Santa Fe Artist Celebrates Aging by Making Art Out of Tea Bags
I stepped through the door of one of the many art galleries on Santa Fe’s famed Canyon Road, a bustling hub for artists and art-lovers. As I moved through the gallery, admiring the collection, I was stopped in my tracks by a piece—it was big, brown, and spotted like the moon’s surface. I had never seen anything like it. As I studied it, trying to understand what made it so unique, I realized: it was made of tea bags. Hundreds of them.
Just then, a woman emerged from the back to welcome me. She was older, with short gray hair and a boot on her foot, as though she might have broken it. Above her mask, she had bright, friendly eyes.
“That one’s mine,” she told me, gesturing to the wall of tea bags.
“Wow—did you drink all of that tea?” I asked.
“I had a lot of help,” she said, laughing. She told me that a few years back, she had started what she now calls the Tea Bag Project. Every year, hundreds of people from all around the world save, dry, and send their tea bags to her. Her largest piece is displayed in New Mexico’s Capitol Building and it includes 2,064 bags.
I asked her whether the project carries a broader meaning or symbolism for her, suspecting it might have to do with recycling. I’d noticed that a lot of artists in Santa Fe seemed to like working with materials that would have otherwise been discarded for trash.
But her answer surprised me.
“As I’ve gotten older,” she said, “I’ve noticed that people begin to view me as used-up, as though I’ve already served my purpose.” Older adults in general, she reflected, seem to get discarded, overlooked, even abused. “I want to show that even after things and people seem to have already served their ‘purpose,’ they are still full of beauty and value.”
I asked the artist more about herself. I learned that her name is Ann Laser, and that life after 50 has offered a chance to reinvent herself. Ann loved art from a young age, but growing up in a middle-class family in Arkansas, it wasn’t an option financially. She ended up becoming a psychotherapist and raising three children, two of whom loved art and helped her stay connected to her passion through frequent trips to museums and galleries.
After her children left home, however, she noticed herself beginning to get burned out as a therapist. At age 59, she decided to begin taking art classes. She also happened to visit Santa Fe around this time, and she fell in love with its vibrant art community. After returning home, she kept making frequent visits back and forth from Arkansas. A few years later, she managed to buy a second home; while her husband still lives in Arkansas, they visit each other often. By age 62, Ann’s art had made it into a gallery on the famed Canyon Road.
She’s now 78, and she runs the gallery.
“I don’t share my story with everybody,” she says, “but sometimes I meet older women who come into my gallery, and we get to talking, and I can tell they’re searching for something; they’re at a change point.” A lot of older people coming up on their retirement years don’t feel they’re allowed to start a brand-new chapter, she’s noticed. “When I tell them my story, somehow it gives permission.”
For Ann, art is a way of expressing herself—including her journey through the decades. The aging process is just something she’s constantly aware of, she says, “And it shows up in my art.”
“But I don’t dwell just on aging,” she continues. “I dwell more on change, and how even in a later time in life you can be excited about something different. You can discover a whole new part of yourself.”
Ann credits some of her good fortune in this chapter to Santa Fe’s unique, age-friendly community.
“It’s place where I think older people feel more comfortable. There’s a large transplant community of people retiring and gravitating here—and it’s people who want to be here, so there’s a real camaraderie.”
She also describes the community as intergenerational: “I meet people all the time who are 30, 40, and we just get coffee and chat; ages mixing is very common.”
Ann’s Tea Bag Project has won several awards and been exhibited around the United States.
“I think through this project, I’m expressing the message that I’m worth something, even though I’m getting old.”
If you’d like to join in, you can save and dry your tea bags for two weeks and then mail them to:
The Teabag Project
270 Calle Loma Norte
Santa Fe, NM 87501