I did the interview with Filipina coffee painter Sunshine Plata two years ago. It is one of the most memorable interviews I did to date. In this feature article, Ms Sunshine talks about her discovery of coffee as a painting medium, her father’s initial disapproval of her craft, her decision to leave teaching to pursue her art, her painting inspirations, and what lies ahead for her.
by Mark Pere Madrona
Sunshine Plata, a 28-year-old Filipina painter, still recalls how she came to know using coffee as an art medium back in 2000. A sophomore Psychology student at University of Santo Tomas at that time, she said she felt the need to look for an affordable alternative to oil for her paintings.
“I’m no longer comfortable with the thought of letting my parents finance my not-so-cheap art materials. I looked for a medium that lasts long and would fit in my meager budget as a student then,” Plata said.
An obscure item displayed at a Ripley’s Believe It or Not exhibit in Shangri-La Manila later that year ended her search. “Among the collections there, I saw a 19th century framed paper bearing a coffee-printed signature. I realized that that item has been preserved for over a century already, maybe using coffee for paintings would work well too,” she said. Toward the end of that year, she was able to finish “Ustedyante,” her first coffee painting. A portray of UST’s campus buildings, the 9″ X 5″ artwork was made on a sketch pad. It is now hanging on the living room of the Plata’s Marikina residence.
Sensing a renewed passion for painting, Plata said she tried to transfer to UST’s Fine Arts program. Though switching courses would mean being delayed by a year or two for graduation, she said her parents Reynaldo and Consolacion had always been understanding. She took the shifter’s exam for Fine Arts and when she didn’t pass it, she said she felt bitterness for not getting what she wanted. “But I realized that maybe, it isn’t really for me. So, I continued withPsychology and graduated in 2002,” Plata said.
Describing herself as an “average” Psychology student, she said her performance during her college days dissuaded her from taking up medicine – which was her family’s wish for her. Instead, she became a pre-school teacher from 2002 to 2007 at Antipolo’s Rosehill Preschool. “I have always admired the sincerity and innocence seen among children” she said. But even her love for children can’t contain the painter in her. Just when she’s already due for promotion, she quit her job to focus on painting.
“When your passion knocks on your door, you cannot simply turn it away. Your passion would always haunt you. Hindi ka na nyan titigilan,” Plata said. She said all she aspired for in her career is to have at least one show in her lifetime. “If you enter God into the picture, He’ll make great things happen. Dream and your dreams would fall short compared to what He can give,” she said. She never fails to go to mass everyday as a homage to the Creator.
Plata had her first solo exhibit last January 2008 at Instituto Cervantes’ Casino Espanol de Manila. She said her entire family together with their friends were very supportive during the exhibit dubbed as LSD (Look, Smell, and Discover) trip by Caffeine. Even her once-doubting father had been convinced that his daughter can do it. “Me and my wife weren’t really convinced at her craft initially. First, she’s not a Fine Arts major. Looking back, I realized that maybe, I just don’t know how to appreciate art then,” Mr Plata said.
He recalled one incident when he unintentionally may have offended his daughter. “It was 3 AM then when I saw her using my imported Maxwell House Coffee for a painting. I told her, “Bakit mo ito ginagamit para lang dyan?” Mr. Plata said. After Sunshine successes, he jokingly said his daughter can now use his packs of Maxwell coffee.
The younger Plata said she had little expectations about her first exhibit. “I just want to express my art. I never expected that it would be received warmly by the people,” she said. She shared that Health Sec. Francisco Duque (now the Chair of Philippine Civil Service Commission-MM) and his wife Carolina were among her exhibit viewers. The couple are known in social circles as devoted art patrons. “It is an honor for any artists doing an exhibition to be visited by them,” Plata said.
The Duques went on to buy three paintings: the “Caballito de Dilancin” (Rocking Horse), the “Nuestra Senora del Paz y Buen Viaje” and the Edgar Allan Poe-inspired “Kingdom by the Sea.” The third painting was inspired by Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” the author’s last complete poem. Plata said poems help a lot in her paintings because the imagery they create gives her “great ideas.”
Aside from poems, she also derives art ideas from her dreams – like the story behind her world-famous “Diwata.” She said she had a childhood fantasy of being a fairy. “I’ve always read fairy tales. My favorite is Thumbelina because I’m also yearning for freedom like her,” Plata said. The idea behind the “Diwata” painting came from a dream she had in 2007 about a drowning fairy.
“That morning, I drew it immediately in a sketch pad. Since the fairy is drowning, I want her to drown in style,” she said. She added that she retained the name “Diwata” for the painting even in international exhibits so that foreigners would know that Filipino word.
After her Casino Espanol exhibit, the coffee painter had been featured in many news reports (24 Oras), morning shows (Umagang Kay Ganda) and in wire agency Reuters. She even took part in the “Plato para kay Ploning,” a fund raising event for the Judy Ann Santos film “Ploning.” Many prominent Filipino artists took part in the auction and most of them were puzzled when the name Sunshine Plata was announced. When prominent sculptor Ray Contreras and her then manager Marilyn Plata explained to the clueless artists who she was, the commotion stopped.
Plata said Juday personally thanked her as well as the other artists for participating in the event. She said she donated “Sorbetes ni Gorio,” a painting about her maternal grandfather Gregorio with an ice cream cart. The winning bid for the painting was at P 60,000 though Plata got the work back because “the entire auction-process was disorganized.”
Plata’s most recent exhibit was at Cordillera Coffee last December 2008. Dubbed as “Season’s Brew,” 10% percent of the proceeds from each paintings sold were directed to organizations of coffee farmers and their children. “It is a way for me to give back. Without them, I won’t be here,” she said. In the next few years, she said she hopes to establish a foundation for the same purpose. “I’m sure those children wouldn’t want to remain as coffee farmers forever,” she said.
For Plata, who considers herself a part of the Naive Art Movement because of her lack of artistic influences and formal training, coffee painting should go on for the years to come. “Even when I get married, I would go on doing this. In fact, that would be more favorable for me since I can take care of my children and paint while staying at home,” she said. Indeed, coffee painting is here to stay.
The story behind this story can be read here: