaux, Isidore of Seville, and John Chyrsostom are all associated with bees. Sometimes, though, a bee is just a bee. So, when does an object or a possession leap from something in the background to something in the foreground? When does something physical become something metaphorical? If these questions seem too abstractly philosophical, consider this question: what is the significance of my only association with Yemen being a passing reference to it on the show Friends? What does it say about me and my academic upbringing? What does it say about the country of Yemen?
Now, if Louie Psihoyos were to photograph you with your possessions for the “Material World Project,” what material possessions would he find in your house if he showed up announced with a camera in his hand? What possessions would you take with you if, instead, you were meeting him at his studio? What one item would your parents pick out as representative of who you are? Your child? What one material possession would you pick to define yourself?
It’s incredibly simplistic to suggest that any one item in any way defines my mom, or anyone else for that matter. Besides hazelnut coffee, there’s a certain candy, perfume, and necklace that I also associate with my mom. None of these on their own or even collectively completely define or represent her either. We are not a sum of our possessions. However, when I smell hazelnut coffee I still think of my mom. Therefore, possessions, our likes and dislikes, what we spend our money on do suggest something about us to the outside world.
Let’s do some free association. What do you think of when you hear the word “possessions”? “God”? “Treasures”? Individually the words can easily be associated with various objects and values, but when strung together in that order, I personally think of another word: “moths.” And, I think of the bible verse, Matthew 6:19: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” (Furthermore, the Burlap to Cashmere song “Treasures in Heaven” rings through my head.)
Obviously we are not to hoard objects. Nor are we to be defined by things we own. But there is a bible verse that suggests a relationship between identity and an object. Matthew 7:16 says, “By their fruit you will recognize them.” This is not about a tree owning fruit; this is about identifying a tree by the fruit it produces. When we understand this verse as metaphor, we consider the “fruits,” the actions, of our lives. Would someone know we’re Christian by the way we live our lives? If someone were to see a photograph of our possessions would any of the possessions persuade or dissuade someone from viewing us as followers of Christ? I am by no means suggesting the only books we should own are bibles and that our music collection should only include contemporary Christian. I’m just thinking aloud on what it means that various objects become associated with our identity. Although it’s not a verse about possessions, we may pause to reflect on our material possessions and what we do with them, as well as our spiritual gifts and whether we use them. We may realize that whether we like it or not, people and God will associate us with the material possessions we keep and how we use them.
Stephanie Nikolopoulos writes about growing up Greek American at www.StephanieNikolopoulos.com.