Why these artists don't toss those damp teabags in the trash


Ritu Dua, Samar Kamel, Ruby Silvious
Ritu Dua, Samar Kamel, Ruby Silvious

The next time you wring out your 5pm cuppa premium CTC, think of artists - like these three, all tea-drinkers - who collect bags, dry 'em out, and turn upcycled soggy bits into works of exquisite detail

By Purva Grover

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Published: Thu 27 Apr 2017, 9:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 10 Jan 2023, 4:47 PM

What's common between these three women is not their love for tea, but that for tea bags. Rarely do they discard a used tea bag after cuppa. Instead, they use them as a canvas for expression. Here's what a cup of tea means to them.

New York: Ruby Silvious lives in Coxsackie. She steers away from tea bags made of muslin, silk, and nylon

Friends and family donate teabags

In 2013, while preparing for an exhibition of recycled materials in New York, Ruby Silvious started to create art using discarded items like pistachio shells, the inside of eggshells, and used tea bags. "After a few failed experiments with tea bags, some of the miniature watercolour paintings began to look interesting," says the author of a coffee table book, 363 Days of Tea: A Visual Journal on Used Teabags. In 2015 she started a project called 363 Days of Tea, a visual daily record of her impression of the moment, using the emptied-out tea bag as her canvas. While she drinks at least a few cups a day, her friends and family regularly donate to her collection. "So, I don't have to rely on my own consumption for art materials." It's the different sepia stains left on the teabag paper that are a source of endless inspiration for her.

"Unlike watercolour paper, tea bag paper is thin and porous, which can make watercolour hard to work with. It takes practice and a lot of control over your medium to get used to it. Other than that, the used tea bag is quite resilient. It can be folded, rolled, and ironed. I've used them in collages, printmaking, papier-mâché, and origami projects. And because they're such small canvases, they're light and portable. They're an ideal medium to use for art residency projects where you have to travel quite a distance." She uses watercolour and ink, for the most part. She has tried acrylic, intaglio inks (printmaking), and colour markers as well. Her work has been recognised with various awards and she regularly holds group and solo exhibitions in NYC. Any favourite tea bags?

"I use the kind that's made of filter paper or paper fibre. Some tea bags are made of polyactide (PLA), a bioplastic. I do not use these." Plus, she advises not to display the works in direct sunlight to prevent fading.

Dubai: Samar Kamel has been in the Gulf for 24 years. Her favourite beverage is black tea with milk.

She glues teabags on to canvases

"I was fiddling with a tea bag with a spoon when it slit open and the (tea) leaves fell in the cup - I then looked at the tea bag, squeezed tea out of it, and spread it open; I could see shades of brown and yellow ochre on it. So, I thought why not let it dry and see if it can be used in one of my paintings. The dry paper had stunning shades and texture," recalls Samar Kamel, who has taken part in 32 exhibitions across the world till date.

Born and raised in Cairo, she chose banking, but eventually left that to focus on a career in art. Kamel glues tea bags onto a canvas and then uses acrylic paint on top. "Not a lot of paint though, as I appreciate the natural pigments." So, how many cups does she drink in a day? "I decided to collect as many tea bags as I could, and started drying them out after each cup. I did my first painting and was satisfied with the result, so I carried on. It took me quite sometime to collect them as I drink tea twice a day, and it's tea with milk and not just plain black tea; the milk gives a different pigment to the tea bag and the way the bag is squeezed before it dries helps in the colour's distribution." It takes her around ten days to finish a big painting (120x100cm). "You need to be patient for this art form, for tea bags are delicate. In the end, it's like painting with the colours of nature." Does she have a message for the buyers? "The final work is varnished and that keeps it in good condition. But, just like any other artwork, it should be handled with extra care."

Mumbai: Ritu Dua is based out of Mumbai and her love is divided between green and black tea.

Art on 77 bags is a chai tamaasha

In January 2014 I was working on two art projects, which required of me to create an artwork with recycled materials for an exhibit and chai-based illustrations for a digital magazine. I was consuming many cups of tea as I worked, when the beautiful stains on the teabags grabbed my attention and left me in awe. The tiny soggy teabag sat quietly on my dish staring at me for some love," shares Ritu Dua.

She recently moved (from Dubai) to Mumbai, India, where she took part in the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival 2016 and exhibited an art installation titled My Chai Tamaasha, which was made with 1,500 teabags. Also, recently she held two solo exhibitions titled Feelings 77. "A feeling a day expressed on a used teabag for 77 days." Plus, each work was accompanied by a short poem. It goes without saying she recycles every single teabag. Does she have any favourite tea brands? "No. Though, their texture and size may vary, but in the end they all serve as my canvas." At times she is able to finish a work in just a couple of hours, while more intricate ones take days. Her tools include mixed media, pen and ink, watercolours, and acrylic paints. "I have even tried embroidery on a few pieces." She treats the teabags so that they don't rot away, before converting them into a piece of art and framing them.

"In case a client wants a bigger piece I join the teabags and customise to suit their requirements. "It is a time consuming process and needs a lot of concentration, but at the end of the day, each miniature piece stands apart. I absolutely love the feel of teabags, their feather-like lightness, and soft textures!"

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