Funky, fermented artist turns labels into art

Have you ever really looked at the labels of products you use every day? Try it sometime, you might be surprised. Sure some labels never vary from their branding, but on other products you’ll see the thoughtful work of artists that changes over time.
Take for example Mike Kin. He’s been drawing the labels for Aqua ViTea Kombucha since their first batch in 2007.
“There were years in the beginning when I was doing everything from brewing to bottling,” Kin remembered, harking back to the early days when he and his wife, Melissa, helped Aqua ViTea founder Jeff Weaber in the basement of his Salisbury home with their first child strapped to their backs. “I only had time to do the art in between brewing.”
Since then, the company has grown to about 40 employees and relocated from Weaber’s basement, to a facility in Bristol, then to a 6,000-square-foot warehouse — actually the former Woodchuck Cider location — off Exchange Street in Middlebury. The company’s growth has allowed Kin more and more time for his art.
“Just a year ago, I transitioned to full-time art director,” said the 46-year-old father of two. “I have an unbelievable opportunity to do my work here.”
Kin pretty much has free reign when he’s making art for Aqua ViTea. The only piece he always includes on bottle labels is the company’s signature birch trees on a green background — but honestly sometimes that branding is so interwoven into the drawing that it can feel like an “I Spy” game.
“I try to put question marks in people’s minds where there might be a period,” he said of his artwork. “I like to give a moment where you go, ‘What?!’ I let them be befuddled for a minute and take a rest.”
Kin himself is no stranger to putting himself in those “befuddled” moments.
After graduating Hope College in Western Michigan with his bachelor’s degree in business, the Michigan native took off first for a program in Tibetan studies at Brattleboro’s School for International Training and then spent six months traveling West Africa.
“After that, in 1996, my brother and I moved to the Northwest,” Kin said. “It was post-grunge, and that’s where the seeds of the possibility to make art were planted.”
MIKE KIN USES cartoon characters he developed to help explain the kombucha-making process. In this drawing, “Sugar,” “Tea” and “Water” are jumping in to join “Bacteria” and “Yeast.” These beloved characters were made into plush toys and keep Kin company in his office. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Not that this was the first time Kin considered art; actually he’s been drawing since he was a boy visiting his “cool” cousin in Chicago. “I would trace his work,” Kin remembered. “That was my first nugget of inspiration. That and Tintin and Asterix and Obelix — my entire world was shaped by those two Belgian comics.”
But it wasn’t until he was in Oregon as an adult, enrolled in a post-grad teaching program, that Kin began to practice his own art.
“Portland was a hot bed of underground outsider art,” he said. “People were doing really out-there stuff and getting incredible feedback. It wasn’t about technique; it was about emotive communication.”
During his four years in Portland, Kin practiced his own art while studying. In 1999, he met Weaber through mutual friends.
But Kin wasn’t ready to settle down yet. Instead, he took his master’s in teaching and left for the Peace Corps in Mongolia.
THIS PAINTING BY Mike Kin hangs in the Stone Leaf Teahouse in Middlebury.
“There was a market in the village with cheap Chinese house paints and Russian brushes,” Kin said, remembering the completely whitewashed walls of his small home. “The white walls gave the locals a comforting sense of space, but it drove me batty… so I began painting the walls.
“When I ran out of room, I would go out to this dump where there were a bunch of old broken down Russian Jeeps, take a door, paint it and put it back,” Kin continued. “I couldn’t speak their language and had a real need to communicate with this strange little rural town on the Trans Siberian Railway. The younger kids loved it — they thought it was super funky and wild. To others, I was a crazy Westerner painting weird stuff on the dump.”
In 2002, after completing his two-year term with the Peace Corps, Kin returned to Oregon and took a job with the Audubon Society as a naturalist educator.
“I reconnected with Jeff, and actually met my wife through him,” Kin said. “Jeff told us that one day we’d move to Vermont; we didn’t think we would — we loved it in Oregon.”
But then, on one particularly beautiful fall day, when Kin and his wife were here in Vermont for Weaber’s own wedding, something changed.
“I remember the foliage was on fire… two years later we showed up on his doorstep,” Kin laughed. Weaber scooped up the couple and together the team of three got to work on building the kombucha company. “It all happened really organically. I’m not sure why Jeff hired me — maybe I’m the only guy he knew who drew.”
In addition to his work for Aqua ViTea, Kin also does fine art painting. You may have seen his painting with the silhouetted chickadees hanging in Stone Leaf Teahouse in Middlebury.
“I’m obsessed with color,” Kin said describing his art, “strange narratives and a sense of whimsey.”

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