The scent of coffee brewing signals the start of the day for most of us but for Ballston Spa artist Ilona Zabolotna the aroma is synonymous with her palette.
Using brewed espresso, Zabolotna creates effusive and at times intricately detailed paintings, all in the sepia-colored hues one might see in their morning cup of joe.
Born in Ukraine into a family of artists, Zabolotna started studying art at a young age and studied any medium she could, from watercolor to ceramics. She eventually earned her masters degree in ceramics and went on to exhibit her work around Ukraine.
However, when she moved to the United States in 2011, and then to Ballston Spa in 2013, it was difficult to continue her artistic career, in part because of the language barrier. At the time, she didn’t speak English and it inhibited her from showing her work locally.
“You cannot ask because you don’t understand the answer . . . it just pushed me out,” Zabolotna said.
So for about six years, she worked as a barista at Coffee Planet in Ballston Spa, brewing coffee and learning the language.
“I decided if I will be with people, even if I don’t want to speak, you still have to learn. You have to talk and this is how you can learn English,” Zabolotna said.
There she was also able to display some of her acrylic paintings and it’s because of that job that she began making coffee art. In 2018, when the former owner, Cliff Baum, decided to retire and sell the business, she wanted to make him a parting gift.
“He was very kind to me and I wanted to give him a present,” Zabolotna said. She painted a portrait of him using brewed coffee.
“When I saw the reaction, people were excited about it,” Zabolotna said.
She decided she was on to something and started experimenting with the medium. At first, she used more of a watercolor technique with the brewed coffee. To create richer, darker hues, she tried drying out the coffee and baking it. More recently, she’s used brewed espresso, which she dries and bakes, to create her paint palette.
“I just tried to find my own way and style,” Zabolotna said.
Since that first portrait, her coffee art has garnered a following and she is often busy with commissions, painting portraits of people and their pets.
Zabolotna also teaches classes and workshops locally, including at The Blooming Artist in Clifton Park.
In her spare time, she also creates work to exhibit regionally, capturing everything from moody cityscapes to the majestic nature of horses.
On Saturday, she’ll have her work set up at Art in the Park, an event hosted by Saratoga Arts in Congress Park. It brings together artists from all over the region working in a variety of mediums, from photography to painting to sculpture.
It also includes live music from Veena & Devesh Chandra, High Peaks Bluegrass Band, Mark & Jill, the Luzerne Music Center and Mark Oppenneer.
“I’m really excited about how diverse our music line-up is. We’ll have sitar in the morning and then we have a bluegrass band at noon and then Mark & Jill sing the blues,” said organizer Olivia Walton, who is the membership and development coordinator at Saratoga Arts.
There will be community booths from local arts and equine organizations. The event is presented in partnership with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, which works to save former racehorses from neglect and slaughter.
“I think the partnership with Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, outside of them being an awesome non-profit, is reaching another crowd of folks . . . that would otherwise not attend an art fair in the park,” Walton said.
For Zabolotna, who has participated in Art in the Park previously, it’s a way to be involved in the art community and a welcome chance to present her work.
“I [had a rich] artistic life in Ukraine. So right now I just want to get it back [to that],” Zabolotna said.
She hasn’t visited her native country in about a decade. Her family, including her mother and brother, still live in the Donetsk Oblast region, which has been under Russian occupation since 2014, said Zabolotna. Watching the invasion further into Ukraine has been disturbing.
“[I’m] so much more worried about this. You cannot change, you cannot help. You cannot take them from the place,” Zabolotna said.
Working on commissions and teaching classes has kept her mind and hands busy at least. She’s also recently started doing more ceramics work at The Blooming Artist, which has been rewarding.
“I just love clay. I love coffee and I love paintings,” Zabolotna said. “The more you learn and the more you know the more interested you are [in other mediums] so it’s like my brain is always working in a few directions.”