Raised in Corning, New York, Amelia Fais Harnas grew up surrounded by Finger Lakes wine and her parents’ artwork—mom painted watercolors, dad did portraits and their friends were artists of all stripes. In 2010, Harnas started using the batik process of wax-resist dyeing to layer “wine stains” into her own watercolor portraits, and the new medium caused quite a stir, leading to commissions for Foreign Affairs magazine, PunchDrink, Campo Viejo winery in Spain and many individual works.
How did you get into art?
When you grow up around artists and all of their artist friends, it’s pretty hard not to just do that. I ended up being a studio assistant for the late Thomas Buechner. He knew everything about old master techniques. I was his studio assistant, I modeled for him quite a bit, I apprenticed with him. I got spoiled, basically. I never went to traditional art school. Everything I know about art is through my parents and their friends.
When did wine become part of the picture?
In the summer of 2010, I started using really crude materials in the backyard. I’m pretty sure I tried with a $10 French Burgundy that wasn’t bad. People always say, “It’s such a waste of wine!” But I’m drinking too. I get to do two things at once, and a bottle of wine is now an art expense!
What’s your wine background?
Growing up in the Finger Lakes region, we were always going up and around the lakes to visit wineries. It’s pretty beautiful. I also lived in Portland, Oregon, for a while, with somebody who knew their stuff in terms of Pacific Northwest wines. That got me really into Pinot Noir. It was out there that I really got more curious. At one point, I was trying to memorize the regions in France.
I have a deep respect for wine. It’s this long-standing, really basic human experience. Wine has been around a very long time, and it even has sacred undertones. It’s just such a powerful thing that you can put in a glass and drink. That’s pretty fascinating from that standpoint alone.
What’s challenging about your process?
As the wax layers build up, you lose sight of what’s going on. You never really know 100% what is happening. I remember being stunned, like, “Wow, this work actually looks pretty cool.”
I was concerned about the archival properties. With traditional media, you know how long they are going to last and what to do to make them last as long as possible. With the wine stain, I have no idea. No one else is doing the batik method with wine, so I can’t call people up and ask… But I do grapple with how long they’ll last. In the grand scheme of things, it’s just like a bottle of wine. You could keep it in your cellar forever and ever and ever, but eventually you should open it and drink it and enjoy. And then it will be gone. The wine stains have that sense to them as well.
Art and Wine Through Time
What other projects have you done?
Just this past fall, Campo Viejo brought me to Spain to do a special commission series for their harvest celebration, which was an amazing experience. I did a ton of portraits for them, including all three of their winemakers. I used exclusively their Rioja wine, and drank a lot of their Rioja! It was really a beautiful collaboration.
Which wine varieties work best?
At one point, I bought pH paper to feel scientific about what I’m doing, but I got totally lazy about that very quickly. I do prefer a lot of the French stuff—I’m drinking it too, so I’ve got to enjoy it—but I started using a lot of Carmenère and a lot out of Argentina that was at that price point. I want something super dry with a nice color. I favor that sultry brick-red color as opposed to more magenta or purply color. That’s always a really fun question to ask in a wine shop: which of these $10 and under wines is the driest with a nice brick-red color? People don’t usually know the color right off the top of their head.
What kind of wines do you like to drink?
I’m always a Pinot Noir person. I love dry reds, although, because of my upbringing, I do favor a nice dry Riesling too. But I have somewhat recently been into super hoppy beer.