Coffee Shops, Baristas, and the Downtown Appleton Art Scene

harmony art show - Appleton Wisconsin

Starving artists and coffee shops go together like, well, biscotti and café au laits.

While “coffee shop art” doesn’t always have the best connotations (did anyone else think of this sketch from Portlandia), I’ve been surprised and delighted at the range of skill displayed in downtown Appleton coffee shops over the years.

ACOCA, Aspen Coffee & Tea, Copper Rock, and Harmony Cafe have not only been active in local art—hosting open mic nights and displaying locally made art—the baristas themselves are incredibly talented.

Harmony Cafe’s coffee peddlers got a chance to show it in their “Harmony Off the Clock” event Tuesday, featuring performances from their staff as well as their framed art on the walls.


Harmony Program Leader Carolyn Desrosiers plays at “Harmony Off the Clock” on Tuesday.

Really, what profession more conjures up that “starving artist” image than barista?

It’s hard not to see them as beleaguered, underpaid, and wistfully thinking of their screenplay at home in a drawer.

As a former Harmony Cafe employee, I’ll admit that some of us fit that cliche. I did when I worked there fresh from my English/Journalism degree in college. (I know, quelle surprise!)

However, one thing I do need to say before going further is that my time spent working, writing, and befriending baristas at Appleton’s caffeine dispensaries has made me realize that a lot of them are dedicated professionals who just love working with customers. They’re not all shiftless twenty-somethings like I was. (Sorry to give you a bad rep, guys.)

At any rate, I attended Harmony’s show on Tuesday night with high hopes. My former coworkers are writers, painters, photographers, master crafters, and make some of the best vegan/vegetarian recipes this side of Madison, so I wasn’t surprised to see that they did a good job.

Not only was the art surprisingly diverse—framed photography, acrylics, and lots of colored pencils and marker sketches—the music was great with piano, guitar, and even rapping.

This just proves to me once again that coffee shops are (with the exception of like an actual art school or, I don’t know, the bohemian lifestyle in France) the best place to get creative work done.

The atmosphere is a perfect mix of many things. People surround you, but don’t bother you. It’s homey, but you’re in public so you can’t relax too much.

Most of all, it has beautiful incentive-ising caffeine. And chocolate. And tea and scones and gelato and sandwiches and pretty much any kind of comfort food you could ever want.

As for why creative people are attracted to barista jobs, well creative people like their space. They like unpredictability and would prefer the annoyance of long hours and late nights to being stuck in a set schedule.

But ultimately, coffee shops are integral to the local art scene because they’re all about community. When you spend some time in a coffee shop you’re basically admitting that people aren’t all bad and it’s okay to be around them, at least in small stretches.

Coffee shops have always had a special place in my heart. I am not an Appleton native. My parents moved here from Watertown, Wisconsin after I went to college. I used to hang out at Copper Rock and write in lieu of having friends and my job at Harmony Cafe gave me a good chunk of the social circle I cling to today.

Coffee shops are places of love and art and light. Coffee shops are places for friends and strangers and aimless creatives to linger together. Coffee shops are places for wayward souls.

As a former one myself, I want to thank you for being there for us.

The work from “Harmony Off the Clock” will be on display at 233 East College Avenue through October 2nd. Check out the slideshow below for a preview.

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Let’s Hear From You!

How have you enjoyed/benefited from the downtown coffee shop scene in Northeast Wisconsin? Do you believe in the healing power of coffee? Leave a comment below!


  1. If you go to Copper Rock get their breakfast bagel sandwich. Seriously. BEST THING EVER! The sausage, egg and cheese bagel is to die for! Love Copper Rock!

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