Here’s a little job I took care of last week: playing magician again, making things disappear.
It’s funny how, once a client finds out something is possible, they’d like it done everywhere. In this case, it was my ability to paint light caps to blend into the background that landed me in the bathroom.
This is a beautiful bathroom almost entirely clad in a gorgeous travertine, a form of limestone. Here’s a corner of the room, to show how the stone flows together. I love rooms like this: so well thought out, the stone perfectly cut, such precision, no room for error. You can see how the uninterrupted pattern moves up the walls to the crown molding, over soffits and around corners, revealing that the pieces are cut from a single slab before assembly. Stone covers the floor as well, including the interior of the shower stall, and juts out to create a countertop around the sink below the window. Stone installed in this way is usually about 3/4″ thick.
There’s one of my little light caps taped off above, inset into the stone-clad soffit. There were four lights in all, three set into the ceiling soffits and the fourth in the shower. I’m painting the fixture itself, so that it will appear that the light is shining from a hole in the stone.
This is a close-up of two sections of the travertine. It has a random design that’s almost blurry, all sorts of organic patterns blending together in shades of white, cream, brown and grey. So pretty.
I’m in the middle of reading a book called “On Looking: 11 Walks with Expert Eyes,” and in one chapter, the author circles a New York City block with Sidney Horenstein, a geologist from the Museum of Natural History.
He points out that when we think about geology, we think about what’s underfoot. But in a city, geology surrounds us. Starting on a large scale, with the stone used to construct the streets and buildings, then moving to the smaller scale of the stone and natural materials we use in the interiors of our homes. We are surrounded by stone that was millions of years in the making, each from a specific geographic area.
Have you noticed that some stones have patterns that resemble liquid? It’s because its particles were once suspended in liquid. Travertine is a sedimentary rock composed of calcium carbonate, formed when river and spring waters evaporated, usually near hot springs or in underwater caves or water tables. Limestone often contains seashells and remnants of ancient sea life. Depending on where the stone was quarried, it could be millions upon millions of years old.
Back to those light fixtures. Below is the first light, naked and way too noticeable. The fixture is about three inches square.
First thing to do, sand it a bit to get a little tooth on the surface, then tape it off and prime it. I added a bit of raw umber and raw sienna to my white primer to head the color in the right direction.
With stone like this, I’m working from general to specific, so we go for the big patterns and directions first. The palette is easy because the colors are so limited. I’m using Golden Liquid Acrylics in white, titan buff (a cream), raw sienna, raw umber and lamp black.
Here’s the first pass. The key to tricking the eye, besides getting the color right, is to continue the pattern onto the new surface, as if I’m simply filling in the blank that was lost when the opening for the light was cut into the stone.
Then the fun starts, bouncing my brush around to create all kinds of squiggles and dots. After two more passes, I’m done.
To finish, I clean up the messy line between the stone and the fixture.
Here’s another, with a close up of the stone turning the corner of the soffit to go down the wall. Look at that perfect match-up in pattern.
I’d never thought about the age of the many marbles and stones I paint before I read the book. An excerpt:
“If you think of the city as geology unearthed, it is nonstop: he pointed out features of the sidewalks and streets; walls, roofs and stairs; atriums, cornices and decorative rosettes. All were stone, all were known to him. Just this one block, a random sample of any block in this city or any city, contained the history of geology across eras and locales…
The stone has multiple stories to tell us, for it has had multiple lives. Every stone has a parent — for the limestone, it is the creatures of the sea — and even in this latest, most quiet phase of its last hundred million years, it has seen some things. Quarries, created to pull stone out of the earth by the tonful, each have distinctive characters, and the people who know stones come to know the quarries… A street full of rocks, made buildings, becomes a whirlwind tour through eons.”
Artists often talk about a term called “flow,” which is when you become so engrossed in the task at hand, you lose all sense of time, the outside world falls away and you’re floating along on your own little planet.
For me, the feeling of flow is one of the biggest thrills of making art, where all of the decisions are right ones and things come together effortlessly.
Over the past few weeks as I’ve unpacked from my recent move, I’ve seen the effects of being hooked on the feeling of flow. Here’s a symptom: these are bookmarks I’ve made by combining handmade paper with all kinds of ephemera, everything from old stamps and postcards to my own drawings and photos to yesterday’s junk mail.
Oh, isn’t that nice, you say. A bunch of bookmarks. No, I REALLY like the feeling of flow. There’s something about the combination of color, image, texture and text that clicks in my brain.
And that’s just the tip of the bookmark iceberg. I love the zone that I find when I work with paper.
The term “flow” was invented by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmaihalyi in the 1980s. He describes the mental state of flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Like I said, flow feels great!
After I made enough bookmarks to sink a ship, I graduated to pencil cups. These are tin cans that have been covered with papers. Once again, couldn’t stop.
A few tips from Mr. C. on some of the components you might find when you’re in a state of flow:
• Clear goals that are challenging yet attainable
• Strong concentration and focus
• The activity is intrinsically rewarding
• Feelings of serenity and a lack of self-consciousness
• Timelessness: an altered state of time; feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time
• Immediate feedback
• A balance between skill level and the task at hand
• Feelings of control over the challenge and the result
• Lack of awareness of physical needs
• Complete focus on the activity alone
If you’d like to explore Csikszentmaihalyi’s fascinating books on flow and creativity, here’s his Amazon page.
On the days I’m looking for something other than paper, well, there’s always rocks.
The best thing about flow? You can find it everywhere, from cooking to making music to reading to running: whatever engages your senses so deeply that you are utterly in the moment. The tricky part? Finding focus in our distraction-filled world. Get away from your electronics, let go of anxiety and sink into it. Flow feels so good that you’ll want to find it over and over again.
What about you? Where do you find it?
I finally closed on my new apartment, so I’ll be heading uptown later this week and moving in. One thing I’ll miss in the East Village is the plethora of community gardens. I thought it would be fun to sing a farewell love song to Alphabet City, an ode to the gorgeous oases that dot its streets. (If you don’t know where this area is, here’s a little help.)
I drew a map of the neighborhood’s community gardens. Look at them all. Amazing! Each is named. Some are over 35 years old.
When I first started wandering around the hood on my morning walks, I was surprised by the number of gardens. I’d never seen so many gardens in one area before, a number of them mature and substantial. After all, NYC real estate is valuable, and I wondered how these patches of community-supported soil had managed to stave off man’s irrepressible impulse to claim and build, not to mention the city’s ability to use “eminent domain” to seize any patch of earth it chooses.
The story of the development of these gardens is long and rich. In the 1960s and 70s, this part of the city was deeply neglected, falling prey to crime and slumlords. A number of buildings were destroyed by arsonists. The city razed these buildings, leaving open land, and since the neighborhood was dangerous and destitute, there was no interest in rebuilding.
In 1973, Liz Christy, an artist and activist, founded an environmental group called the Green Guerillas. They began by throwing “seed bombs” over the fences surrounding the lots, packed with seeds, fertilizer and water. She caught the attention of the city’s Parks Department, who leased her an empty lot on the corner of Bowery and Houston Streets for $1 a month. This became the Bowery Houston Community Farm and Garden, the first community garden in the city. It eventually contained 60 vegetable beds and inspired a horticultural revolution.
In 1978, the GreenThumb program was born, which encouraged neighborhood groups to lease land parcels for sometimes as little as a dollar a year. This program was intended to encourage grassroots neighborhood revitalization and was wildly successful. The catch? The gardens created were considered temporary and the city still retained rights over the land. This concept hummed along nicely until the 1990s, when the city decided it wanted to sell some of the gardens to developers to shore up the budget. By this point, the gardens had become such an integral part of their neighborhoods that the prospect of losing them was unthinkable. This being New York, all hell broke loose.
The Attorney General had to step in to broker a deal. One of the key players in that deal was Bette Midler, who, appalled at the lack of community green space in the city, had founded the New York Restoration Project a few years earlier. Her group bought 52 of the gardens outright. Of the 520 gardens in the city at that time, 400 were saved, many becoming permanent as part of the Parks Department.
Today, NYC has about 640 community gardens scattered among the five boroughs, with about 60 clustered in the East Village and Lower East Side. The gardens boast 20,000 members; the gardens themselves make up about 32 acres. Wow! is all I can say. Each garden hosts events and workshops and all are open to the public.
The garden below is a tiny sliver of land, yet it explodes with greenery.
Each garden has its own sign.
A bonus of the gardens is that lucky apartment dwellers can look out their windows and instead of seeing other buildings, they see trees.
Mural and garden and comfy bench! Does it get any better?
Some gardens contain sculptures, decorative nicknacks, or someone’s latest creative installation.
These lots once represented the detritus of a neighborhood under siege. It’s amazing to see how the concentrated work of determined visionaries was able to utterly turn around this devastation and from it, create not just a sense of community, but a vital part of the local culture that brings people together with a sense of purpose and joy.
Today, it’s thrilling to walk in Alphabet City and stumble on these lush pockets of green, welcoming anyone to sit down and take a deep breath. I’ll miss them on my morning walks, but I’ll be back often to wander among them again.
When I was a kid, I loved looking at books about animals and nature. Some of my favorites contained photos of animals that blended in with their surroundings, like caterpillars who looked like sticks or moths who resembled tree bark or grasshoppers who matched the colors of rocks (like this little dude below).
Some of the color matching projects I do remind me of those books. Here’s a fun job that I completed last week, painting a metal contraption in an exterior courtyard to blend in with the brick wall behind it.
This metal pole supports heat sensors used for a mysterious purpose that I was unable to decipher. Anyway, I used the strongest primer I had to be sure that the paint would stick, and tinted it with universal tints to create each color. Every layer had to be as strong as possible, so only primer was used. First task, taping off and painting the metal to match the color of the brick’s grout.
Then it was time to play, bouncing around between the bricks, matching by mixing in venetian red, burnt sienna, raw umber, raw sienna and black.
Each brick had three or four layers of paint, pounced on to create texture. I used a smaller brush to define the edges of each brick, and by lunch time, I’d finished the support. Off came the tape!
After lunch, I painted the horizontal box at the top of the pole, then promptly ran out of juice in my phone and couldn’t take the final photo. Everything was sealed with an oil-based varnish while crossing my fingers. I can’t guarantee that anything outside will survive winter without cracking, but I try to reduce the chances.
To me, the most interesting thing here isn’t the painting, but that this Park Avenue building asked me to do this. The sensor unit is in an unused courtyard, 25 feet back from the street, around the corner from the entrance. This cosmetic fix was done simply to create the illusion of an unbroken brick facade. No detail too small!
To continue the theme, here are a couple of outlet and switch plate covers I completed this year. Painting these covers to match their backgrounds is one of those final touches that makes a room look integrated and perfectly done. This outlet cover is painted to match granite, one of five in this kitchen.
This switch plate is on a wall of bleached and stained oak. I think of these kinds of painting days as mental health days, because although it looks difficult to match wood and stone, it isn’t that hard and is actually relaxing, since I become completely absorbed as I paint each plate. Regardless, almost anyone who sees what I’m doing is impressed that I can match and I’m showered with compliments all day. Not a bad job if you can get it!
One of my all-time favorite types of camouflage is body paint. Once I have my files out of storage, it will be time for a feature on the legendary Veruschka, bearer of body paint extraordinaire. Here’s a preview, in keeping with our urban theme. Do you see her? Incredible!
I’ve spent the summer between apartments, most of my belongings in storage. As I packed everything up in June, I wondered if it would make it harder to write my blog posts. I don’t think it did, really, but what did make it harder was the stress of selling and buying and feeling a bit unmoored, living in a new neighborhood with a whole new routine. The blog became one more decision to make and I was decisioned out, so I stopped writing for a few weeks.
I should be closing on my new place in a couple of weeks, hooray. And I thought of a way to get myself back into the swing of things.
What about you? Any tricks for getting yourself back on track?
One of the best things about living in NYC is the museums. I have my favorites, and I have favorite exhibits within those favorites. In the case of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I’m enthralled by the Gubbio Studiolo, an Italian Renaissance room created for a ducal palace. It’s one of the most important works of art of the Italian Renaissance in America, and it has the power to blast your head right off your body.
If you innocently walk into this room without knowing what to expect, it’s baffling. Objects that appear to be three dimensional are not, everything is made of wood, and the details are so intricate, your brain will be doing somersaults trying to understand what you’re looking at. And once you understand what you’re seeing, it doesn’t seem possible.
First thing to realize once you’ve arrived through these entry doors: the walls are flat. Anything that appears three dimensional is an illusion.
The entire room is intarsia. Intarsia is a wood working technique of hand cutting tiny pieces of wood, then fitting them together to create intricate pictorial images with an illusion of depth. It originated in the Arabic world and spread to Europe, arriving in Italy in the mid-1300s.
The Gubbio Studiolo is an irregular shape, about 13 by 17 feet. The walls are flat surfaces. Thousands of tiny pieces of different kinds of wood have been used to create the three dimensional illusion of walls lined with cupboards, as if intended to fool us into thinking the objects are real. This device is called trompe l’oeil (French for “fool the eye”). It’s mind boggling. Here’s one wall of the study, and a close up.
By using different types of wood with their natural grain patterns and colors, the craftsman can create a range of tones, just like a painter. Each piece of wood is individually cut, shaped, and finished. The pieces are fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, then glued to a wood backing. In the studiolo, the craftsmen used walnut, beech, rosewood, oak and a selection of fruitwoods, all inset into walnut.
Do you see how it’s done? Every color change is a new piece of wood. Thousands of pieces of wood have been fitted together to create this scene. It’s about three feet tall. Look at the intricate details of the tops of the columns that flank the doors, and the braided pattern that runs around the frame.
Let’s get a little closer. Of course, the shadows are also made of wood. Everything is wood.
Can you imagine the precision it takes to cut these tiny pieces of wood, not to mention the ability to understand how they will look when fitted together? It’s extraordinary.
The studiolo, or study, was commissioned around 1476 by Federico da Montefeltro (1422–1482), duke of Urbino, for his palace in the small Italian city of Gubbio. Here’s our Duke, painted by Piero della Francesca around 1472.
The studiolo provided a place for intellectual pursuits, examining confidential papers or private possessions, or receiving special visitors. It was most likely designed by Francesco di Giorgio (1439–1502) and was executed by the workshop of Giuliano da Majano (1432–1490) between 1478-82.
All of the objects displayed in the cabinets reflect Duke Federico’s wide ranging artistic and scientific interests, are specific to his achievements or are symbolic. Armor and insignia refer to his prowess as a warrior and wise governor; scientific and musical instruments and books declare his love of learning.
The Gubbio Studiolo is exceptional in that it enhances the illusion of three dimensionality by incorporating the Renaissance’s newfound understanding of linear perspective, only recently formulated by the architects Brunelleschi and Alberti. Known as the Florentine style, this type of intarsia is unusual for its intricate play between light and shadow in the service of perspective.
With this striking innovation, Renaissance “intarsiatore” gained recognition equal to that of painters, and Florentine intarsia craftsmen dominated the field until the end of the fifteenth century. In the Gubbio Studiolo, its designers even used the windows that actually existed in the room as the perceived light source within their intarsia design, so the “shadows” cast made sense to the eye.
The Gubbio Studiolo was dismantled and sold in 1874, shipped to Rome, and later sent to Venice and sold in 1938 to Adolfo Loewi. He transported it to New York in 1939, where it was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and reassembled as part of the permanent collection.
This is one of my favorite panels, an exotic caged bird.
After about 1620, marquetry, which uses glued wood veneers, started to replace intarsia in cabinet work, and intarsia slowly became a lost art.
It could be depressing to dwell on the loss of the artistry that created something so beautiful, intricate and unusual, but instead of pondering that, I’d rather visit the studiolo and be thrilled by the magic found in this little room.
Recently, I moved to a new neighborhood, heading from the Upper East Side of Manhattan about five miles south. I’m now living on 14th Street, perched on the northern edge of Alphabet City, the easternmost part of the East Village.
As in most neighborhoods in New York City, its rich history can be told through the waves of immigrants who moved through its tenement buildings, churches, shops and parks. In a future post I’ll talk about that, but for now I’d like to highlight something that I love about the neighborhood: its incredible number and variety of murals.
If the Upper East Side is personified by wealthy Ladies Who Lunch turned out flawlessly in their expensive attire, Alphabet City is an unacknowledged twice-removed cousin, a street smart girl in a brightly colored dress with tattered shoes and a slew of tattoos. The word most often used to describe the East Village is “bohemian,” and the neighborhood likes to deliver. Alphabet City displays this spirit in its dozens of amazing murals.
Murals are so deeply embedded in the neighborhood’s culture that many businesses use them to advertise themselves and to become part of the street art. Here’s a favorite, a local vet clinic. Look at the detail! It’s painted with such care.
Some murals mix up with graffiti to become a kind of hybrid. They’re so vibrant.
Of course each mural has a story, especially the commemorative murals. I looked up Eva and learned all about an artist I’d never heard of after I saw this mural.
Throughout the city, at the end of the work day, store fronts pull down a metal gate for security. In Alphabet City, these gates are prime real estate for murals. Businesses use them for self promotion and graffiti artists use them for tagging (or sometimes both). Since I take early morning walks, all of the gates are down, delivering maximum mural impact.
Some murals leave me mystified. What’s the story here? I can’t remember which store is behind this gate, but I like the birds.
Other murals are hilarious. “Bad Pussies” cracks me up every time.
I like the way that the murals casually integrate themselves into the buildings.
All of these photos are from a stroll down Avenue B and up Avenue C. Just the tip of the iceberg! It’s such fun to stumble on new murals as I explore the neighborhood.
Most people who work in the arts know one thing for sure: we’re our own worst critics. It’s easy to get discouraged by looking at great work created by others, or by picking apart our own work until we don’t want to show it to anyone because we think it isn’t good enough.
One way to get around this is to create a place to play, where self-criticism takes a back seat to the great feeling that we had when we were little kids, when we made art without a second thought, totally absorbed and unselfconscious. How many kids look at their drawings and say, “this isn’t any good”? All I remember is proudly showing my art to anyone who’d look. And I’d try new things without hesitation. Make a drawing out of macaroni, glue and a piece of paper? Yes! Build farm animals out of Playdoh? Sure! Sculpt a giant alligator in the snow? Okay! I didn’t feel like I needed to take a class to learn technique before I dove in. Imagination was everything. There was no such thing as frustration, just the joy of play.
Now, my place to play is in my sketchbooks. I have a few going at once, full of scribbled sketches, scraps of paper, notes on ideas, and little drawings. Everything’s jumbled together and it doesn’t matter because nobody’s ever going to see it. I can happily romp around because it’s just for me. It took me a little while to get there, though.
Way back in art school, I drew this walnut.
I stuck it into a recent sketchbook to remind me that when I’m loose and relaxed, I draw better, and that this is how I like to draw — casually, easily, without hesitation, confidently. But sometimes it’s so hard to do because that critical little voice in my head won’t shut up.
I keep this drawing I did years ago of my friend Diane to remind me that I used to be comfortable drawing people.
I don’t draw people anymore because I get too fixated on getting a good likeness and end up frustrated. So how did I draw Diane? By not trying to get a likeness, by being relaxed and open until the drawing came together and it suddenly looked like her. By not trying so hard.
It wasn’t difficult to figure out that I’m more likely to get a drawing I’m happy with if I chill out, so eventually, drawing became a way to unwind, a way to clear my brain and find that pure concentration of fun, like when I was a kid.
A few things I like to draw:
Twigs. Why twigs? Texture, I suppose, and the bumps and dips. I don’t have to explain, it’s in a sketchbook. Nobody’s going to see it.
Stuff I find on the ground. Why isn’t the leaf finished? Who knows?
I like drawing my art supplies.
The corners of rooms, little portions of places. A bit sloppy. It doesn’t matter.
Small buildings. This is Tom’s little house near the beach. Messed up the roof on the left. No big deal.
Big buildings. This is a streetscape near Madison Square Park in NYC. A little trouble with perspective? Oh, well. Whatever.
I love playing with my nephew, Lukas, who’s now almost eight years old. He’ll say, “What do you want to make today?” We’ll pick a topic, like sharks, decide between crayons, markers or paint, then start in on one sheet together. We’ll color for hours.
So when I’m frustrated and unsatisfied with whatever art I’m working on, when that little voice starts saying, “it could be better,” it’s time to remember what it’s like to play with Lukas. If I can shift my mindset and tap into the feeling of making art like a kid, the sheer fun of romping around with my paints and pencils, well, then… problem solved.