If we had to limit ourselves to three words to use to describe our July Teafluencer, Sophia Khan, they would undoubtedly have to be “watercolorist,” “wanderlust” and “Italophile.” This native New Yorker with a love of travel, poetry, architecture, art and the cherished practice of sending handwritten notes creates an atmosphere of calm and reflection in her art-- something we could all use a little more of in our lives these days.
If we could add a fourth word to describe Sophia, it would be, in our humble opinion, “tea lover,” which are technically two words… so maybe “teaophile?” Because not only does she enjoy drinking it, she uses it in her art, too!
Harney: Tell us a little about you. Where are you from, educational background, where you live, family, etc.
Sophia: I am from New York, and have lived here for most of my life. I studied architecture in New York and also while living in Florence, Italy. I love living on Long Island where I am both close to beaches and harbors, and can also venture out to NYC to explore the museums, cafés and galleries, as well as all the educational, musical and cultural events that the city offers.
Harney: You write that “my desire for a creative and adventurous life began when I was just a child.” Tell us how that came about.
Sophia: When I was just in elementary school, I was absolutely enchanted by the black and white images of Paris’ architectural wonders shown in the Encyclopedia Britannica set that we had in our home. I remember being intrigued by and drawing a pencil sketch of the Arc de Triomphe. These images inspired a love for architecture and adventure within me, planting the seeds of what are now my lifestyle and interests, the watercolors that I paint and the wanderlust that I infuse my art with.
Harney: How did you land on watercolors as your medium? Do you ever paint with other mediums?
Sophia: The very first watercolor I remember painting was while I was pursuing my architectural studies in Italy. I was in a small town in the south of Italy that has a series of cave dwellings called the Sassi. As students, we were taught to capture what we saw with either pencil or charcoal sketches. I was very moved, however, by this particular place and their caves and knew that there was something more I wanted to capture, and that a sketch would be insufficient. I decided to put to use the small set of watercolors I had instinctively brought along.
The watercolors I painted while there, over 20 years ago, have the beginnings of the style I now paint in. I was not so interested in a literal representation. Instead, there was much more experimenting with capturing the mood of the place with vibrant colors and brushstrokes, painting what I wanted to remember most, and how I was moved by it.
I have tried other mediums such as oils, acrylics and even book arts, but painting with watercolors is absolutely my favorite medium. The effects that watercolors offer are endlessly inspiring, and there is always something new to experiment and challenge oneself with.
Harney: You’re clearly inspired by what you see on your travels. Where have your travels taken you to? Do you have a favorite place to visit?
Sophia: I am an incurable Italophile, and Italy remains my favorite place to explore. I can never tire of it, and I often return to my favorite towns and cities, which to date are Venice, Montepulciano and Matera. Some of the other places I have enjoyed traveling to and painting include Paris, Morocco and Spain.
Harney: It’s not only the structures you see that inspire your work, nature is also part of your art. Tell us about Rivers & Petals.
Sophia: The Rivers & Petals collection came from experimenting with painting without a particular subject in mind. As the watercolors became more abstract, images evoking nature began to emerge. Sometimes an artist steps back and allows the creative process to unfold without guiding it too much. This series was a result of this beautiful organic process, leading to a collection of new watercolors that capture the light, fluidity and ethereal air and fragrance of rivers and petals.
Harney: It appears you also love poetry. How has poetry influenced your work, either directly or indirectly?
Sophia: I love poetry and was recently commissioned to paint a watercolor to accompany a haiku series that was published online. Sometimes I write my own poetry after painting a watercolor, inspired by the painting and my travel memories. However, poetry had never before been a direct inspiration for my art prior to this commission, so this was a beautiful new opportunity to make art inspired by words that moved me. The watercolor that followed led to further exploration in a style that is more abstract, and eventually led to the Rivers & Petals collection.
Harney: Speaking of the written word-- you create note cards and recently made stationary for people to download for free. Are people interested in stationary? Does anyone write letters anymore? Why were you moved to create stationary?
Sophia: I have a wonderful community of art collectors, and art and travel enthusiasts, who I write to with my newsletter entitled “Letters from My Art Studio.” During a time when we are all facing a global challenge, in which we are physically distant from one another, I wanted to treat my subscribers to something that can perhaps bring a bit of joy and beauty to their days, while also encouraging a way to stay in touch with their loved ones. I received some wonderful emails in response and may be offering a new line of stationary in the future.
Regarding note cards, I think they are a wonderful way to add a personal touch and message to a gift, which sometimes a pre-written card cannot fully convey. I started offering them a few years ago, and they’ve become a popular item in my online shop. In addition to being gifted, the cards can also be framed as small desktop prints. One of my collectors once wrote to share that she had displayed my Venice cards as part of a beautiful wall hanging she made, featuring Venice carnival masks bought during her travels to the city to decorate her home with. It was a delightful surprise to see them being enjoyed in this way.
Harney: You offer paintings on commission. For anyone who might be interested, what is that process like, and what types of commissions have you undertaken?
Sophia: I love taking commissions that celebrate travel, place and architecture. In addition to having painted watercolors for travel magazines, I absolutely love to paint watercolor Travel Mementos for private collectors.
Travel Mementos offer collectors a beautiful work of art that they can adorn their homes with to celebrate their unique travels and also share with friends and family for generations to come.
The process is quite delightful and nostalgic as I ask my collector what place from their travels is most beloved to them. They can share their travel photographs of this place that holds special meaning for them, or I can use one of my own photographs if it is a place I have also traveled to. Using this image as inspiration, I paint them a bespoke watercolor, celebrating what makes this place and its memory unique for them.
I also love to offer commissions while I travel and have enjoyed painting watercolors of Venice, my most beloved muse, during my travels there.
Harney: As a teacher, what’s the most important takeaway you want your students to have from your class?
Sophia: When I teach a watercolor workshop, I always start by teaching loose watercolor washes. Many students can be a bit intimidated by watercolors, and this process is designed to make them more comfortable with the medium as well as free the hand and mind from preconceived ideas of what a watercolor should look like. Watercolor is a medium that allows for an immense amount of individual expression and style, but this only comes when one embraces the process of exploring and experimenting, with a sense of curiosity and adventure.
Harney: We understand -- and are thrilled to learn -- that you are now painting with Harney teas! What gave you the idea to do that? What teas are you using, and what are you creating from them?
Sophia: My most recent creative travel adventure was to Paris. While I was at a pastry shop in NYC some time ago, I remember ordering a cup of tea called Paris. I absolutely loved the flavor and had to ask which tea it was. They shared that it was made by Harney & Sons. Since then, I have enjoyed this tea which takes me back to the feeling I remember most while being in Paris: that of joy.
Several years ago, I had experimented with painting watercolors on tea-stained paper. I loved the sense of age and the feeling of weathered stone that the tint imparted. I decided I wanted to once again experiment with using tea-stained paper, and thought it would be fun to use the Paris tea I often enjoy for a Paris watercolor. (I stain the paper with re-steeped tea after enjoying my cup). I loved the results that followed and decided to continue with painting Venice and Florence, using both the Venetian Tiramisu and Florence teas. Wanderlust does seem to seep (or steep!) into almost all areas of my life.
Harney: Since you’re painting with Harney tea, we assume you are a tea fan. What role does tea play in your life? Do you have any rituals?
Sophia: Tea is an important part of how I begin and set the pace for my day. Every morning before I start work, I enjoy taking the time to savor a flavorful and fragrant cup of black tea, alongside my morning writing practice. I actually began this ritual several years ago with Harney & Sons Chocolate Mint tea and Green Tea with Coconut. In the evenings, before I end my day, I enjoy having herbal tea while reading.
Harney: Do you have any favorite flavors or types of Harney & Sons tea (or anything on your list to try?)
While travel to her beloved Italy isn’t readily available right now, we know Sophia carries it in her heart, mind and art and will continue to infuse her wanderlust spirit into her art. We thank Sophia for her time and appreciate her willingness to share her life and art with us. If you’d like to see more of Sophia’s work, or perhaps even commission your own Travel Memento, you can do that on her website or Instagram, Facebook and Twitter pages. All artwork photographs were provided by Sophia. The photographs of Sophia in Venice were taken by Marta Buso.