Matt Driscoll

Fircrest man turns spilled coffee into art. Now he wants that art to help the homeless

Jon Norquist started to see spilled coffee when he looked up and into the evergreen trees.

Normally, that might sound a bit weird, even potentially problematic.

But, for Norquist, spilled coffee was quickly becoming all-consuming, and it turned out the civil engineer and artist was onto something big.

Now, he hopes to turn it into a nationwide project that will funnel money toward family homeless shelters in all 50 states.

If that sounds like a lot, it is. Clearly, some background would be helpful at this point.

Since late 2012, Norquist had been turning spilled coffee into art. It started in his kitchen, as many things do, with a cheap carafe with a bad habit of dribbling portions of his morning pot onto the countertop.

Typically, this would be a common, annoying occurrence. That’s how it started for Norquist — a 38-year-old Fircrest father of five.

Then one day he looked down and saw what he describes as an “amoeba-like” design that looked to him more like art than something to quickly wipe up.

In short order, Norquist convinced his wife to allow him to start taping down various kinds of paper in the kitchen to capture the spills. Every couple of months, he’d pull it up and trace the spills in black ink, creating what he describes as abstract art in the process.

“She’s super supportive in anything that I do — as harebrained as it could possibly be,” Norquist says of his understanding wife, who could not be reached for comment.

This brings us back to the evergreen trees and the negative space he saw in their branches, which the avid runner took notice of one day while pounding the trails.

Adapting the spilled coffee technique he’d mastered in his kitchen, Norquist went about creating an evergreen tree on canvas. It worked, and soon he had his first real art piece to display in public.

“I said, ‘Wow, this is really beautiful!’” Norquist recalls. “So I threw it in the back of my car and drove around Tacoma until someone said, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll display it.’”

That place was Corinna Bakery, and before long Norquist was filling the café’s with his works of coffee art.

Not only that, but the art was selling — and fast. He went from evergreen trees to cityscapes and mountains, eventually harnessing his love of advertising art to incorporate words and messages.

Today, Norquist still works part time as a civil engineer with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, but he spends nearly four days a week on his art, bringing in real money in the process.

There are three different coffee makers in his studio, each producing a different shade of java. He wields a set of coffee cups that he uses to produce a series of layered spill rings and dribbles on canvas. Custom prints can sell for less than $100 to nearly $8,000.

Additionally, Norquist regularly appears at events in places like New York and Portland and has done live art works for the likes of Folgers Coffee and Dunkin’ Donuts.

“I could support most of my lifestyle with it,” Norquist says. “So, with a wife and five kids in the Pacific Northwest, it’s pretty good.”

“It went very quickly, over the course of two or three years, from just doing something on the side to, ‘Holy cow, man! I’m selling a ton of art,’” he continues. “When I first threw the evergreen tree in the back of my car, I thought, ‘You know what would be cool? If people email me and say, hey that’s really cool.’ … Selling art to people is really a rewarding feeling.”

With the financial success has come increased notoriety. In the coming months, Norquist says, he has a handful of national media exposures scheduled.

Much like looking up into the evergreen trees, it’s here that Norquist got his second vision.

He recently spent three years as a volunteer tutor at the Tacoma Rescue Mission Adams Street Family Campus. There, he interacted with elementary and middle school kids, all of them experiencing homelessness.

The experience was eye-opening, he says, and motivating. He wanted to do more and figured his growing art business might provide a chance.

His most popular piece, by far, features Washington state in the center with two protruding evergreen trees. Each time he does an event in his home state, he brings a stack and sells every one.

So, Norquist got to thinking. What if he produced a similar but unique piece of artwork for each state in the nation and used his upcoming national media expo to promote them? Then, he could donate 25-percent of all sales to a family homeless shelter in each of those states, potentially turning something that’s changed his life into something with the power to change others.

Possessing a knack for marketability, Norquist is calling the project Art 2 End Homelessness.

“I’ve been talking about giving back for a while. I really wanted to figure that out, and this is the motivation I needed. I don’t want to waste that opportunity,” Norquist says.

“What I didn’t want to do is squander the opportunity of national media for self-serving reasons,” he continues. “I don’t want to go into that and not have some way I can funnel some of that exposure back to the community, or communities in general.”

Norquist launched his project on March 16. So far, he’s raised hundreds of dollars for family homeless shelters in at least seven states.

Describing himself as “the most optimistic human being in the world,” Norquist pauses and asks if I want “the crazy numbers” when I ask him about his ultimate goal.

“I want $1 million for every state,” he says, without missing a beat. “I ran the numbers and … to me they aren’t crazy. I mean, they’re really not that crazy.”

That’s debatable, of course.

Then again, when all this started five years ago, it probably would have been crazy to think Norquist could take spilled coffee as far as he already has.

“I’m in sort of disbelief that I’m able to do this. I feel very fortunate that I have essentially latched onto a unique thing,” Norquist says.

“It’s a great marketable way to be creative and do something totally unique. I don’t know anyone else in the world who does this kind of art.”