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.

Squares! Squares! Squares!

For the past couple of months I’ve been trying something really fun and different: Instead of working on large scale paintings I’ve mostly been doing a whole bunch of small, 10 inch by 10 inch, square paintings. Some are newspaper collage, some are just regular paper collage, some are abstract, and some are just whimsical. It’s been an extraordinarily fun way to try new techniques and test out new ideas in a low stakes way. I don’t have to worry if it’s a masterpiece or not, it’s just an experiment! It’s like throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. And if it’s a failure…it’s not that big a deal! Literally, because they are tiny. Ha.

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I’ve tried some things that I would normally consider silly, like my fire and ice painting with tissue paper–totally off topic for me, but I had an absurd amount of fun turning tissue paper and paint into flames and ice:

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Any the skyscrapers floating on the clouds–that’s just a visual pun and Star Wars reference that I wanted to do, so I did it. No larger point about anything intended.

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And I would never have tried to do a Boston skyline–too overdone! But the colors and reflections caught my eye in a photo I saw and I just decided to give it a try.

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I’ve had a couple of super ugly failures that I finally gave up on and turned into something else and they’re still not there yet–but I think they’ll get there!

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I’ve learned a lot and tackled some things I definitely wouldn’t have if they’d been full size paintings. One of my main goals for my art this year is to push myself in new directions. And these little paintings allowed me to challenge myself by not taking myself too seriously, which has been amazing–and hopefully something I can bring to my regular-sized paintings!

Newspaper collage cityscapes

For a long time I’ve had this image in my head, of a city–Mass Ave in North Cambridge, to be exact–where all the buildings were made up of words in different languages: Somali, Bengali, Haitian, Spanish, Portuguese, Amharic, Chinese. And I wanted to create that image. To somehow, imperfectly and clumsily, show my love for the diverse and messy and exciting community where I used to work in North Cambridge. And more generally to show my support for immigrant communities in cities everywhere who work so hard to literally and figuratively build cities and communities. I had this sense of longing, a need to make it happen. But I left it alone because I just couldn’t figure out how to make something that felt right, that felt like it had any integrity, that wasn’t forcing something to happen.

I started collaging, with paper and acrylic paint, and I could feel myself getting closer to satisfying the quiet buzzing in the back of my head. Finally, one day, I went out and collected newspapers from immigrant grocery stores all around Somerville and Cambridge. I didn’t get all the languages I wanted, but I found Bengali, Portuguese, Korean, and Japanese. And I went to the public library to get Chinese and Spanish. And I started to collage with them and it feels so right and so exciting.

My first attempt felt hard and messy and all awkward and rough edges and painful and I kind of hated it but also…it came out better than I had imagined or planned it!

We Built This City
We Built This City, mixed media with newspaper and acrylic. 18 by 24 inches. SOLD but prints available.

My next one was a long time in coming since some life stuff happened (new baby!) but I love it too, in such a different way:

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Now I have two more newspaper collage works in progress and I can’t wait to see where this goes!

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Work in progress
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Work in progress

New mixed media projects

20180405_160026I’ve been trying something totally new lately–I’ve been collaging with paper and acrylics to create some mixed media pieces that I’m really excited about. I started working on this painting in the beginning of February and I had a specific goal in mind…but the painting had other plans, and I’ve learned if I want to create anything successful, I have to let it do what it wants, not what I want.

It turns out changing directions multiple times, and teaching myself a whole new technique, is very time consuming so this one took me a lot longer than usual to decide this one was done.  I had so much fun with it though, and I felt like I was learning so much that now I’m starting another mixed media piece to see where it goes!20180315_114230.jpg

Finished two new commissions!

 

I finally finished my two main commission pieces for this fall, the painting of the Brown House for the UEP Department at Tufts and a portrait of a fire hydrant for a friend. Feels good to finally be done with two projects that I worked on (and, let’s be honest, obsessed over) for so long. Prints of the Brown House painting will be up on my Etsy page very shortly.

I’m actually especially proud of the fire hydrant–this was my second attempt at painting the same fire hydrant. I completed the first whole painting and finally admitted to myself that I hated it and started over from scratch with a completely different style and approach and now I really love it, and the process of creating felt really good. So glad I didn’t settle for the first one!

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.