Until 20 years ago, the painter Elaine Coffee focused her art on simple, solitary figures. Then she visited the Metropolitan Museum in New York City and realized she was more captivated by the other patrons than she was by the art. It was a quiet but significant moment. Coffee’s style took a turn toward convivial interiors with intriguing characters eating, drinking, and talking. She had a new zest for her work, and art collectors responded.
“People began to say there were so many things to look at in my paintings,” Coffee recalls of that switch in direction. “Now I love painting people; they almost come to life in my head.” The first ones she did, of the Metropolitan Museum’s interiors, gave her a chance to paint both people and the paintings. “It was a pleasant double-edge sword,” she says.
Coffee’s art reaches out and grabs the viewer. You want to be in these paintings, where people are living the good life in some of its sharpest moments: engaged in conversation, enjoying good wine and food. Lo the Land Ho and Jazz at the Roadhouse depict convivial gatherings at two of the Cape’s popular eateries. “All these paintings in bars,” Coffee muses. “It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.”
A resident of Scottsdale, Arizona, Coffee summers in Orleans and travels to gather ideas for her paintings. She loves playing with lighting and composition. Sizing Up the Competition, an oil painting of young women draped over a fence at an equestrian event in Vermont, is a humorous take on how humans behave in groups, especially when they are competing. “There is an amusing scene here,” Coffee says of the painting. “To me, that was perfect.” There are fascinating tales in all her work. Often, they are told with values instead of storytelling, engaging the viewer and keeping the eye moving around the canvas.
Coffee studied biochemistry in college, then transferred to New York City to study art and dabble in medical illustration. Eventually she moved to advertising and writing before embracing fine art, where her illustrative touch found a warm home.
What Coffee calls her “slice of life” paintings were a natural progression from her figurative work. “I started doing shows 20-something years ago (in Scottsdale),” Coffee says. “People didn’t seem to get the meaning of a solitary figure, so I pushed the figure back. The more I pushed back, the more I got into it.”
Elaine Coffee’s work may be seen at Tree’s Place, located on Routes 6A and 28 in Orleans (treesplace.com), and at elainecoffee.com. New work can be seen starting Memorial Day weekend.