I'll take a latte and the painting, please

  • By WINTER JOHNSON
  • Medill News Service
  • November 15, 2006 @ 6:20 AM
There's an art, some would say, to making Starbucks' signature steamy, savory and often complicated drinks. Just try mixing your own extra-hot venti peppermint mocha with no foam.

But Friday night in the Merchandise Mart other kinds of art work by local Starbucks employees will be showcased in the fourth annual Avant-Grande show. In partnership with RedmoonTheater and Gallery 37, this year's Avant-Grande will display art pieces ranging from paintings and photos to sculpture and jewelry created by more than120 artists/baristas. All proceeds from the $20 admission tickets will go to Gallery 37 and Redmoon.

When rushing to get your daily java dose, lingering to admire the elaborately decorated chalkboards found in many Starbucks' locations may be the last thing on your mind. But they are often evidence of artists who double as coffeemakers.

"They're a big enough company that they have a lot of diverse people within it," said Barrett Dvorsky, a Schaumburg Starbucks barista who has participated in Avant-Grande since its beginning. This year, 26-year-old Dvorsky entered a series of abstract landscape photos from a recent trip to Alaska and a large print of one of his drawings. He is also a freelance graphic designer. A lot of the employees are artists and musicians, he said. "The Avant-Grande is Starbucks' way of promoting partners' artwork."

The annual exhibit began in 2003 as a means to showcase employee talent and give the artists a chance to sell their work. Staffers from Eiseman Associates, the Chicago firm that handles public relations for Starbucks' Midwest region, noticed the fanciful chalkboard designs at their local Starbucks and begun talking to employees about their artistic background. After a little research, they discovered a number of established artists wearing the familiar Starbucks green aprons and black shirts.

"I know a lot of people in the performing arts who are baristas," said 21-year-old Priscilla Rodriguez, who works in a downtown Chicago Starbucks. She entered two paintings in this year's event, one with a strong anime bent. "I guess it's the black attire. It's very friendly to the performing arts."

Since starting in Chicago, the event has spread to more than a dozen cities, including San Francisco, New York and Dallas.

Starbucks' fabled flexible hours and employee benefits make it an attractive place for artists to work. The chance to show their art in Avant-Grande is a perk.

"I feel that it's a great event that inspires people," said Sergio Quinonez, a 30-year-old Hyde Park barista, who sold a Ray Charles portrait for $350 to the Starbucks headquarters three years ago. This year, he entered two portraits, one of a Starbucks employee he encouraged to participate in the show. "And it gets better every year."

Nineteen-year-old Sara Ortega, who works with Rodriguez downtown, is considered to be the store's in-house artist. Sporting earrings she made from the rings of pop-top cans and safety pins, she sketches anime-inspired drawings during her 10-minute breaks. She is currently working on a photography series inspired by fun moments on the job. While she wasn't chosen for this year's Avant-Grande, she is cheering Rodriguez on.

"[Avant-Grande] gives artists like Priscilla a chance," said Ortega as she made a mobile out of straws. "Sometimes we can't get out there on our own. It gives us a first step to express ourselves."

Time: Friday, November 17, 7 p.m. to midnight

Place: 222 Merchandise Mart Plaza, 8th Floor

$$$: Tickets can be purchased at the door for $20. Guests must be 21 years of age.

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