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  • Category Archives Art and Sculpture
  • Eternal Malcontents Find Only Malintent

    Where could you place an enormous eight-foot mushroom on a sidewalk and get nary a glance from most passersby? The streets of Manhattan, of course. Here, given a combination of busy lives in conjunction with a populace that is inured to just about everything, a giant mushroom will easily go unnoticed or, at best, treated as a minor irritant. Some stopped and took photos. But most navigated around it while deep in thought, engaged with their smart phones, or chatting with companions. Some taller individuals ducked to avoid being struck, without even breaking stride or knowing what they ducked for.

    The mushroom and tiny lawn, located on Fifth Avenue and Washington Square, were accompanied by a small poster announcing a new TV series on ABC – Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, airing October 10. Most who noticed the display were charmed and, in a childlike impulse, took advantage of the opportunity to be photographed underneath a mushroom on the streets of NYC. Nearby was a plainclothes security guard, hired by ABC to keep an eye out for vandals and dogs who invariably wanted to do their business at the base of the artificial treelike growth. I chatted with the guard for some time as we watched amused at the various scenarios that played out and the reactions of passersby. His work shift was overnight until 8AM, when the mushroom would have to stand on its own.

    One couple was particularly offended that the streets of New York City were being used for corporate advertising. This reaction is to be expected, particularly in the Village, the cauldron for political dissent and home of a general cynicism of all things government or corporate. The guard assured them that whatever permissions needed to display and promote on the streets had been gotten by ABC. Not persuaded, the couple fumed and complained for some time before leaving. I imagine this was a recurrent theme for them, disgruntled at being victimized and their powerlessness over the excesses and greed of corporate America.

    And so it was, like it has been for eons in this neighborhood. Some come to play here while not over thinking, and, like Alice, they find wonderment in the world around them, while others, more political, look as deeply as need be to find sinister connections to commerce in everything – the world where Eternal Malcontents Find Only Malintent

    Related Post: You’re Not Gonna Find in Bristol


  • A Wonderful Life

    Rents soar and retailers are squeezed – small shops close or search for new pastures, moving away from well-established neighborhoods towards the edges of the inhabitable. Problem is, there are virtually no more edges, save neighborhoods very undesirable, riddled with crime, and with no housing worth upgrading. However, very few neighborhoods show zero promise, and so, Bushwick becomes the new Willamsburg, Gowanus Canal is heralded as the Venice of New York (someday), and Sunset Park is being called neo-SoHo.
    In Park Slope, Brooklyn, 7th Avenue is long well established. I remember visiting one of New York City’s few vegetarian restaurants there called the Gazebo. It was a big deal at the time to venture out to Brooklyn to eat. In recent years, small retailers and restaurants have moved further from 7th Avenue in an effort to find affordable rents.

    On a recent visit to Brooklyn, a friend and I happened upon Zuzu’s Petals, a flower and plant shop located on 5th Avenue, Brooklyn, the new go-to shopping thoroughfare where many of the shop names are as intriguing and creative as the wares themselves: Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company, Cog & Pearl, Cozbi, Eponymy. Matter, Life Emporium, Rivet, and Bird.

    Zuzu’s Petals was established in 1971 on 7th Avenue. From their website:

    In August 2004, a fire burned us out of our home of 33 years at 81 A Seventh Avenue. Our friends, neighbors, and customers held a “barn raising”, gave us seed money and a mandate to re-locate and rebuild.

    Zuzu’s Petals is from the movie ‘It’s A Wonderful Life”. Like George Bailey in the last scene, friends and neighbors came to our rescue.

    The shop was exquisitely done and a joy to peruse, even for those not active in plant cultivation. The outdoor garden was a special treat, particularly for anyone from New York, a place where concrete dominates and gardens are scarce or often hidden from view. The place was uplifting and, like its retail brethren along 5th Avenue and elsewhere in Brooklyn, herald a renaissance for the borough and the promise of A Wonderful Life :)


  • Stix

    Good things can become metaphors for a dark side when used excessively – sanitization and Disneyfication come to mind. And what object has more of a negative connotation than a puppet? Perhaps it is particularly offensive to Americans, a country founded on freedom and rebellion against unwanted CONTROL. No one likes to see a government or person accused of being a puppet or perhaps one of the Stepford Wives. Worse yet – the official term for an individual who controls a marionette is a manipulator.

    The soullessness of the human idol has lead to depictions of evil in TV and film, such as the murderous Talky Tina (Living Doll episode of the Twilight Zone) or in a number of films made about ventriloquist dummies, such as Magic or Devil Doll. There is something innately spooky about an inanimate doll or human form taking life, particularly when it wrenches itself free of control by humans. Now we have a soulless living doll or dummy, free to do its evil without a conscience. At one time, many believed that ventriloquists were in league with the devil.

    But all is not evil in the world of marionettes or puppets. In the 1980s, I saw an entire opera performed by Marionettes at Lincoln Center. And twice, I missed the highly acclaimed International Festival of Puppet Theater at the Joseph Papp Public Theater.

    Whether Pinocchio, Howdy Doody, or the soft and benign world of the Muppets, these marionettes/puppets are part of American culture with positive images loved by children, as well as evidence that puppeteers can also bring a heart and soul into lifeless objects and create loving and lovable characters that can charm audiences.

    I recently met Ricky Syers performing in Washington Square Park. Perhaps partially owing to its difficulty, seeing skilled marionetteers perform on the streets of New York City is a rarity. I stopped to watch his show. I liked what I saw, as did his audience. Nothing evil, nothing eerie, just Ricky Syers in control of his creation brought to life as Stix :)

    Related Post: Fleas or Teased, Think Big


  • Castle Made of Sand

    Some years ago, I was busy chasing sand castle competitions. My planning was always an afterthought, and I managed to miss every one. Throughout the country, at various times and places, there are sand castle competitions. Some of these are extraordinary events with participants that take their work quite seriously. Even the AIA sponsors a yearly event in Galveston, Texas, where teams of architects, designers, and engineers craft castles from sand.

    Every child has taken his or her hand to the ubiquitous and ultimate sculpting material – ordinary sand, whether on the beach or in the playground. Sand castles are a good instructor for children in many ways, acquainting them with the transitory of most things and Mother Nature’s power to provide and just as easily destroy – a bit of ocean and an afternoon’s work is washed out to sea. We are drawn to and enjoy these childhood activities as adults, whether vicariously through children or those adults who take the work and play of children seriously, taking it to the next level, like the building of sandcastles.

    There have even been a number of sand castle competitions in New York City. I’ve missed them all, including this year’s second annual Creative Time’s sand castle competition on Rockaway Beach. However, recently, I did get to see Matt Long’s extravaganza in lower Manhattan. From the New York Daily News:

    Sand sculptor Matt Long unveiled a stunning 17-foot-high castle this week, bringing a bit of the beach to a stretch of lower Manhattan flooded out last year by Hurricane Sandy. The Staten Islander used 55 tons of sand to create the highly detailed high-rise, with towers, walls, arches, stairs – and even its own waterfall. It took three weeks for Long, 58, to convert his grainy vision into reality outside One New York Plaza. It’s his largest solo work ever.

    The installation is perfectly located in Lower Manhattan at One New York Plaza – edifices of glass, steel, and stone, juxtaposed against a Castle Made of Sand…


  • Mona Lisa

    I recognized this woman from a previous encounter which I photographed and wrote about on March 25, 2011 in Front Window. Her entire wardrobe and suitcase had been painted. I had misjudged the situation, not realizing she was a painter. In one comment on that original story, a reader, Matt, said:

    I work in Penn Station and this lady lives in the station, she carries around a little can of white paint and a stick everywhere she goes.

    Recently, I ran into her again. She had staked out a small cove on 6th Avenue in the Village which she had converted to her own temporary art studio. I liked the feel of this small shrine to her brand of impressionism/pointilism. I complemented her efforts, however, she said she was in meditation. She was not very forthcoming about who she was or the nature of her art. She only gave a name of Mona Lisa. She asked for money – I gave her a couple of dollars, but she asked for more. Another brief encounter with one of New York City’s many enigmatic characters, this time Mona Lisa

    Other artists and characters: Fudge Time, Walter Mitty, King of Accordion, Mike Fontana (Part 1 and Part 2), Supercute!, Creative Expert, Criminal Suspect, Walid Soroor, Reverend Billy, Hoopmobile

    Abandon All Preconceived Notions: Mark Birnbaum (Part 1 and Part 2), Gaby Lampkey, Jenn Kabacinski (Part 1 and Part 2), Driss Aqil


  • Meet the Artist

    As a Christian proselytizer once said to his audience in Washington Square Park, saying it doesn’t make it so. And believing something, doesn’t make it so, either. This is why, in spite of intense belief in Santa Claus by millions of children around the world, a red-suited man does not fly through the air pulled by a team of reindeer. To believe otherwise is, for an adult, self-delusion. And so I thought it was with artists.
    Until quite recently, I had little patience and tolerance for those who defined themselves as ARTISTS, as if they were a different class of people who truly thought and saw things differently than the rest. To hear them speak, one would be led to believe that true artists were also more principled, i.e. they would not “sell out” but were true to their art. They would not pander to the almighty dollar like the lowly businessman.

    All of this, I thought, was pure, unadulterated crap. In my mind, these people were posers, caught up in the image of being an artist and all its hipness and coolness. People who had some interest and ability in drawing or painting, but were failures in their ability to do productive work, and hence, sought to justify their failure by playing victim in a world that does not value art and reward artists. They were unambitious and unskilled and hid behind the moniker of ARTIST in order to cloak the truth. And they were bitter.

    Meeting Philippe Petit in the 1970s did nothing initially to dispel my notions. In fact, his posture as an artist was much larger than anyone I had met. He had a serious attitude and was fiercely iconoclastic. However, the man had done things that made me begin to question what I believed about artists. Although he was not incredibly wealthy, it would have been very unfair to consider him unsuccessful or unambitious. His walk between the Twin Towers in 1974 spoke for itself. His reputation as one of the world’s quintessential street performers was legendary – I witnessed his weekly street shows in the 1970s in Washington Square Park.

    Over a period of decades I had the privilege of hearing Philippe speak on numerous occasions and getting to know him as a client. I began to observe more closely those individuals who considered themselves artists, some of them in my employ. I saw that many were neither posers nor particularly interested in the cachet or image of being an artist, but that they were genuine people and genuinely different. Most were much more visually oriented than others, noticing aesthetic nuances that others never saw. It was not a matter of training or focus to prove something; it appeared to be the way that they were wired.

    I also reexamined my own life and saw that although I had been steered towards study in mathematics, a subject that I had some natural gift for, creativity was never really acknowledged and only found an outlet within the bounds of product design. As I began writing for this website for the last seven years, I have become much more acutely aware of the creative process. My thinking has changed. I believe artists exist. Although I still do not understand precisely what makes great art great, I accept that artists are behind it. Sometimes, when my analytical side is in abeyance, I see myself more akin in spirit to artists than scientists.

    Recently, I was invited to see Philippe speak about his latest book, Why Knot?, in Bryant Park. I photographed and filmed the entire presentation, which you can see in 4 parts here. He spoke with unbridled passion and love for knot making. He demonstrated as the audience made knots with him, using a red cord that had been provided for any attendees who wanted to participate. As always, his enthusiasm was infectious. He is an artist. Of course, my saying it does not make it so, either, and not every self-proclaimed artist is one. So, go see for yourself. If you have the opportunity, attend one of Philippe’s talks. And although the phrase has been rendered a cliché by book marketers, in Philippe’s case, you really will Meet the Artist :)


  • Island Nation

    Recently, while in Queens, I took a quick spin around Roosevelt Island. It had been years since my last visit, and the lure of an island is irresistible to me. Most of the city’s other smaller islands are inaccessible to the public. Roosevelt Island is located in the East River under the 59th Street (Queensboro) Bridge. However, the island is not accessible from the bridge directly. From Manhattan, the island can be accessed by the Roosevelt Island Tramway or, since 1989, the F train subway. Getting there by motor vehicle will necessitate a trip to Queens and then the short lift bridge, Roosevelt Island Bridge, which connects Astoria, Queens, to the island.

    Traffic is permitted on the island, however, auto traffic was not part of the island’s planning, and a number of the island’s primary sights, such as the lighthouse and the smallpox hospital, are accessible only by foot, bicycle, or public bus. The big draw here for the visitor are the spectacular vistas from around the island – Manhattan, the river, bridges, the tram, Big Allis, Queens, U Thant Island. On the island, there is the historic Blackwell House (1796), the Octagon (once the main entrance to the New York City Lunatic Asylum), the Blackwell Island Lighthouse, the Chapel of the Good Shepard, and the amazing, enigmatic ruins of the Smallpox Hospital.

    I always loved islands. At one time, I dreamed of visiting the South Pacific, perhaps living on a remote, idyllic tropical isle like Fatu Hiva. But New York City is the archipelago I have chosen, a world unto itself and virtually an Island Nation :)

    Related: Manhattan Island


  • Fudge Time

    It was some years ago when an employee came into my office with very bad news. Our shop vac appeared seriously damaged and was no longer working. When I asked about the nature of the damage, I was told that there appeared to be a problem with the wire connection near the plug. This was laughable, and I responded that I would just pick up a new plug for a couple dollars and rewire it. To which my employee was so impressed, he commented, “Wow, I have to see that.” I asked where he had grown up – the suburbs of Miami. I joked how he was a sad man, that he would be stupefied with such a simple repair. He watched, fascinated, as I replaced the plug in just a few minutes’ time.

    The whole affair was indicative of how many Americans are estranged from even the most basic repairs. With such a strong emphasis on white-collar work and getting a college education (both laudable goals) and such a lack of dignity for blue-collar work, fewer and fewer people use their hands. My high school was very well equipped in the industrial arts, but, being tracked for college, I never set foot in the school’s tech wing. A disappointment to me now – I would have enjoyed a few classes in machining.

    The situation in New York City is much worse. Without space for storage of tools and workspace to use them, most urbanites have limited ability to do their own repairs. Most handiwork in apartment buildings is done by superintendents who wear many hats and do repairs in a variety of trades, none of which they are qualified to do. Most of the work ranges from mediocre to horrific. This is sad to me for so many reasons. There is a real shortage of labor doing quality work and great difficulty in finding someone to do small jobs. On the flip side, there are pluses to the do-it-yourself approach – a cost savings and satisfaction of working with your own hands.

    At one time, I ran into a number of fudge shops in shopping malls that made fudge on the premises. The process of pouring, cooling, cutting, and serving was such a big attraction to shoppers that the shops turned the making into theater. Just before pouring, employees would run through the mall ringing a bell and announcing, “Fudge time!” Shoppers would run and flock, much like sheep, to witness the remarkable event – someone pouring hot fudge into a tray. They remained entranced, as if witnessing the height of artisanship.

    Certainly there is value in seeing quality demonstrations of skilled craft, and there seems to be no dearth of fascination with the watching of things made. However, the audiences are often undiscriminating, watching virtually anything, regardless of how unskilled or inane. People will stand fixated as if watching the miraculous.

    On the streets of New York City, you will from time to time find individuals spray painting works using objects as stencils and tools. I have waited some years to photograph one for this website. On Easter Sunday, returning from the parade, I had the good fortune to run across the spray paint artist in today’s photo. He was surrounded by a flock of tourists, admiring his command of schlock art. Watching, I could almost hear a bell and the cry of “Fudge Time” :)


  • The Tipping Point

    It was a year ago or so that a friend recommended The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. I had long ruminated and been very perplexed as to the reason that certain phenomenon, trends, etc, suddenly and inexplicably hit critical mass and really took off. Things such as the hula hoop – invented in 1957 and a fad by 1958. Then, interest lay relatively dormant for over 40 years. In the last few years, there has been a renaissance in hooping, but now with a much more serious interest for exercise and dance. Yet, it is difficult to ferret out any particular reasons to explain the resurgence in interest now. One may cit interest in exercise, material availability, etc., yet all these elements have been in place for decades.
    Gladwell seeks to explain such mysterious sociological agents of change that mark everyday life with his three rules of epidemics: The Law of the Few, the stickiness factor, and the power of context. Gladwell’s thinking is also based on the 1967 Six Degrees of Separation study by social psychologist Stanley Milgram. However, despite the books popularity and Gladwell’s financial success (over $1 million dollar advance for the book and subsequent speaking at $40,000 per lecture), the scientific community is not in full agreement as to the validity of Gladwell’s analyses and for many, the reasons for a tipping point in social phenomena still remains a mystery.

    I see this tipping point concept in my business as well as the innumerable trends I have witnessed in the last 44 years I have lived in New York City. Frozen yogurt shops, gelato, and most recently, aerial arts – a relatively difficult and somewhat dangerous activity to gain an audience with the general populace. Until recently, such interest in things like trapeze, wire walking, lyra, and silks has been limited to circus professionals. People such as Hovey Burgess have been steadfast in training a small number of those with a passion for flying high.

    On Sunday, January 13, 2013, I had been wandering the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on a trip to visit the Domino Sugar refinery. I was intrigued by a one-story industrial building with a colorfully painted door with the words The Muse Performance Center brandished across its face, the huge Domino Sugar building in the distance looming over the place. I wondered what may lie behind this door when I heard my name called. I am recognized on occasion by a customer from the large number of contacts I have made over the last 38 years in business. But nonetheless, it is quite infrequent and certainly unexpected on a Sunday afternoon on a deserted street in an industrial area of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
    I did not recognize the individual, but he was in fact a customer and informed me that he had just been to my place of business in the last week. He was, quite conveniently, associated with The Muse. I asked if it would be possible to enter the space and take photos, to which he said yes. He introduced himself as Ryan and gave me his card: Ryan Shinji Murray, it said, along with the words: pleasure to meet you. let’s keep in touch. I learned that Ryan is a very talented working professional and was leaving for a 3-month tour that week – I was fortunate to have met him just before leaving.
    I entered the small industrial space and saw that it was, in fact, one of a number of spaces I had heard of that was used for the training and teaching of aerial arts. In the last few years, there has been a renaissance in interest in all manner of aerial circus arts. Studios in inauspicious locations around New York City provide space for such activity. In the five boroughs of New York City, you will find STREB, The Trapeze School of New York, Circus Warehouse, Skybody System, Aerial Arts NYC, Helium Aerial Dance, Kiebpoli’s Aerial Class,The Sky Box, Body and Pole, the Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and The Muse, located at 32D South First Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. STREB, one of the most well known, is only two blocks away from The Muse.

    I thank Ryan and the cordial staff of The Muse for letting me take photos of their space. And I will let others explain why now, among the other particular current trends and fashions of New York City, that aerial arts has reached The Tipping Point :)


  • Makin’ Glass

    As a child, I had once inserted house keys into a power outlet, as I wrote in Electrical Outlets. When I was a bit older, I had upped the ante and was being hit with a stick on my butt for blowing a fuse, the first and only time I received that kind of punishment. I don’t recall any real serious pain, only humiliation at being a little too old to be whooped.

    This time, I was trying to make glass. It was another failed experiment. I had found instructions on building a arc furnace using carbon rods from dry cell batteries, a clay flowerpot as a crucible, and a train transformer as a power source. Unfortunately, I knew nothing of the proper power requirements, and my only result was a blown fuse and a bruised butt.

    The fact that common sand could be melted in a homemade arc furnace to make glass was nothing less than amazing to me. It still is. Later in life, I built a stained glass Tiffany-styled lamp from a kit. However, I never did venture into glass making, forming, or blowing.
    I love glass. I respect plastic, which I work with every day in the manufacture of products. However, glass is virtually antithetical to plastic which, in spite of all the remarkable manmade resins, remains a metaphor for all things cheap. Everything about glass is extraordinary – its amorphous non-crystalline structure, its ability to refract, reflect, and transmit light, its chemical resistance, cleanability, and its tremendous versatility.

    Last night, after a very good meal on Indian row in the East Village, a friend and I happened upon a mecca for colored glass. A brand new shop, Mosaic Lamps at 208 East 6th Street, features an array of handblown glass lamps decorated with mosaics. The lamps are imported from Turkey, where centuries of tradition go into the making of these beautiful works. I met the owner, Melissa Benovic, who with her boyfriend Ilker Arslan, were inspired by the grand bazaar in Istanbul where Ilker once worked.

    To my surprise, although these lamps are common in Turkey, they are virtually non-existent in New York City, until the opening of Mosaic Lamps. I wish them the best of luck. I’m pleased to see that somewhere in Istanbul, rather than blow fuses, someone is good at Makin’ Glass :)


  • Shabby is Not Chic


    It was high school gym class, and a classmate, looking to validate his negative assessment of my mode of dress with our gym teacher who stood nearby, pointed out to him how absurd I looked with my T-shirt tucked into my gym shorts. The teacher, rather than side with my classmate, defended me, saying that I looked neat and that my classmate might want to see me as an example of someone to emulate, not deride. It was a small triumph.

    Growing up, I was tidy and neat, always preferring the well-kept, the organized, pristine, the newly made. Over time, I have grown to appreciate old world charm and antiques, even if they are less than “perfect.” I have come to know many artists, who typically prefer the unmeasured, unmanicured, unkempt – flaws that in some way give things character.
    My exploration of this alternate universe reached its pinnacle when I was introduced to the decorative world of Rachel Ashwell by a friend. I was impressed with the ambiance of the store and wrote Off-White By Design. I began to investigate Rachel’s world of Shabby Chic as well as French country decor. I even had employees from the Ashwell team come to my home and make a proposal for a badly needed redecoration of my apartment.

    However, I never went through with their plan. Their solution seemed quite pricey and honestly, the old neat and tidy man came out – I found many of the articles just too rough, poorly made, and overpriced. I guess one could say that I ultimately just found the look too shabby, or at least did not want to pay good money for that which I did not find particularly chic.

    Recently, I found myself in the very same home of the friend who introduced me to Rachel Ashwell. I was helping sift and sort through her possessions in her residence in Staten Island, which had been flooded in Hurricane Sandy. The entire experience has been unpleasant. While in her living room, I was stunned when I came across a badly damaged, water-soaked copy of the classic Shabby Chic by Rachel Ashwell. There it sat on the water logged carpet, the ultimate in irony – the modern day bible for the celebration of all things shabby, sitting amidst rubble soaked in seawater with traces of sewage.

    In the showrooms of SoHo and the homes of the well-healed, the deliberate selection and placement of the aged and worn may in fact be charming. But here, in Staten Island, amidst the wholesale damage left by Sandy, at least for now, Shabby is Not Chic :(

    A similar scene: Kind Of


  • Niki de Saint Phalle

    New York City is a mecca for public art. Recently, while driving on Park Avenue, I was stunned by a visually outstanding display of sculpture. The works, along Park Avenue from 52nd to 60th Street, have been installed in memory of the late renowned artist Niki de Saint Phalle. The sculptor, painter, and film maker was born in born in 1930 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Hauts-de-Seine, near Paris, France. Her public work can be found worldwide. From NY1:

    The installation is presented by the Parks Department, the Fund for Park Avenue and Nohra Haime Gallery which represents de Saint Phalle’s work. The display marks 10 years since the French-American artist passed away, but her work remains very much a celebration of life.

    “She celebrates African American heroes such as Michael Jordan, Miles Davis, and Louie Armstrong. And Niki made a lot of sculptures about women — the successful, independent, powerful woman, the New York woman,” said Nohra Haime Gallery Director Ana Maria de la Ossa.

    The sculpture will be on display through mid-November. If you are in the area, it’s a great opportunity to go no further than the streets of Manhattan to see the work of Niki de Saint Phalle

    See my complete photo gallery here.


  • Nice Snowing You

    I was once visiting a friend in Boulder, Colorado. Her friends all seemed to be gainfully employed in various types of new age or non-specific occupations. One man seemed to be particularly evasive. When I asked exactly what he DID, he said: Oh, you know, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. No, I don’t know. I have worked many odd jobs when younger, but they had titles or descriptions. If you live on the streets of New York City, not with a home in Boulder, a little bit of this and a little bit of that is likely an apt description for a life of foraging, scrounging, and other methods of acquiring food, money, and things.

    I have met many such individuals in the city, and Hans Honschar may be one of them. The details of Hans’ life are few and sketchy as is his source of income. He told me that he was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and grew up in Tampa, Florida. He states his occupation as poet and artist. I sent a biographical questionnaire to the two email addresses he provided some time ago. I received no response. An Internet search returns primarily mug shot photos and arrest documents from minor infractions committed in Florida. Not uncommon for someone who lives by his wits.

    Hans is a man of many pithy remarks, quips, and quotations. These can be seen in his chalk work on the streets and in the parks of New York City. His chalk is surprisingly durable, particularly given the heavy load of pedestrians in the city. He told me that one of his secrets was to wet the chalk, which gives his work much more longevity.

    I asked about his motivation for his work. He said that he did it to inspire, put a little color on the ground in a gray city, and to edify and enliven people. Hans appears to be a member in good standing of New York City’s Sidewalk University – both as student and faculty.

    We chatted for some time, and I recorded some of the conversation on video. I love what Hans told me he had said when he left Canada in 2003, because it reminded me of what that acquaintance in Colorado had essentially said to me – Nice Snowing You :)


  • Your Best Friend


    I recently paid a business visit to Pulse Plastics in the Bronx. The dismal look of their windowless building along with that of Streamline Plastics prompted me to do a story on April 16, 2010, We Don’t Do Windows, after my first visit there. So I was particularly stunned upon my recent arrival to see that one entire wall of the one-story building had been completely transformed by “graffiti.”

    I say “graffiti” because this type of painting, historically very controversial, has been going through a transition. I have written several stories on the phenomenon. From Unconditional Love on October 8, 2010:

    Most see the problem as vandalism, pure and simple… What complicates the matter, however, is that like anything else, there is a spectrum of quality – some of the work is extraordinary. Some of the buildings are in industrial neighborhoods, have stood unoccupied for decades, and are dreadful looking – drab architecture, no exterior maintenance and a dismal setting. And often they are vastly improved by aerosol paint. But, nonetheless, these buildings are not “public” property.
    However, many building owners permit the work to be done. This seems to be a growing trend. And, in Long Island City, 5Pointz Aerosol Art Center, Inc., “The Institute of Higher Burnin’,” is an outdoor art exhibit space which is considered to be the world’s premiere “graffiti Mecca,” where aerosol artists from around the globe paint colorful pieces on the walls of a 200,000-square-foot factory building. The founder says, however, that “Graffiti is a label for writers who vandalize. Aerosol art takes hours and days. It’s a form of calligraphy.”

    Certainly cooperation is best for all, allowing more time for better work and even working with the owners for things like incorporation of company signage elements.

    The major epicenter of this type of sanctioned aerosol art is the block-long, 200,000-square-foot (19,000 m2) factory building complex in Long Island City, Queens, known as 5 Pointz (includes a link to the photo gallery).

    The mural done at Pulse Plastics shown in today’s photo was the work of Tats Cru. The artists who form the group and their work are impressive. Some have been commissioned by major international corporations. You can read more about Tats Cru and see their work here.

    The owner of Pulse Plastics, Alan Backleman, sanctioned the work on his building and is pleased with the result. He agreed with me that the building-long mural is an improvement and welcome facelift for the previously drab structure. Already, Alan told me that the building has been used as a backdrop for film and commercial work.

    It is questionable, of course, whether covering every neglected structure in the five boroughs of New York City with aerosol art would be desirable. Without some sort of cooperation and coordination, the urban landscape could end up looking like a cacophony of circus posters. But we are a long way from that concern.

    The Bronx’s image has been troubled, however, the borough was not as blighted as it appears today. The period from 1920-1950 was documented in The Beautiful Bronx by historian Lloyd Ultan. The book came out in 1979 two years after President Carter visited the South Bronx, a visit that did much to project a negative image of the borough across the nation.

    At one time, the borough used a wastebasket and the slogan “Don’t Dump on the Bronx” for their anti-littering campaign. In 2001, the Bronx replaced the image with one of a Day Lily and the slogan “The Beautiful Bronx,” inspired by Ultan’s book title, as part of a beautification program and effort to improve the Bronx’s image.

    Unwanted graffiti was a large part of the visual blight that dominated most vistas in the borough. As everyone knows, however, tools can be used for good or bad, and when seen in this light, it is perhaps not so ironic that the aerosol spray demonstrates quite clearly that in times of need, your worst enemy can become Your Best Friend :)

    More graffiti and aerosol art: Rattus rattus, Skame, Columbo, Monk and CSI, TMNK, Unguent, Unkindest Etch of All, Scrap Yard, 11 Spring Street, Dumbo Arts Festival, Mars Bar, Totem


  • A Blank Slate

    I once had a long discussion with a woman making the case for creative writing being so much more difficult than writing commercial copy. I had been slaving over writing catalog copy for our product line, and it was excruciating to say what I wanted in the space allotted. I disagreed with her viewpoint and countered that the constraints and parameters of writing advertising can be extremely challenging, more so than writing fiction. She said it could not compare to writing a novel, where you start with a blank slate.

    True, but there is no law that says that the results of a blank slate which has been filled by a fine artist is more creative than a piece of advertising meeting a host of requirements. Artistic brilliance or lack thereof can be found in fine arts or commercial art.

    New York City is a mecca for artists and art schools. Anyone here long enough will be exposed to art at various levels – galleries, art students, and working artists in every genre: writing, painting, illustration, sculpture, film, TV, video, architecture, dance, and music. We are blessed with numerous well-regarded schools – Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music, Mannes, Parsons, SVA, and NYU Film, as well as world-renowned venues, such as Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.

    However, everyone has got to earn a buck, and whether born of necessity or by choice, much of the world’s artistic talent finds work outside fine arts, either in commercial art or in jobs unrelated to art altogether. It is the rare artist that is able to support him or herself through fine art alone. Very serious talent is funneled into the commercial arts and media, and I am never one to disparage genres such as TV. Writers for comedy and TV often hail from some of the finest schools, and networks such as HBO are showcases for artistic talent that compares creatively to fine film.

    Here, on Greenwich Avenue in the Village, is a spectacular window display at the Rizza Hair Salon. Behind this work, there is likely an artist applying his or her talents and expressing him/herself given the constraints of the shop owner’s needs. It’s creative and well done, even though he/she likely started with more than a blank slate :)

    More on art and artists: Leave It to the Critics, Mark Birnbaum (Part 1 and Part 2), Creative Expert, So Where’s David?, Finger Painting, Fusion Arts Museum



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