Industrial Arts is where we talk to some of our favorite hospitality professionals about their involvement in the non-culinary, non-mixological arts.
Lucy Valena owns Voltage Coffee & Art, in Cambridge. As its name suggests, it is an energetic space that’s equals parts coffee shop and art gallery, where one can sip rosewater lattes between paintings and card catalogs.
We sat down with her in a cozy booth at nearby State Park, over tree-themed cocktails and a mountain of fried things.
Christine Fernsebner Eslao: Has your work in visual art influenced your approach to Voltage and its space?
Lucy Valena: Absolutely. I think a lot of the thinking I do at Voltage is sort of combining different conceptual elements in the space. It’s like, every time I can make the space feel more like a gallery, more like a cafe, kind of going back and forth between those two spaces and languages, is something I get really excited about. How people interact in the space.
The whole place I kind of view as a big -- I mean, this is really pretentious -- I kind of view it as a big sculpture that I’m constantly working on. And I kind of like that element of it. I know that’s not how probably anybody else looks at it.
It’s really nice to say, today I’ll put some tree branches over here and see if anyone notices.
We try to focus on [showing work by] emerging artists. I think the best thing we can do is provide a launch pad. Something in between a coffee shop and a gallery. We love it when we can provide a more gallery-like experience for somebody who’s only shown in coffee shops. Maybe their work is really good but they’re never shown anywhere but a cafe. They can bring it to a level -- not a white box gallery, which is an impossible world to get into unless you’re already there.
[Voltage] is casual. It feels okay. It’s not terrifying.
CFE: I have yet to be terrified.
LV: Good! I will say that the one thing that can prevent someone from being terrified at Voltage is good interaction across the counter. Sometimes I see people come in and they’re like --
[looks around with a simulated expression of bewilderment]
-- so freaked out. Like, “What’s going on with this place?”
CFE: “Did I accidentally encounter art?”
LV: Exactly. “What am I doing here? There are all these tattooed kids. What are they doing?
"What do you mean I can’t get a regular coffee? I don’t understand.”
CFE: How do you reassure them?
LV: By making fun of them a little, sometimes. Lovingly.
I often say, “Don’t be scared.”
Which has a mixed effect. Usually it’s positive.
Brayden C. Burroughs: I feel like sometimes I know enough to have a conversation [about the finer points of coffee], but I don’t even want to have that conversation.
LV: I try to keep it light. It’s one of those things that’s hard to balance -- trying to elevate coffee in a way that’s not scary.
I find that a lot of third wave cafes that you go to, if you don’t know anything about coffee, you’re never going to learn, because everybody behind the counter’s an asshole.
They don’t want to engage. I walk into a cafe and I get treated badly and I’m like, if you treat me this way, you know…? I’m a professional barista, I’m in my twenties, what the hell? How is everybody else getting treated?
What’s great about the coffee industry is that it’s totally bottomless, because it’s still so new. So we’re learning more and more about coffee every year. Which is great -- if you have the right attitude it’s really fun. But a lot of people don’t understand that whatever they say is going to be proven wrong in two years. I just, like, wait.
“The only way to make pour-over is this way.” Two years later it’s like, “The only way to make pour-over is this way.” I’m like, that is the exact opposite of what you just said two years ago, but, okay -- I knew it was going to happen.
CFE: Do you witness any transformations in your customers’ capacity for art appreciation?
LV: The one thing that I can concretely say is that we have often sold art to first-time art buyers.
I love when people who have never bought art before in their life -- that, I think, is killer. I think it’s because it’s less intimidating than a gallery, and it’s like, “I could see that in my apartment.”
Especially in Kendall Square: “I have huge white walls, too. I have lots of natural light, too. This will look great in my loft.”
CFE: Earlier in March, you were offering to accept drawings of pangolins as currency. How many pangolins did you earn? What was their value in dollars?
LV: I should have made an entry in the POS system: “Cash. Pangolins...”
What I learned from that experiment is that there’s a new question for me, which is: How far will people go for free coffee? I’m interested to test the limit of this question.
We got thirty. We earned thirty pangolins, of varying quality. Some of them were really well done. Some of them were “no shame.”
BostInno did a little blurb about it. They included in the article a little picture of a pangolin and said, “If you can’t draw, just trace this.”
That doesn’t count. That doesn’t count. It’s unacceptable.
CFE: Are you saying that tracing paper is a disruptive technology?
LV: If a moment is going to be taken to draw a pangolin, maybe two moments can be taken to try to draw it freehand. Attempt it, even if it sucks. I don’t care.
BCB: It’s pretty angular.
LV: I didn’t say it had to be good.
There were a couple that looked more like amoeba. Which is great, and I love it. I like the attempt.
BCB: Are they going to go up?
LV: We’re trying to figure it out. I think I might frame some of them and put them in the bathrooms.
I think the idea of trading art for coffee is really funny. I would like to pose a challenge for people to actually make fake currency and bring it in.
CFE: Will you accept bitcoins?
CFE: Some of the best art I’ve ever seen in a coffee shop has been at Voltage. What can you say about your process of selecting or soliciting it to explain why it’s so good?
LV: Because I have a curator, that’s why! She’s amazing. My curator is Anna Schindelar. She’s fabulous. She goes and does studio visits, she finds these people, she networks, she goes to openings. She does all the things that I would love to do, but I just don’t [have time to do].
I generally just trust [Schindelar]. Sometimes I don’t know what’s going up until the day before. I’m always there for the hang; I always help with the hang. But there’s something really funny about having no idea.
She’s been really great, lately, at balancing it between artists who are just starting out, and more established artists -- we just had Adam O’Day.
CFE: How do you [visible scare quotes] “curate” the beverage menu? What is the recipe development process like?
LV: The lattes and hot chocolates I developed during the [phase during which Voltage was a coffee catering service]. I developed almost all of them in my kitchen, with a tiny little Gaggia machine, before I launched the service. I didn’t know there were books like The Flavor Bible, all these amazingly helpful tools -- I had no idea. So it was process of elimination. Which is insane.
I was working full time at the time, at a cafe, and on my days off I’d go and buy a bunch of random stuff, and take it home, and see what, if anything, worked. And then when the catering service launched, I was able to start testing it.
Basically, I ended up getting paid to test my recipes on people. Which is hilarious. Now my recipe development phase is much more organized.
BCB: What is your studio art degree in?
LV: You’re going to laugh.
CFE: Please explain sculptural painting.
LV: It’s a very Hampshire [College] thing.
CFE: Is it interdisciplinary, within a single discipline?
LV: Basically, high-relief drawing and painting -- build up a canvas using a soft sculptural element like nylon. A lot of elaborate stitching to build it up, and then I paint over that. It was something I was really obsessed with for a very long time.
BCB: Coffee is a more stimulating creative substance than alcohol, and yet alcohol gets romanticized in art. Why is that?
LV: Okay, I’m about to go on a tangent.
LV: I’m an active participant in both substances and I love them both for different reasons.
The Age of Enlightenment would never have happened if coffee hadn’t come into existence.
Medieval history reads like one long frat party: there are these guys warring, and they’re always sort of screaming, “You’re on my land! I’m going to kill you!” Everybody in Europe would wake up in the morning and drink beer. It wasn’t very alcoholic beer, but it was beer. They would drink that all day.
When coffee and tea became popular -- which happened relatively quickly when people were able to get it -- suddenly people were waking up and drinking coffee instead of alcohol. They were moving to cities, they were beginning to work in factories, sugar -- there’s all sorts of crazy stuff happening at once.
Coffeehouses were these incredible places where people would meet and exchange ideas and talk really loudly about all sorts of important things. The stock exchange was invented in a coffeehouse. So was the French Revolution.
I think it’s all well and good for people to romanticize alcohol more than coffee, but we would never be where we are now, as a society, if it weren’t for caffeine. It’s important stuff.
Photo by John A. Savoia.