Virtual Open Studios Stop 3: Blue Çay

This is a painting that I’m actually still working on and might change later; but it’s giving me so much life right now that I really wanted to share it. It feels personal, almost like a journal or a scrapbook, so I’m not sure if it’s the kind of thing that will resonate with anyone besides me. But I’m still so excited about it that I don’t want to keep it inside.

I’m kind of thinking of it as my covid-19 isolation inspiration board of sorts: what I’m thinking about, praying for, what’s making me happy.

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It’s in the loosely abstracted cityscape form that I’ve been trying to leave behind actually. I did a lot of these collages of sort of city skylines with lots of high rises and sky scrapers, sort of to evoke the idea of a dense city rather than actually representing any real city, and also because the visual pattern of overlapping right angles is something I really enjoy (and often paint fully abstracted too). But sometimes they feel too Coruscant to me and not grounded enough in a real place. So I’ve been trying to try other things instead! But it’s a comforting habit of mine, and I’m being generous with myself and letting myself do something comforting.

The color palette feels really soothing to me too–it’s different for me to do so much blue without lots of brown or orange but I like it.

What is most unique about this painting, for me, is that normally I kind of downplay the text in my collages. I want it to be there more for texture and as a background pattern, not for content. But this time I leaned into the content, giving each building or skyscraper at least one word, providing contrast and energy to the painting but also meaning

IMG_20200423_162708I’m going to go through all the black on white visible words and explain why I picked them. Some are obvious, others not so much. 

Please note: The white on black Urdu text I did not pick for meeting but rather because the black added some nice visual contrast. It’s from what I think is the classifieds section of the New York Pakistani newspaper and most of the text seemed to be the names of businesses when I checked it with Google translate.

  1. Top left: “Coragem” = courage in Portuguese
  2. Chinese characters, second from left. I used Google Translate and it seems this either means “beautiful/livable city” or the name of a specific place/city. I don’t completely trust Google translate but I just like that it has a reference to a city, any city.
  3. 3rd from left: “encontrada” = encountered or met, in Portuguese. I like the suggestion of discovering something new and unexpected.
  4. Below “encontrada” is the word “Bangladesh” in Bangla. My husband’s family is originally from Bangladesh so it’s a word that holds a lot of meaning and memories for some people I love very much. 
  5. 4th from the right: “Sagar” is the name of a Bangladeshi take out restaurant in Queens, New York. Their food is delicious and I really hope they are still in business after this shutdown. 
  6. Next to that is “Nuevos trenes de la” which connects to the “linea roja” further down–from an El Mundo (Boston’s local Spanish language newspaper) article about new Red Line trains. It just makes me happy as very Boston reference–new trains on the Red Line is absolutely big news!
  7. The biggest word, “Çay” = tea in Turkish (it’s pronounced chai). I have a dear friend who lives in Istanbul and I’ve been lucky enough to get to visit her a few times. Every visit has included lots and lots of delicious Turkish tea. I included this word both as a way to celebrate what I love about Istanbul and my friend there (and because it’s one of the few Turkish words I can actually recognize) but also because Istanbul has indirectly inspired a lot of my paintings. There is something about the way the light hits the residential neighborhoods in the very hilly Asian side of Istanbul which has been a sort of visual refrain inside my head and has influenced almost all the cityscape paintings I have made.
  8. Next to “çay” is “Somerville”, where I live!
  9. Below that is “saude” = “health” in Portuguese
  10. And below that is “realiza” = “realize” in Potuguese, but in the sense of “make it so, make it true, bring it to life”
  11. Starting at the left again we have: “ajudam” = “they help” in Portuguese. So many people are helping right now!
  12. Next, “Vocé” = “you” in Portuguese.
  13. Then, the word “kemon” in Bangla = “how”
  14. Above that, “Trabajo” = “work” in Spanish
  15. Next, “Amor” = “love” in Spanish and Portuguese
  16. Next, “mulheres” = “women” in Portuguese. Because we kick ass, right now and always.
  17. Next, “projecto” = “project” in Portuguese. Let’s get to work!
  18. Under that, in Bangla characters, “New York”. I love this because most of the time when I spend time in New York, it’s in a very Bangladeshi neighborhood of Queens. And, especially in these coronavirus times, I’ve been thinking about New York a lot, especially my family members who live there and work in healthcare. 
  19. Finally, “quem” = “who”, in Portuguese.

Virtual Open Studios Stop 2: Halal Fried Chicken

I’m a landscape artist but what I love about painting buildings and streets is that those were all built by people and lived in by people and used by people. My art tries to use the physical cityscape to represent and celebrate the people who spend their lives in those spaces and give them meaning.

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I call this painting “Halal fried chicken” and it gives me so much joy. Through many visits to family in Jamaica, New York over the years I have come to love the messy and complex energy of Queens. And it feels down to earth and it feels…real? 

This little grouping with a church, two restaurants, a corner store, and a salon is the perfect example of what I love about Queens. I snapped a photo of it years ago and it’s been stuck in my head like a visual refrain for a long time, long before I ever thought of painting it. Here’s the photo I took in 2017:20170403_105651 (1)

And visually, it’s something completely different from my Somerville, Cambridge, or Boston landscapes. Building and neighborhoods here tend to be more monochromatic. In Queens, every shop, place of worship, dentist’s office, or restaurant has a huge, colorful awning out in front on the sidewalk telling the world what it is.

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When I set out to do this painting, I knew that featuring the awnings and the lettering was going to be the major focal point of the piece, which meant a whole new approach for me. Trying to recreate fonts in paper is interesting, to say the least! Also, I rarely use true to life colors and instead kind of create a palette that works for me. But the signs and the colors are my favorite parts of this piece. It’s also less representational than most of my landscapes, at least of the ones that are of real places. I tried a stylized approach, playing up funky lines and edges and trying to de-emphasize the right angled grid that is so easy to get from a row of buildings with windows and doors. But I did try hard to match true colors for the most part.

I did simplify the names and signs; the Greek Orthodox church on the left had a much longer name, but I only had room for the word “Saint” in Greek. The spelling of “Halal Fried Chiken” is just like that on the real store front. The “My City” sign is actually “My city deli” but leaving off most of the “deli” felt right. 

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I don’t think it’s perfect; I’m constantly wondering if I should have abstracted it further or gone with realistic perspective and proportions. Also trying to match real life colors when they are a series of signs and advertisements rather than colors occurring in nature came out a little weird and off to me? Color balance is something that I usually feel like I do pretty well but this didn’t feel quite right to me in terms of the color relationships.

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I’m still over thinking it–I’ve covered over these yellow patches with warmer orange-y brownish tones. But maybe that was a bad idea?? Now I miss the yellow!

But nonetheless I’m really proud of this piece because it was a totally new style for me and I learned a lot through doing it. It genuinely and respectfully celebrates a place that I hold dear. I think what I love most about it is the energy and sense of momentum that I got while working on it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and any time I was away from my studio I couldn’t wait to get back. It gave me this sense of hope and purpose which was really exciting.

Virtual Open Studios Stop 1: Sun hats

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I’m working on a series of blog posts about some of the paintings I had been hoping to show at Somerville Open Studios this year. We’ll start with this newspaper collage of my kids at the Public Garden.

This painting is very special to me for several reasons. Last summer, I had a day off and took my kids down town to the Public Garden to ride the swan boats. It was a really special day, and I took some photos that I love of my kids standing by the pond in the Public Garden. I decided to try painting this one, since I enjoyed the combination of tree, water, and buildings, and I’ve been wanting to do more Boston skyline paintings, but I wasn’t sure whether to actually include the figures of my kids or not. I’ve never been able to successfully incorporate figures into a landscape before, and so I didn’t want to mess with something good.

But I took a risk on the figures and it came out so much better than I had hoped! I love the interplay of the shadows and sunshine, and the clear distinction between foreground and background. And I’m super proud of myself because I managed to get the shading on the kids hats right just by using lots of tiny pieces of paper in different colors.

Here are a series of photos of my process.

First, I filled in the sky, which is usually how I start my paintings–somehow it feel very grounding. Ha!

I also decided to try to keep the pieces of paper all a similar shape (triangles) and size, which was some feedback that I had received from other artists that might strengthen my work.

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With the original photo for reference:

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Added the Hancock tower and other buildings, trying to match true colors more than I usually do. Next, filling in the grass, the leaves, and the shadows in the water.

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Oops I ran out of paper in the colors I needed, better prep a bunch more!

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Very tentatively adding the first figure, ready to cover it over if it ruins everything. But maybe it’s not ruining everything??!

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Figure number 2–hey this is kind of working!

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Almost done! Adding in light and dark patches into the background to increase contrast and depth.

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Feeling triumphant! I was able to incorporate a number of things I had learned in other paintings and also take some risks, but in a way that felt really satisfying. Some things that worked: Making choices about my paper texture (cutting with scissors rather than tearing) and size and shape and keeping those consistent. Choosing a color palette in which I am very strong–mostly blues! Keeping it small–this canvas is only 12 inches by 12 inches. I think it also helped that I have already done a few different paintings of the buildings in the background, so I didn’t have to kind of learn new material there. Also it helped incredibly to not have to try to convey faces in a non-distracting way with paper–just doing the back of their heads was a good choice.

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In some ways this painting reminded me of an oil painting I tried to do, from my imagination, of my brother and myself, back when I was in college. It was supposed to be kind of symbolic; I was trying to convey this sense of, “we’re siblings so we’re a team, we get each other, you and me against the world”. But the painting was basically a terrible failure (eh, I’m being dramatic, it was just kind of lame) and since then I’ve always shied away from subject matter that was too personal, it seemed that caring too much suffocated the painting. But this collage painting of my two kids, also a brother and sister, somehow felt like it completed a circle a little bit, and healed a little bit of something inside me that was always telling me I couldn’t do it; couldn’t paint things or people if I loved them too much. I struggle to put it in to words–this is why I paint, I guess. But yeah it felt so good and I feel so grateful.

Painting outside

I forgot how much I love painting outdoors! For most of the year, I paint indoors and work from photographs for my landscape paintings. And I always enjoy that just fine. But during the summer, when I have time and the weather cooperates, I work on paintings from life, outside, on site. I’ve only been able to do a couple like that this year, but it’s always a great experience.

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Last month I did a small palette knife landscape of the beach at Arlington Reservoir, which is a popular summer destination for kids and families. I had so much fun talking with the kids who came up to me to ask me about my painting, comment on the colors I was using, and tell me how they thought I could do it better. Then while I was in the process of packing up, some sand got kicked onto the still wet paint, which actually ended up adding a really cool texture and color and the perfect amount of messiness to the finished piece.

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Photo credit: Sindia Foster

Currently, I am working on a commissioned piece on campus at Tufts University. One of the days I was onsite working recently was freshmen move-in day, which was a lot of fun–so many enthusiastic new students and their parents to talk to! This is a larger piece which will take several sessions to complete, so it feels like a chance to be an ongoing part of the community.

What I love about painting on site in a public place is that it’s a unique opportunity to interact with strangers in a very positive and warm way. I’m sure there are people who don’t like my paintings, but usually the people who stop to talk to me are the ones who do like them. So it’s always encouraging to have positive feedback from strangers. But it also makes a connection–the fact that I’m painting bridges the gap of silence that is usually present between strangers (at least in Boston). People ask me for directions, talk about what they like about the place where I’m painting, or talk about their own artistic experiences. For me, all those conversations and interactions get embedded in the painting itself in some way. The finished result feels like a collaborative work, rather than something I created out of my head, in isolation. When I look at the painting, I see something layered with experiences that much more fully sum up the sense of place in the landscape than a mere two-dimensional image. I also imagine and hope that for the passersby I get to talk to, seeing me painting in a location helps to deepen their experience and appreciation of it as well.

For me, on site landscape paintings of urban spaces are special because they both celebrate specific settings and communities, while also helping to create a sense of place and community.