Wednesday, July 30, 2008

For the Love of New York

This week I am working on a new Sunflowers painting commissioned by a local writer. For the past few months, after initially painting a previous Sunflowers work, I have been wrestling with myself mentally about how to tackle anew the idea of still life painting. When I initially completed the piece simply titled "Sunflowers" about a month ago, the response was overwhelming among those who visited my site, and the painting was quickly sold. Last night as my wife and I talked, I mentioned to her that both my recent Sunflowers paintings are spoken for, meaning I may need to a THIRD one to have one to show this fall. A good problem to have, for sure!

Last week I had the good fortune of going back east to visit New York City. It was the first time that I had been there, and I was looking forward to it if only for the museums and the many chances to see great art. Thankfully, during our quick visit we managed to see the MOMA, the Met, and the Guggenheim. The highlight for me was the Met, which I would rank among the finest large American museums. Whereas most collections may have 5 or 6 or a painter you like, the Met had 8, 10, or more. It was overkill in a good way, and a wonderful chance to charge the batteries while trying to absorb how the masters I admire tackled still life painting. While visiting I was riveted to a vertical Van Gogh canvas of white roses on a green background - and just nearby, another lovely Monet of Chrysanthemums. While looking at these I came to the conclusion that still life didn't necessarily need to be reinvented. It's one of the oldest genres of painting - and when people liked my sunflowers, I suspect they didn't like them because they were earth shatteringly original - but rather than they felt they were beautiful and interesting. The masters didn't seem to have reinvented the wheel, so perhaps neither should I.

But the most striking thing you take away from New York City is the impressions you have of the city itself. It is a big, crazy, wild, busy monolith of a city that has forever played an integral role in American identity as a nation. I was telling friends that at street level, the city didn't seem gargantuan - if you didn't look up. The moment you looked up you realized how crushing the skyline is, how massive and towering the verticals are. I remembered reading years ago that one of the only reasons that such large skyscrapers could be built on Manhattan Island is because of an extremely strong bedrock of granite below the surface of the soil on the island - and if you visit central park, as my wife and I did several times, you see giant granite slabs projecting up through the trees and grass - exactly as had been described to me in books.

Central Park is one of the great places to people-watch - a kind of meeting point for a cross section of the city. Everyone from bums to millionaires to professionals to upper east side nannies taking kids out for a stroll. The park is a nexus for the city, and I think that it was an amazing piece of foresight that the early founders of New York saw to make such a place, where citizens of the ultra-metropolis could temporarily get back the feeling that all people need from time to time - the feeling of trees over their head, leaves on the ground - the reflections of willows on the water, such as you see at Bow Bridge in the park. We had lunch there on a bench and listened to an accordion player - a memory I'll always treasure.

Artistically, New York City makes you want to go straight out and buy a large stack of vertical canvases and get straight to work! Then you come to the conclusion that even that would not do - that the results would only be a snapshot. In fact, you'd need a canvas the size of a barn wall to convey the immense weight and size of the New York skyline. Few painters, in my opinion, have come close to rendering the shapes and immensity of New York in such ways as to parallel how you feel when you are there. Painting the city is such an task that we all feel we'd like to try it, because it is visually so impressive and huge.

Another thing that doesn't seem to get mentioned is the wonderful individuality of the different areas of the city. The cool thing about the city is that countless ethnic, religious, and national groups have settled there, and their quarters often reflect those who live in them. Chinatown, Little Italy, being among the foremost that I visited. But there is more to it than that. The upper east side of the city feels entirely different than the upper west side. Greenwich Village feels different than Soho. Downtown feels different than them all. Midtown the same. And one surprise is the way that the city feels quite small when you are on the side streets in these enclaves. Sometimes it's even very quiet and peaceful. I think of lot of our views of the city have to do with waves of thousands passing up and down the sidewalks of fifth avenue, and downtown - but the city is by no means like that in every corner.

What was most impressive about it was that being in New York City was like looking in a mirror - that this kid with his roots in small town North Carolina could feel so happy and comfortable with being in New York, it really showed me how far a person can come, the amazing things that they can see, and the surprising places you can love - in defiance of your roots or the expectations of others. Travel is the great antidote for static life - and it is the one thing that keeps us sane and able to break free from routines that are exhausting. I always liked that quote from the movie American Beauty, where the narrator says "It's amazing when you realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself..." Places can have the same effect.

I didn't get the t-shirt that says "I Love New York", but it sure makes a lot more sense now.

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