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Painting with Pinot: Artist Juniper Harrower's tannic palette

By Jessica Yadegaran

Posted in the Contra Costa Times 5/21/2012

In the heat of a studio in the arty La Boca district of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Juniper Harrower made an exquisite discovery.

The Berkeley painter was experimenting with canvases, stitching them to large pieces of heavy watercolor paper, when she knocked over a glass of malbec. The inky wine spilled everywhere, and a slow maroon crawl swept

over the white surfaces. Great, she thought. Defeated, Harrower walked

away, telling herself she'd deal with it later. The next morning, she took one look at the accident and gasped.

"Oh my God," she said, "that's beautiful."

The wine had dried in nuanced shades, a dark, almost pixilated maroon on the canvas; a washed garnet on the watercolor paper. The scientist in Harrower was instantly giddy. A plant biologist by training, she immersed herself in the new medium, finding ways to manipulate the organic compounds in wine to achieve various visual effects.

Two years later, Harrower, 30, is sitting in her sunny artist's co-op on Gilman Street, comparing theeffects of different varietals as pigment. Pinot noir is thin and requires layering, while old-vine zinfandel is dark and less opaque, Harrower says, brushing her cropped brown bangs from her eyes. Talk shifts from the oxidative properties of wine to the medicinal salves she makes from plants she identifies on hikes in her native town of Joshua Tree, near the national park. You quickly learn that it takes one to two bottles to produce a painting and that expensive wine produces richer colors. Her favorite so far is a pinot noir from Napa's famed Domaine Carneros. She also sources art subjects on those hikes. At first glance, there is something arresting about Harrower's paintings, their earthy colors and haunting, primordial shapes. You're not sure what they are, so you ask.

"Animal skulls," Harrower says of the coyote, crow and mountain lion skulls that she paints. "I just think they're really beautiful. Especially when you first hold them in your hands and realize this creature was alive."

She's also painted moths and flowers, and dabbles in goddess-like expressions of the female form. Since returning from Buenos Aires in 2010, Harrower has shown her work in studios and galleries in Napa, Sonoma and San Francisco. Save for pieces currently featured in the "Organica" exhibit at Driftwood Salon, a gallery in San Francisco's Mission District, everything has sold. "I need to get to work," she says with a smile.

Harrower isn't the first to paint with wine. Philippe DuFrenoy of Bordeaux, France, is known for it. So are Nelva Richardson of Sacramento and Christina LoCascio of Santa Ynez, who, like Harrower, discovered that heating wine and plain-old oxidation -- exposing the wines to oxygen, a no-no if you plan to drink it -- changes its consistency and color on paper.

"It's like learning all the time," Harrower says, who spent the weeks following her discovery hunched over the stove, cooking wine like a mad scientist. Her roommates got used to the smell of hot rioja early in the morning. "It stinks, unfortunately," she says.

But those artists focus on the things you'd expect -- chateaux, vineyards, portraits of wine luminaries. Harrower's wine paintings are singular in that they are rooted in a deep understanding of plant chemistry. For instance, she halts the oxidation process with a fixative, and then applies a final sealant to protect against ultraviolet damage. That way, as the wine ages, it won't brown and fade on the page. When she wanted contrast for her predominately red palette, she turned to the ink cap mushroom, an edible (though sometimes poisonous) fungi that grows in and around the Berkeley hills. She is always seeking out pigments from nature. She says she'd like to try mold or the soot from the controlled burning

of old grapevines.

It is this interdisciplinary approach to science that fuels Harrower's artistic endeavors, says Mary Wildermuth, an associate professor in the plant and microbial biology department at UC Berkeley, where Harrower received her bachelor's degree with honors in 2005. Harrower spent two years in Wildermuth's lab studying plant pathology.

"She's very creative and unusual in that she integrates diverse knowledge, not just plant biology, but organic chemistry, ethnobotany and molecular biology with her own beautiful artistic ability," Wildermuth says. "She's also one of those people who is very joyful and appreciative of life."

It's no surprise considering where she calls home. Harrower grew up the daughter of Douglas and Carla Harrower, owners of a landscape architecture business in Palm Springs. She was home-schooled and upon finishing high school at 16 became a volunteer docent at the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve in San Bernardino County. There, she met an ethnobiologist who inspired her studies. This summer, she is doing field research in the windswept cloud forests of Monteverde, Costa Rica, alongside NASA-funded ecologist Robert Lawson.

Who knows what she'll paint with there.


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