To borrow from the diamond purveyor’s slogan, “a coffee cup is forever.” For that matter, so is a plastic grocery bag, a water bottle and a disposable diaper. Maybe they don’t really last forever, but to a planet that is already overladen with trash, a non-biodegradable coffee cup might as well be plutonium.

   Since the cultural phenomenon of Starbucks and other coffee chains, without thinking, people drink from and then dispose of several cups a day, as well as plastic sip lids and stirrers. Maybe it’s time to bring back the days of waitresses in beehive hairdos pouring cheap coffee into a ceramic cup — your personal cup stashed behind the counter.

   Or, as Eva Mantell does, you can collect discarded coffee cups and make art out of them. As other artists and sculptors have done with plastic water bottles and grocery bags, her “shredded coffee cups” take a common object and give it a second life — and lighten the load that goes to the landfill.

   ”It’s a series I’ve been working on for about a year,” Ms. Mantell says. “Each sculpture starts as a coffee cup and I cut them or tear them. I don’t add anything but I don’t take anything away either. I’m just seeing what the form can do.”

   Ms. Mantell points out that you can’t recycle a coffee cup because it has an inner layer of plastic to keep the drink warm and protect the consumer’s hands. Most coffee lovers probably don’t even realize this.

   ”They’re really bad for the environment,” she says. “It’s a shame that we start out thinking something is a good idea because of convenience. But discarded coffee cups are all over the place now. I even wonder if they’ll be done away with at some time in the future. If so, in this way, I’m also memorializing something.”

   The Princeton resident is one of some 40 visual artists, all alumni of Princeton Day School, whose works are on view at the school’s recently re-opened Anne Reid Gallery, through Jan. 18. This is the fourth annual alumni exhibit, and includes photography, painting, sculpture and ceramics, as well as installation art.

   Ms. Mantell, who creates in a variety of media, stumbled on the concept of shredding coffee cups, but has become enamored with the form.

   ”In different media, including video, photography, sculpture and collage works, I use what is around me: magazines, television, used coffee cups, what comes in the mail,” she writes in her artist’s statement. “I meet the prefabricated, the preprocessed, and feel this material is fair game for my art game. The process in my most recent work involves drawing on or cutting through what already has plenty of back story.

   ”Tearing, cutting, fringing, curling, stripping, peeling, blurring, dissolving and burning — to start something new,” Ms. Mantell continues. “A friend sent me a (William Burroughs) quote recently: ‘If you cut into the present, the future leaks out.’ In general, making something that was once solid porous, retooling it, repatterning it, lets me take something apart and rebuild it simultaneously.”

   She notes that there is something almost comical about her shredded coffee cups. The form of the cup has been revered in history — think of the Holy Grail, for example. In ancient times vessels were crafted in precious metals and from hand-blown glass as well.

   ”They were these sacred pieces in art history, so these are a little more profane,” Ms. Mantell says. “Making art from something so common is also a way to start a conversation about art with almost anyone. It’s very basic, like having a cup of coffee and enjoying that moment.”

   Using scissors or tearing the cup by hand, Ms. Mantell is able to coax some amazing shapes out of the thing. It’s also remarkable how colorful the cups are, from the special holiday edition bright red Starbucks cups to the standard lunch truck blue and white — usually with some homage to ancient Greece on them.

   ”It’s funny that when I became attuned to coffee cups, all of a sudden they were everywhere,” Ms. Mantell says. “There are some wonderful designs out there. They take a long time to make and each one is a bit of a challenge. I’m impressed by what a strong, resilient little form it is. It can take a lot of cutting and still keep this form. Sometimes I really have to rip the heck out of it.”

   Since having a cup of coffee is such a universal experience, Ms. Mantell has taken her shredded coffee cups and turned them into performance pieces. She sets up a stand on the street, displays her artwork but also serves viewers a free cup of coffee (in a non-shredded cup, of course).

   ”I tell people ‘Please just bring back the cup so I can turn it into art,’” she says. “It becomes this moment of conversation, connecting the art to this basic thing we do. When you’re an artist, you’re isolated. The rest of the world doesn’t sit around and think about art. So the questions are, how do you meet other people, how do you talk about your art? My thing became this strange little table in the real world, where you could meet over a cup of coffee and talk about art. I did this last spring at Communiversity and also in Brooklyn and it was really fun — a great way to connect.”

Eva Mantell’s shredded coffee cups are on view as part of the group show of alumni artists at the Anne Reid Gallery, Princeton Day School, 650 The Great Road, Princeton, through Jan. 18. (609) 624-6700; www.pds.org. Eva Mantell on the Web: www.evamantell.com

 

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