On Sunday morning, Turner Hall Ballroom will be full and caffeinated during the inaugural Coffee And Donut Festival. Unfortunately, the celebration of beloved breakfast standards is sold out. However, the first-year event gave us a good excuse to talk java with a Milwaukee artist who’s known to use coffee cups as a canvas for his illustrations.
Over the past few years, dwellephant has transformed disposable coffee cups into works of art. His illustrations give single-use drink containers that were destined for the trash a second life. As fans of his quirky cup art, we decided to ask dwellephant why he started using this unconventional medium, how paper cups differ from other drawing surfaces, and which local roasters inspire him most.
Milwaukee Record: I’ve really enjoyed your semi-frequent social media posts where you show illustrations you made on coffee cups. How long have you been doing this, and what made you start?
dwellephant: Thanks! I’ve been doing it for a few years now. It started organically—just a natural extension of me always drawing on whatever is around. But I started posting them more because I thought maybe they’d make people happy or something. And I like reminding people that you don’t need to buy the most expensive stuff to make a good thing.
MR: Beyond their shape, how do paper cups differ from other surfaces and mediums you work with?
dwellephant: As a surface goes, it’s pretty poor quality. The marker ink bleeds a little more and I don’t get the smooth edges I prefer when I’m using ink. But of all the different kinds of trash I draw on, paper coffee cups are not the worst.
MR: Do you have to make adjustments to the way you typically do things? How?
dwellephant: It not being a flat surface and all is a bit of a challenge because you can’t just rest your arm on a table and make steady, controlled motions to get your line work. Instead, you have to hold the cup upright and your drawing hand hovers in the air alongside it. It’s a comical amount of coordination and stillness to put into something that’s temporary and on a piece of garbage.
MR: You seem to bounce around to different local coffee shops, but is there a Milwaukee roaster that you prefer over others—whether it’s their coffee, their cups, or their inspiration the cafe brings?
dwellephant: I try to get to different places because it’s wild to me how many great roasters and cafes we have here in our city. Is that normal? Do other cities have so much great coffee?
Ultimately, though, the bulk of these cups come from Anodyne. I love Anodyne with all my heart. It’s just a bonus that they always have blank white cups.
MR: What do you do with the cups after you’re done with them?
dwellephant: A handful of the earliest ones just went right into the recycling bin. A bunch of them went home with people who saw them and asked for them. But these last few years, I’ve been keeping more of them because I want to eventually have a show.
MR: Has a local coffee roaster approached you about making reusable cups with your art on them? Someone should probably do this.
dwellephant: Nope! Weird, right? It seems like an obvious thing to do. I’d love to work with a local place, but I’m also not opposed to taking this party to other states, countries, or planets. dwellephant travel mugs in 2020, please!
MR: Anything else you’d like to add about coffee, your illustrations, or anything else for that matter?
dwellephant: Buy local, y’all. Always. Also, Bucks in six.