The Coffee Painter

She was in her dream—a fairy falling; no, drowning in the sea. Her hair swirled about the water, but her face looked calm. Deeper and deeper she went, but no one witnessed her death. She was silent, trapped in her own time and space. Yet, she was described beautiful.
Around this time, her creator was a nobody—a teacher who quit teaching, an artist who earned nothing, a painter who experimented with what some called an “illegitimate” medium.
“That painting,” Sosie Plata pointed at the drowning fairy, “that made her cry. What you’re seeing, I think, is her third try.”
Sosie, the mother of coffee painter Sunshine Plata, described her daughter as a go-getter. Sunshine never stops until she finishes what she determined to do, she said. She had been like that even when she was young. And though the attitude sometimes caused rifts among the four siblings, it undoubtedly pushed Sunshine beyond her limits.
“In that painting, she saw defects in her first try… ‘Why won’t it dry up?’ she would ask. But she did not stop until she perfected the process,” Sosie added.
Finally, on Sunshine’s third try, the colors became distinct. They were no longer just brown. The entire work came to life with different shades of brown.
“I myself got so amazed,” Sosie recalled, her eyes that of a proud mother’s. “She can really come up with beauty in this whole brown material. I saw that it was talent that was coming out. This is so unique.”
For Sunshine, however, it would take another year before her craft caught anyone’s attention. The drowning fairy hung silently above the family piano from 2007 to 2008. It would be joined by a number of others as Sunshine’s works accumulated, and her painting style seemingly unappreciated.
“I thought of having an exhibit for my collection but that meant paying for the venue, the food, the flyers and the invitation. It was too much for me that time,” a bubbly Sunshine said.
Then she thought of asking help from the food giant, Nescafe. After all, she was using their coffee product for her paintings, she said. To her delight, the company liked the idea. As exchange to their sponsorship, Nescafe asked Sunshine to paint for them a farmer harvesting coffee grains. This painting became the face of a new line of coffee products Nescafe launched.
That night on January 2008, a one-woman, one-night-only painting exhibit was held at Casino Espanol. There were 33 coffee paintings, all bearing Sunshine’s signature. People poured into the hall, praising her works. One by one, the paintings got sold—a total of 27 by the end of the night.
“I was so shocked!” Sunshine said of the exhibit’s outcome. “My whole life I only wanted an exhibit, just a small one for my family and friends. It didn’t matter if people wouldn’t buy. I just wanted it.”
After her initial success, the family offered to display the remaining paintings in the galleries of SM Megamall to give Sunshine continuous exposure. Owners, however, were reluctant because of the medium—coffee. They were nervous of “experimental” art because of their reputation and the money involved.
“None of them wanted to take Sunshine’s art because they didn't think it’s a legitimate medium,” Sosie recalled. “I asked, ‘What, then, is legitimate?’ and they would say, ‘oil, paint and watercolor’.”
“That was a setback for us. We really felt downtrodden after the experience,” she added.
For Sunshine, however, giving up was never an option. She had gone that far and was determined to push through. She continued painting and scouting for sponsors. She did not give up on the medium for in her own words, “I wanted it so badly.”
“I wanted my remaining paintings sold so I emailed Ripley’s. ‘Maybe they hadn’t found coffee paintings yet,’ I thought. And after 24 hours, they bought two of my paintings,” Sunshine said.
Her works were featured in the Martha Stuart’s Show, then by Reuters. From then on, the coffee painter became somebody and her works were known the world over.
“At first when she was experimenting on the coffee painting, it’s…a wait and see thing,” Sosie said, “I know she has talent for the arts but trying it on coffee…is this possible?”
Sunshine first got the idea of coffee as a medium after seeing a 19th-century signature in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum. According to its caption, the signature was at least a hundred years old.
“If this signature lasts a hundred years, then if I paint with coffee, it’s going to last as long,” she said.
True enough, studies were made showing that coffee as paint can last at least 70 years before fading begins to show. Long after this ingenious artist is gone her works will still be appreciated by generations of art enthusiasts.
“To this day I'm not a master yet because everyday’s a learning experience. Maybe I'm a lot better now than I was in 2000,” Sunshine said, putting aside her latest painting—her version of the Virgin Mary.
Nine years ago she made her first coffee painting. It was the façade of the University of Sto. Tomas. In the same university she finished Psychology, after being rejected in Fine Arts. She was just in her second year then, and though she really wanted to purse her passion for the arts, her father persuaded her to take a practical course.
“Papa said I just take med school because it’s practical…but whenever I see fine arts students copying buildings and enjoying themselves, the more I felt out of place in my course,” Sunshine said.
At one point she thought it was alright to just turn her passion into a hobby. Even if she did not make it to Fine Arts, she could still produce paintings. However, it would be much of a burden to her parents to support her in this plan.
“An oil paint costs 500 pesos. You’ll need at least three—red, blue and yellow… This is an expensive hobby, so I really sought a cheaper alternative that’s permanent and at the same time unique. Then, I discovered coffee” she said.
Sunshine’s first coffee painting hung beside the drowning fairy. They are just two of the several coffee works adorning their home in Marikina. Most of Sunshine’s crafts are about fairies and women, and distinct to her style are the curves and swirls all around them. Some of her paintings even looked like mosaics because of repeated patterns, dots and lines.
“Secretly, before, I used to want to be a fairy. I really fancy that character from the children's fairy tale—Thumbelina. She's the size of a thumb. With my small frame I can relate to her when she likes to be free and explore different places,” Sunshine said.
Among her fairy paintings was a giant work of a swan. Parts of it appeared to be damaged. Sunshine said molds grew on the painting because of a defect in the framing. There was not enough breathing space, causing moisture to seep into the work.
The painting stayed at home, however, not because of the molds but because it belonged to her mother. Sunshine made it for her—a long overdue gift.
“‘Nanay this is for you…watch and see,’ Sunshine told me. Then, when she finished it, it was such an accomplishment. Even if no one else could see it, even if I’m the only one who could appreciate it, I’m already happy,” Sosie recalled.
Her daughter is now a full-time coffee painter. From simply channeling her creative juices in her illustrations as a pre-school teacher, Sunshine now has freedom to paint the things she wants. For those that she really liked, it takes her only a day, though some commissioned ones can take as long as a month.
Everything paid off—the frustrations, the failures, the long nights of painting, the decision to pursue the medium, the tenacity to go on.
Asked about the secret of a successful artist, Sunshine could only borrow this saying:
“When love and art come together, you create a masterpiece.” 
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