Mustard and Coffee, Unlikely Mediums: Knight Arts Challenge winner Akron Soul Train presents first fellow, John Sokol

words and photos by M. Sophie Franchi

It’s not every day one gets to drink the art supplies. But John Sokol, Akron Soul Train’s first fellow, doesn’t work with typical mediums. Today is no exception: the paintings he is creating for the Akron Soul Train exhibition are born of an eclectic mix of coffee, laundry detergent, dishwashing liquid, mustard and a squirt bottle full of a dark mystery concoction—his own secret recipe.

Sokol at work.

Sokol works from his home, surrounded by the tar-and-varnish paintings for which he is widely known. On his weathered dining room table rest several tools and an array of liquids. He doesn’t use paintbrushes. Instead, he uses putty knives of various sizes to move the dark mixture around on watercolor paper.

“Okay, you want some mustard?” Sokol asks before he leaves the dining room for a moment and returns with a yellow bottle. “Now I’m turning it into a circus act,” he says as he squirts this flavorful medium onto his paper from several feet above the table.

Sokol makes an abstract piece and two botanically-themed pieces. After partially drying the paintings with a hairdryer, Sokol pours freshly brewed coffee over them, followed by laundry detergent. He hits them again with the hairdryer and then takes them down to his basement, where he uses a garden hose to wash off excess medium and “finish” the artworks.

At the end of the artist demonstration, Sokol has created three paintings in under an hour. “Art doesn’t have to take a long time or be difficult,” he says. “One of my favorite pieces is Picasso’s… ‘Bull’s Head,’ where he took three minutes to weld bicycle handles to a bicycle seat.”

As Akron Soul Train’s first fellow, Sokol will receive a $1,000 stipend and the

opportunity to show his new work at the Spectrum Gallery (at the Global Business Accelerator on South Main

Sokol with his original artwork
Sokol with his original artwork

Street) November 3 through 5. Akron Soul Train is working with GPD Designs to build an artist community, using refurbished shipping containers, rail cars and tiny houses to create a residential, working village. It will be open year round with workshops and programming on the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail and Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. Next year, they will offer three artist fellowships of different lengths, with residential and studio space. Fellows will include artists from various disciplines, including visual arts, theater, music, and literary arts. For more information, visit