Saturday, March 30, 2013

Urban Plein Air Painting

Yesterday, Good Friday, 2013, we set up our easels on the roughest corner of the roughest neighborhood of the city that New York magazine called the “Murder Capital of New York.” Here is what happened:

(Direct link to Youtube Video) Word quickly spread that there were five artists set up on Lander and Third Streets. Locals told us that they had never seen an artist painting outdoors in their neighborhood in the 50 years they had lived there.

(Photo by Susan Voss)  I was a little nervous when I first arrived, having read what Chuck Schumer said about Newburgh at a Senate hearing: "There are reports of shootouts in the town streets, strings of robberies, and gang assaults with machetes.”

But I felt pretty safe because Garin Baker knew some of the guys in the gang called the Unique Soldiers, who control the north side. Tennis shoes hung from the power lines to mark the group's membership.

Kids came up shyly to watch us paint. One man was on his way to put flowers on his wife's grave. Another guy said the secret to a happy marriage is to "stay prayed up." Everyone who walked by wanted to check out our paintings. They all had a kind word for us, and everyone seemed to enjoy the early spring sunshine.
The Hudson River Rats this time included Garin Baker, Kev Ferrara, Jim and Jeanette Gurney, Mary Sealfon, and Susan Daly Voss
New York magazine "Murder Capital of New York"
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Anonymous said...

Awesome. That would make a really good mini-documentary. Set up a few cameras around you all and record everything from each of the paintings to the people's reactions.

Reminds me of a story one of my friends who lives in New Orleans told about the Lower 9th Ward shortly after Katrina. When these people came in to rebuild homes there were a group of local artists that got together and plein air painted the reconstruction efforts. Eventually others heard of what was going on and came to see. Eventually there was a sort of mini festival there with music, art, and laughter.

James Gurney said...

Dustin, thanks for that cool story. Next time we try it, we might invite a few musicians to join us while we're painting and see if we can get some tunes going too.

nuum said...

Beautiful, Master.

Rio - Brazil

Lori Kiergaard said...

wonderful story, thank you for sharing!

Dan dos Santos said...

This looks like fun!

I remember one time when I was 13 years old, I was in Portugal and spent a few hours watching a guy do a watercolor painting of the white stucco houses alongside the beach. He didn't seem to mind me watching, but I'm certain he didn't think much of it. I didn't speak to him or ask any questions, as I didn't paint at all myself yet, but I absorbed it nonetheless.

20 years later, I found myself painting a book cover with a very similar composition (of white stucco walls alongside a beach) and his painting came rushing back to me with surprising clarity.

It's funny to think that 20 years from now, some kid may be drawing a building, and thinking 'Remember that one time I saw that guy painting houses on my street?'

We like to think that it's our great efforts that make the difference, but more often than not it seems that it's those serendipitous little events that really have the impact.

elgin said...

I would not disagree that this is a nice story. But having been, in my younger years, in some extraordinarily dangerous places, art and music are no protection from the actions of those whose lifestyle sees extreme violence as not only acceptable but commonplace. Let good sense and fear be your guide.

Steve said...

A major highlight and treasured memory of the 2011 Painting in Colored Light workshop was being with Garin as he took us to the murals he has -- with the help of many others -- created in Newburgh. In addition to being an excellent painter he has a wonderful, street-wise, generous spirit.

I agree with letting good sense be your guide. But not fear.

Anonymous said...

I've been to many rough places myself. Most of these people didn't choose their lifestyles. They're born into them just as we were into ours. I grew up in a middle class family that valued education above all things and encouraged me wholeheartedly when I wanted to become a graphic artist.

Good sense and not fear was their guide that day. Those little kids watching the painters paint that neighborhood were like Dan in Portugal 20 years ago. If just one of them was inspired to take up art after that it gives that kid a chance to change their life forever.

J.A. said...

That photo of the kids watching you - I love how they moved right up next to you to watch. I like to think your and your friends had them looking at their neighborhood in a whole new way.

elgin said...

Those that strike noble poses should watch "the first 24 hours" and see actual nice people surrender their lives to murderous bastards. From personal experience I can assure you that noble expression of thoughts and ideals do not prevail over gunfire or knives. It may be no individuals fault that they have been raised in bad places or by bad people or in bad circumstances, and it is eminently true that such experiences can be overcome. It is also true that a place called a murder capital is not an amusement park and one treats it so at their own peril. It should not be found as insulting to point out such.

Robert J. Simone said...

Sweet little painting, James.

Robert J. Simone said...

By the way, you know what the shoes on the wire means, don't you?

Celeste Bergin said...

Is that remarkable painting gouache? Just when I think you can't possibly paint a better painting than the last do.

Brenda Boylan said...

Brings trace memories of my own childhood to thought. Very rough and not safe, although a bright light for those kinder more curious sort. Incredible footage too. Thanks for sharing this.

James Gurney said...

Celeste, I used mostly watercolor--only a few touches of gouache in the upper left to get that color corona effect.

Dustin, yes, those kids were really interested in drawing, especially the little guy in the striped hoodie.

As Steve pointed out, Garin has worked with a bunch of Newburgh teenagers on his public mural projects.

Thanks, Dan. By the way, for those who don't know, Dan is one of the leading science fiction and fantasy book cover artists working today.

Simone, apparently shoes on the wire means slightly different things in different neighborhoods.

Thanks Lori, Nuum, Simone and B.Boylan for your nice words.

Elgin, I understand what you're saying. I used to live in a similar neighborhood when I was a college student and some pretty bad thing happened from time to time. In Newburgh I wouldn't want to be street painting at night on a summer Saturday. But on a spring morning we were pretty safe, and we were taking far less risks than cops, teachers, and social workers do every day. There were a lot of really decent, considerate people out and about. We don't hear so much about them on the news, but they're trying to hold the community together in their own way, and they were really welcoming. I wasn't there to pose, just to paint! I love painting Newburgh because the architecture tells a story. Now that I think about it, the only time I've been hassled, chased off land, and almost run over deliberately by cars has been in wealthy communities.