Sofia Cabanas was cooking for friends one night a couple of years ago when she pulled out a tin of nutmeg from 1987. Just before she tossed it in the trash, she admired the bold fonts on its tiny label. “I just became obsessed,” she says.
“You should paint that,” said one of the friends, Sean Gardner, co-owner of Pop + Dutch, where Cabanas works. Gardner gave her a vintage can of Huberd’s Shoe Oil for further inspiration. Its label featured an illustration of a miniature shoe adorned with an even more miniature portrait of a gentleman. She recreated the nutmeg container’s fonts and painted the shoe oil tin, too, using gouache on board.
Now, having amassed a collection of intricately detailed paintings of vintage labels for a show opening this week at Spiritus Pizza, Cabanas says, “I’m really proud of the portrait in the shoe.”
Cabanas executes renditions of the petite vignettes and striking typefaces she sees on labels with razor-sharp detail. She points at a nearly finished piece. “That’s going to be a Narragansett,” she says. “I need to finish the clam broth,” she adds, thinking about her show, “and the chalk needs a little something.”
She works with gouache, a water-based paint that dries to a matte finish, because “it’s super pigmented,” she says. “And I really like that it’s both matte and bright.”
Cabanas moved to Provincetown at the beginning of the pandemic. She’s from Brookline, where she was born to paint, she says: “There are pictures of me as a three-year-old with a baby belly holding a paintbrush at an easel on the deck.”
Her parents are software engineers. But her grandmother, who is from Lugo, Spain (“the only Spanish city fully enclosed by an ancient Roman wall”), always made art, Cabanas says.
While the rest of the family went on hikes, Sofia and her grandmother sat in front of a giant tub of colored pencils and drew birds. “I didn’t drink or do drugs in high school, but I didn’t do homework, secretly gave myself tattoos, and I talked back,” Cabanas says. “I had strong opinions.”
In 2017 Cabanas graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in art education. “I love working with kids because older people have hang-ups about making things for the sake of making them,” she says. With kids, “If you’re using your hands, you’re doing something good. There is no expectation of an outcome. You just have to give it a layer of attention and don’t have a layer of irony around it. We can color.”
Before moving to Provincetown, Cabanas taught art in Boston by day and took figure-drawing classes in art galleries around the city by night. She has studied weaving, embroidery, pottery, and drawing.
Perched on a stool in front of her palette in the basement of the Commons on Bradford Street, Cabanas points to her paintings. “There’s a cigarette in there, some shoe oil,” she says. “I’m always looking for a package or a label.”
Cabanas works six shifts per week at Pop + Dutch, where ingredients provide inspiration. “The yeast is from work, the Old Bay is from work,” she says. She stops people heading to the trash bin with an old tin. And people send her vintage packaging. Right now, Cabanas says, “I’m stuck on matchbooks.”
Watching Cabanas in her studio, something the poet Eileen Myles wrote comes to mind: “I have a level of anxiety about tiny things. I have to admit I think that is why I am a poet. I labor at a very small level.” Mastering the intricate fonts found on labels, Cabanas says, is like solving a puzzle, only with shapes.
“You train your hands to be steady and your brain to be weird and do tiny stuff,” she says. “Hyper focus: it quiets a spinning mind.”
Cabanas didn’t get the space at the Commons until August. Before that, she worked in the window at Pop + Dutch. She would work the 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. shift in the store and then set up and draw there for hours.
Last year, Gui Yingling, the owner of Spiritus Pizza, asked if she’d like to have a show, but Cabanas wasn’t sure. Her friend Genevieve Martin came over to have a look at Cabanas’s work. “If you don’t put this in a gallery, I’ll be so mad,” Martin said. Cabanas said yes to Yingling, and, sure enough, every piece in last year’s show sold.
Her painting, Cabanas says, was more controlled then. “This time,” she says, “I wanted to experiment with scale.” She wants to loosen up even more, she says, “getting messier.” She also wants to get back into figure painting. “The little doodles and stuff — that’s just what comes to me while I’m making eggs at Pop + Dutch. I write all my ideas down.”
Cabanas says she is inspired by the artist Tess Knowles-Thompson, who has a studio upstairs at the Commons. “She does a lot of detailed botanical illustrations and watercolor drawings where she explores deep into bones and lichens,” says Cabanas. “They’re so detailed and geometric.” The New York-based ceramicist Stephanie Shih is also a source of inspiration. Shih creates ceramic pots out of household objects.
She does what she does “because it feels good,” she says. “And because I want to be able to solve the puzzle of how the design has come to be. How are these shapes coming together?”
She looks at a can of beans she found at Stop & Shop. “I think I might do these beans on this square,” she says, “but I’m running out of time.” She’ll have 20 works on the walls of Spiritus on Thursday, Sept. 21.
Obsessed With Tiny Stuff
The event: An exhibit of works by Sofia Cabanas
The time: Opens Sept. 21; reception, Friday, Sept. 22, 5 p.m.
The place: Spiritus Pizza, 190 Commercial St., Provincetown
The cost: Free