by Nancy E. McCarthy
Artist Amelia Fais Harnas of Painted Post creates portraits on white fabric using red wine as her primary medium. It is an unusual process of staining the cloth in stages using a wax resist to create light and dark variations or repel color entirely in some areas. It’s similar to batik, the ancient technique of decorating fabric with dye and wax.
The wine stain idea came to her after over a year of “what-ifs.” “What if wine was treated like dye? What if batik could be a portrait instead of a pattern? What if I could make portraits with red wine using a wax resist? Bingo!” Harnas explains.
The artist has a special fondness for pinot noir but she isn’t fussy about her painting wine varietals and drinks that she uses for her artwork. “I feel more connected to the piece that way,” says Harnas. “I just have to make sure I remember which glass is the drinking wine and which is the painting wine!”
Harnas’ artistic evolution began upon birth into a highly creative clan. Her mother, Jennifer Fais, is a watercolorist, and Edd Torkarz Harnas, her father, is a portrait and figurative artist. Extended family members include musicians, composers, poets and craftspeople. Harnas was surrounded by artists, family and teachers who encouraged her in disciplines that excited her – art, dance, music, theatre and film.
Harnas, 37, grew up in Corning, the elder of two sisters. While both parents are professional artists, her mother also was an environmental planner and her father was a morning radio announcer at WCBA. In the afternoons, he painted in his home studio and Harnas would sprawl on the floor nearby to draw and paint, too. Harnas also took modern dance classes (from local arts maven Lois Welk), which she describes “as pivotal in my development as a creative.” Dance still remains important, balancing out the stationary postures she must assume when creating art.
At 13, she began participating in Girlsmarts retreats and workshops that local improvisational performance artist Rhonda Morton designed for teenage girls, using the arts to develop self-awareness, confidence, and resilience. “She was curious, open, energetic and super creative. And none of that has changed, only deepened over time,” says Morton.
Morton, now a certified leadership coach, has the largest wine stain work that Harnas created. The Three Graces is a 3-foot by 5-foot triple portrait of Harnas and two friends. “The piece I own is gorgeous,” she says. “They seem to be presiding over the world with beauty, grace, strength and serenity. I love it!”
Her parents divorced by the time Harnas began pursuing a Liberal Arts degree at Corning Community College (CCC) in 2000. Her father moved to Hawaii and her mother later married Noel Sylvester, a welder, photographer and installation artist. Beulahland, the couple’s 1858 farmhouse in Risingville, is a creative compound and host to many epic art events that Harnas helps to organize.
Her time at CCC was artistically fertile. She took drawing, painting and graphic design classes from David Higgins, whom she describes as the quintessential fine artist. “His work is exquisitely, wildly imaginative and profound,” says Harnas.
Off campus, Harnas studied old master technique oil painting and portraiture with painter Thomas S. Buechner. During her CCC years, Harnas was Buechner’s studio assistant tracking his paintings (100 annually) through a digital, photo and slide inventory system. His simple motto to “do good work” resonates with her still.
In 2002 – her graduation year – she trained Bridget Bossart van Otterloo, an artist who moved to Corning to replace her in Buechner’s studio. “She was so welcoming and connected me to the artist community here,” says van Otterloo. Van Otterloo owns Harnas’ first wine stain, a self-portrait embellished with embroidery. “I purchased it at a studio sale and got a good deal, before her wine stains became world famous!” she says.
Harnas eventually attained her BA in Graphic Arts & Arts Business through Empire State College. Harnas held many non-arts related jobs before she would ultimately support herself as a full-time artist.
After a captivating visit to Portland, Oregon, Harnas relocated in 2007. She befriended a group of creatives and enjoyed a vibrant artistic lifestyle. Harnas worked for an organic paint company by day while performing as a vocalist. She also produced two watercolor portrait series and took up oil painting again.
In 2010 she returned to Corning and began experimenting with the wine stains. Concerned about their stability and how they would age, Harnas didn’t show these works for a year.
Later that year, she visited her sister in Germany and then crafted her own art history tour, visiting 53 museums in nine countries. Upon her return she started “timidly” exhibiting her wine stains and sharing them with friends. An acquaintance submitted some wine stain images to thisiscolossal.com, an international website for contemporary art and visual expression. “It spread like wildfire through the internet,” says Harnas. “People wanted to interview me from all over the world.” Commissioned works would follow.
In 2012, she began to combine pyrography (wood burning) with wine stains. Harnas and her boyfriend moved to Portland, Maine in 2014. That time period wasn’t artistically prolific but Harnas did work out a new resist technique. When the relationship ended in 2016, the artist moved to Painted Post.
Harnas’ latest work, The Merism, is a large-scale grant-funded project. Two 7-foot by 4-foot wine stains hung like tapestries – one of Adam and one of Eve – will comprise a rotating exhibit in Corning-area churches and bars in September and October. “The project is centered around the question of what is truly sacred or profane, inviting viewers to reexamine common assumptions about the first man and first woman, as well as what it means to view the same artwork in different contexts,” Harnas explains.
It’s her swan song. After that she plans to retire from the wine medium to explore new media.
“I think Amelia is very wise in knowing when a good thing must come to an end. It’s important for an artist to keep moving forward exploring new ideas,” says van Otterloo.
Harnas is open to the possibility of re-visiting the wine medium from a new approach in the distant future but after almost a decade of wine stains (“the longest time I’ve done one thing”), she needs a clean break. “At this point, I’m glad that they’ve been intriguing to folks and I’m grateful for all of the opportunities they’ve afforded me,” says Harnas, who is truly excited to discover what’s next.
The Artist’s Process
“Essentially, I alternate layers of wax and wine,” says Harnas.
Her creations begin with selecting the right fabric. She purchases white sheets, napkins and tablecloths at thrift stores. Through trial and error, Harnas discovered that re-purposed materials work best as her canvas.
She draws a basic portrait on paper with a black crayon and then places the fabric on top of it to trace the image onto the material.
Harnas coats whatever she wants to stay white with melted wax using a tjanting (pen-like batik tool) or a kistka (an electrical heating tool) before a first layer of wine stain is applied with a paint brush.
After that dries, the artist covers whatever she wants to stay very light pink with more wax, then adds another layer of wine.
She repeats these steps until the darkest areas have several layers of wine.
Because the process is slow and laborious, Harnas creates three to five portraits at the same time. She can work on one piece while the others dry and just rotate through until they are all complete.
Small works are framed under glass and larger works are sewn to a backing fabric and hung from decorative rods, like a tapestry.
For more information, visit trulyamelia.com.