How does she do it? And are those really tea bags?
Those are among the typical first reactions to Didi Arias’ miniature paintings of shelter animals.
The answers? Yes, they are actual tea bags, dried and emptied. And to work on such a tiny canvas, Arias makes sure she has good light, uses small paintbrushes and, of course, wears her glasses, filling in the details with ink pens.
But Arias hopes her paintings inspire more than mere curiosity: She’d like her viewers to take to heart her message about the importance of shelter adoption.
Arias painted the irresistible animal faces for Shelter Animal Adoption, a sketchbook of her tea bag portraits that she completed for The Sketchbook Project of the Brooklyn Art Library in New York. The book features more than a dozen paintings of shelter dogs she has known, fostered or adopted (along with a cat, a canary and a rabbit, to remind would-be adopters of the variety at shelters) and pro-adoption messages like, “Adoption helps more than one animal, leaving space and resources for the shelter to help another in need.”
A Massachusetts native who has lived in Spain since 1984, Arias has a passion for animal welfare as well as art. She volunteered at and later managed PAWS-PATAS, a nonprofit shelter in the province of Almeria. Meanwhile, she’s pursued painting as a hobby for much of her life, getting more serious about it shortly before she retired from the shelter about three years ago. Partly because of the rigors of her shelter job, she explains, “I needed something for myself, and the art was what was missing.”
Arias typically does paintings that are larger than tea bags, but she confesses to drinking “absolutely tons of tea,” and she likes to experiment with collages and painting on different surfaces. For one series of paintings, she glued dried tea bags onto paper, leaving some tea particles to create a textured surface. Eventually she started painting on the tea bags themselves. “I just decided to make little tiny portraits.”
An artist friend in Ohio asked Arias to consider participating in The Sketchbook Project, which gathers the work of artists of different ages, backgrounds and skill levels from around the world. For $30, the project sends you a sketchbook; you fill it with your original artwork and send it back. Founded in 2006, the project has over 41,000 sketchbooks in its permanent collection, which is open to the public. About half of the books are online, and a mobile version of the library goes out on tour.
After initially balking at the idea because she wasn’t sure she had enough time, Arias decided the project would be worthwhile if her sketchbook promoted a good cause, and soon she was gluing her tea bag portraits of shelter animals onto pages. “If this book prompts somebody anywhere to just go to the shelter and take one animal home, then all the work—and it was many hours of work—was worth it,” she says.
Because the paintings are so small, Arias concentrated on the animals’ faces. (The one exception was a teacup Chihuahua named Laptop, whose whole body fit on a tea bag.) “I really wanted to get a lot of expression across, and I think that really worked,” she says, noting that she got the intended reactions after sharing the portraits on her social media pages. People remarked on how cute the dogs are, for example, or expressed a desire to adopt one.
Arias hopes her sketchbook paintings help dispel some of the persistent myths about shelter animals, namely that they’re “bad” or “sick” or “somebody else’s garbage.” “We know that’s not true,” she says. “So I wanted to show healthy, fun, expressive, happy animals. … I think that came through in the portraits.”
Making the tea bag portraits is great fun, Arias says, and a way for her to stay connected to the shelter and rescue world, which she’s been involved with for more than 30 years. “Art is about passion and emotion, and boy is my little sketchbook full of that!”