Monday, May 31, 2010

Family Drawings from the Movable Studio

 Cup of the Day #27
By Gwyneth Leech 2010
Colored India ink 
on white and beige printed cup

During the NYC Pool art fair in March, held at the Gershwin Hotel on East 27th Street, visitors were invited to sit on my bed and draw pictures on the theme of family. Over the course of three days 160 people took part and the drawings were hung in the bathroom, eventually filling the walls from floor to ceiling, including inside the (dry) shower stall. 150 of the drawings are now on my website. Click here to view.

The Movable Studio will be making another appearance in a picnic variation at Figment New York, the arts festival held on Governors Island in New York Harbor June 11th, 12th and 13th. Visitors are invited to join me on the grass of Nolan Park where the studio will be spread out on picnic blankets from 11AM to 5 PM. Nolan Park was home to officer's families and the beautiful clapboard houses still stand beneath shade trees around a village green. Come imagine what family life was like here and draw your version. 

Coffee is available on Governor's Island at Pyramid Café next to pier 101, but all things considered you might prefer to bring your favorite brew in a thermos.

Drawings from Studio on a Bed,
Pool Art Fair, NYC 2010
Click Here to see more

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Big Count: Census 2010

Cup of the Day #26
 by Gwyneth Leech, 2010
Colored India ink on white cup
I was walking home from the studio in the pouring rain the other day and passed one of my local deli-men. He was carrying an umbrella and wearing a black and white satchel over his shoulder - a 2010 Census satchel! He has embarked on a new, temporary career going door to door chasing up non-responders.

I was in his shoes at the beginning of April, although it wasn't door-to-door then, but a matter of waiting outside soup kitchens and shelters for the intensive shelter-based enumeration at the start of the census period. We trained at Truro college in Lower Manhattan - hundreds of us all at once, spending long days in windowless rooms going methodically through handbooks. This was not a job to be taken lightly, even though our crew leader, Lisa Kaplan, a stand-up comedienne by profession, did her dry best to make it palatable. At the training our group of 30 or so included under-employed singers, actors, writers and artists, some of whom I already knew from around my neighborhood or from my choral singing job.

Lunch breaks were a highlight of the training and Bean and Bean, at 71 Broadway, a pleasant discovery. They are an all-organic coffee bar and roast their beans right on the spot. You can see the Digital Roaster, the Pro 2500, sitting in shiny glory in a glass-walled room at the back of the shop. It made me feel quite confident about the expensive product I carried away with me.

Once training was complete, the actual enumeration job involved traveling to multiple sites around the city, long waits, false starts, lots of paperwork and some heart ache, but all the information is confidential and I can't share any of the stories I heard on threat of imprisonment or fine. However, I can say that the wind blew, rain lashed down and enumeration forms turned to mush as we tried to fill them in while counting people outside several famous sites, such as the McAuley Water Street Mission, the Salvation Army on 14th Street and the Bowery Mission - which lives up to it's knock-about reputation despite the shiny presence of the New Museum literally two doors away.

I saw a cluster of enumerators on a stoop up the block yesterday. I stopped to commiserate. How many times do they have to come back to any given apartment if they get no response? Six times. That's a lot of leg work!

So give them a break - if you still haven't filled in that census form, do it now.

Comedienne and 
sometime census crew leader

Monday, May 24, 2010

Up in the Air

Cup of the Day #25
Yellow Marsh Cup, 2010
by Gwyneth leech
Sumi ink, india ink and white-out pen
on white cardboard cup

I was sitting outside Cafe Angelique in the West Village drinking a cup of coffee and contemplating mortality. Leslie Buck the designer of the classic New York Greek coffee cup had just passed away and an article about him and his "Anthora" paper cup was in the New York times. I occasionally come across one of these cups. I have two in my studio, just to admire.

Further thoughts of mortality revolved around my project for the day - going up in a single propeller plane to fly the length of the New Jersey coast. I was thrilled at this chance to see up close some marsh lands that are inspiring my recent oil paintings which you can view by clicking here. But this is a very small plane, just two seats and no in-flight coffee or tea service. Things happen.

Tweety Hawk coming out of the hangar
Preparing to fly with Jim

In fact, the most overtly hair-raising part of the trip was the drive to the air field in Linden, New Jersey. Once I got used to the idea of how truly tiny the Tweety Hawk was, the flight was a great pleasure. Expertly piloted by my friend Jim who has made small planes his passion and his business for many years, we flew low and circled high over some of the most beautiful stretches of Marshland from Barnegat Light, all the way down to the Cape of New Jersey and up into the remoter reaches of the Delaware Bay.

Flying over Barnegat Light
in the Tweety Hawk

The only truly alarming moment came when Jim instructed me, even before we took off, on landing the plane in case of an emergency. No one is a passenger on this flight, but a co-pilot! On the flight back, nearing Linden,  he asked me if I could see the airstrip. Absolutely not! It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Had I had to land the plane I would surely have ended up on the expressway by mistake. Good thing he knew where he was going.

I was back in the city by mid-afternoon, with only stiff limbs to complain of. I can't wait to start working with these new images in the studio.

 South Jersey Marsh
Oil on canvas, 2008
from Marsh Lines
By Gwyneth Leech
24" x 48"

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Making Art in the Park

Cup of the Day #24
by Gwyneth Leech, 2009
Colored India Ink on White Cardboard cup

I was in Bryant Park last week when seven ladies in bright yellow dresses were striding, stamping, limping and strolling around on top of a big yellow box. Together they made up an installation by the artist Kate Gilmore called Walk the Walk. I stood underneath for awhile listening to the satisfying drum roll of their foot steps, then I walked back to take in the scene from a distance. Surprisingly, the yellow was not all that jarring. It was bright, like a bed of daffodils, but blended in nicely with the new green of the London Plane trees which made a backdrop to the performers.

I took some photos and background details began pop to my attention: a woman carrying a yellow shopping bag, a man in a yellow polo shirt, the yellow sign on the Pax coffee bar on the corner, and the yellow-green sleeves on the coffee cups from the 'Witchcraft kiosk in the park - all created variations on the centerpiece.

Kate Gilmore herself was there, talking to the art bloggers Barry Hoggard and James Wagner, and I joined them for a chat. The big question was, how do the performers get up and down? Kate showed us a ladder leaning against a tree. The performers were allowed breaks as required during their hours-long shifts. Kate was cheerful and clearly having a good time - watching from ground level, but standing in solidarity with the marching maidens, despite the profusion of little French folding chairs scattered everywhere in Bryant Park.
It has been a busy week, she said, I help the girls up and down, people keep coming by, I enjoy watching - then I go do some business in a coffee shop. Now there's a woman after my own heart!

A few days later the endlessly walking women, the box and the ladder were all gone without a trace - in the end, just a fleeting interjection into the daily life of the city.

Walk the Walk by Kate Gilmore
Bryant Park, May 2010 

Monday, May 17, 2010

In the Studio

Cup of the Day #23
By Gwyneth Leech
India Ink on white cup

My painting studio is on the 13th floor of 315 West 39th Street, a building of fine art, photo, and design studios in the Garment District. I arrive in the morning with either a breakfast tea from Empire Coffee and Tea Co. or, if I am running late, my lunch in a bag from the Village 38 food bar on 8th Avenue at 38th Street. Empire cups are white, Village 38 cups are moss green with printed patterns and cursive white letters. Each presents a different challenge.

I share my studio with Cecile Brunswick, a dedicated oil painter and wonderful colorist, who works at a different time of day from me. When I arrive I am always interested to see the progress she is making on her paintings. It is an invigorating sight and helps to keep me moving forward with my own work.

My day starts by opening the middle of our three windows as wide as possible and then sitting down to look out at the unobstructed view to the North. In the center of the view, four blocks away is a building I have been watching grow for the lat 12 months. Nearly finished at some 40 stories, they are now encasing the water towers. The view of Midtown is a forest of new blue glass buildings towering over the low rise of my Hell's Kitchen neighborhood to the West. I am mesmerized by this view. The light and color change all day long  and I am constantly surprised and delighted. It has a fortified feel and reminds me of Mont Saint Michel, the way the buildings seem to pile up.

 Midtown View 2010
Cellphone photo by Gwyneth Leech

I sit, I watch, I drink tea. Then I take a few photos with my cellphone and send them to myself. I have scores of these photos now, a year of light and weather, which I am assembling into a book.

Next I turn my attention to the current painting, hanging on the wall waiting from the last session. I am working on a new series called Marsh Lines, inspired by aerial views of salt marshes in New Jersey. I look at the painting for a time. Finally I put on painting clothes, lay out oil paints on the palette, choose brushes, step back, sit down, look at the painting - and pick up a cup.

Sometimes it is an hour or more later when, feeling a little bleary-eyed, I put down a cup drawing and get to my feet. It is amazing what you can get done while procrastinating! Then finally, I get to work on that painting, generally disappearing into the process so completely that I am not aware of the time passing, except by the changing light outside the window. Finally, it is time to clean brushes, straighten up the mess and wash the paint from my face. How do I always get paint on my face?

I take a look around the studio, making sure my cups are washed and stacked, a painting is on the wall ready for the next session, the window is closed. Then I head out the door.

 Meadowlands,  painting in progress
from Marsh Lines
Oil on canvas, 2010
by Gwyneth Leech

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Keeping it Light

Cup of the Day #22
by Gwyneth Leech 2009
colored India ink on white cup

I am sitting in the front room of my 5th floor walk-up on West 47th Street between 9th and 10th. The air is clear and a fresh breeze is blowing in the windows, carrying the scent of irises blooming in the community garden a block away.

I am in digital mode today and another New York artist Ula Einstein is assisting me. Ula is being  objective and helping me to complete a delayed drawing project which involves scanning, manipulating and uploading 150 images to my website. To set us up I have made a pot of Scottish Blend tea, which she drinks black with honey and I take with just milk.

While we work we discuss our preferred art-making methods and materials. Making art on the go comes up. Time was I used a sketchbook, but for some years now I have been focused on the ubiquitous cardboard cup as my favorite drawing surface. Ula uses a wider range of ephemera and cast-offs in her stitched and burned artwork. Trader Joe coffee cans and the round aluminum skins that seal the ground coffee are useful to her, as are small odds and ends, such as napkins and balloons that she can carry in her bag. So, as she says, she always has something to work on while traveling from place to place. Ula's process is described beautifully in a recent article in Dvisible magazine, online here.

My mother Louise Leech, also an artist, made sculpture incorporating cast-off objects in her younger days, so I come by my impulse to recycle honestly. However, when my parents moved in 2004 from a large house they had lived in for 50 years, my sister and I cleared her basement work rooms. Out came broken umbrellas, candelabras, heavy picture frames, dismembered chairs and tables, trunks and boxes, bicycle frames, doors, and a chipped bowling ball, heavy as lead.

I think it was the bowling ball that finished me off. As I hauled it last of all up the basement stairs I resolved then and there to be an artist who travels light. Being inclined to paint on stretched canvas, I am still working to keep that resolution. But with cardboard coffee cups I am definitely on the right track.

By Ula Einstein
mixed media sculpture installation
©Ula Einstein 2010

Monday, May 10, 2010

Big Apple Blend

Cup of the Day #21
Midtown Cup 2 by Gwyneth Leech 2009
Colored India ink on white cardboard cup

The pride and joy of our 5th floor walk-up on West 47th Street is our eat-in kitchen. You can't swing a cat in here, but we have a half circle table up against the wall and we four squeeze around it to eat dinner together every night. We imagine our neighbor Angelo Gugliemo, a film-maker, sitting at a matching half circle table on the other side of the wall.

Many Saturday nights find us eating while we listen to Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion on the radio. The show's dry wit and low key charm have grown on me since I first heard it in my Grandmother's Philadelphia kitchen  in 1977(!) When I realized that it is often broadcast live from the Town Hall on West 43rd Street in New York City, just a few blocks from where we live, I became even more interested.

I was passing by the Town Hall just the other day on my way to an artist talk at the Mid-Manhattan Library. I stopped into the box office on a whim and came out with four tickets. That was easy. So this Saturday night found us not at home eating dinner, but in balcony seats, while The Guy's All-Star Shoe Band warmed up the audience until the red ON AIR light snapped on and the familiar strains of the Prairie Home Companion opening sequence began.

Mothers, childbirth, country music, attempted bombings in Times Square, Guy Noir on the trail of a fictitious "culinary pornography" ring on 8th Avenue, ingenious sound effects and Dick Hyman's jazz piano made for a hugely entertaining and cathartic brew.

Actual brew finally made an appearance when Keillor took the microphone to deliver the Lake Wobegon news. In his left hand was a cardboard cup, tell-tale tea bag label hanging over the side. Up and down, round and round went the cup as his arm movements ornamented the tale of a hapless neighbor soaked by rain then coated in falling plum blossoms -"he looked like a Snowy Egret". Just when I thought he was finally going to drink the tea, he set the cup down untouched on a stool and finished the yarn with one hand in his pocket. Was it just a prop?

On the way home we stopped at the Westway Diner on 9th Avenue for a chocolate milk shake and a side of fries, cheese cake and, still thinking of the show, a cup of tea. As we paid the check I noticed a sign on the wall behind the cash register worthy of Lake Wobegon. With only the slightest exaggeration it read:

Big Apple Blend 
(The Can with the Pale Blue Label)
for only $7
Bring Home the Westway Diner's 
Signature (Just OK) Coffee

Midtown View from 9th Avenue
Photo by Gwyneth Leech, 2010

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Café Saltz

  Cup of the Day #20
Black and white cup by Gwyneth Leech 2009
India ink on white cup

I was up later than I should have been the other night, hanging out on the page of my Facebook friend, Jerry Saltz. Jerry is a New York art critic and lively conversations spring up on his Facebook page daily, ranging wildly over the territory of art, life and politics. A cast of artworld characters join in regularly and with nearly 5000 friends, his page has become a kind of virtual salon, as noted in the press recently.

On this particular evening, to my delight, a coffee conversation was percolating. At issue was buying cups of coffee versus making it oneself. Jerry is firmly in the going out to buy it camp, stepping away from his writing four times a day to purchase coffee, brown-bagged and ready to drink.
"I go to different places for my coffee", he wrote.
"I will often ask people about issues of the day: "What about this immigration thing in Arizona?" "What do you think of the Health Care thing?"
I never argue back. I am just very curious about what people think.
I also like to give very large tips after they put my coffee into brown paper bags; a way to spread the wealth (except at Au Bon
Pain where the bags aren't the right size and I bag my own and the coffee lids somehow often open and I spill and leave these trails of coffee before I notice it or I burn through the bottom of the bag)."

I am with Jerry on this one. Except for my morning tea, which must be brewed at home in a ceramic tea pot and served in a mug, I can't pass up the social contact of buying my brew to go. Whenever I spy a new coffee bar, I go straight in to order something and ask questions. When working alone all day, it is hard to resist popping down to the corner to shoot the geo-political breeze with the Yemeni deli man, even if his coffee is just average. As a bonus, the Yemeni deli man is looking out for me. Knowing that I am a painter, he recently arranged the exchange of business cards between me and an art dealer who also buys coffee in his shop. The dealer and I haven't met yet, but the e-mails are promising.

Back on Facebook Loren Munk, another New York artist and anthropologist of the every day, was scolding Jerry: "the coffee situation made me cry. I personally volunteered to teach Jerry to make good coffee, but alas, he demurred."
Finally, Loren quipped, "Buy a man (or lady) a cup of coffee and they're buzzed for an hour. Teach them to make coffee and they'll twitch for a lifetime."

I reckon Jerry just gets all the buzz he needs.

 Jerry Saltz (center) with Facebook Friends
February 2010
photo by Gwyneth Leech

Monday, May 3, 2010

Dishing the Dirt

 Cup of the Day #19
Small Coffeebean Cup by Gwyneth Leech
India ink on brown cup, 2009

Not long ago I gathered with several other artists, writers, an actor and a musician to sort through some dirt. Literally.

We are the composting committee at Clinton Community Garden and we were opening up last year's compost bins. Soon a heaping wheelbarrow full of rich black organic material stood before us, surprisingly odorless and rich in the promise of fertile garden plots to come. We sorted through by the spadeful, removing avocado pits, corn cobs, little paper labels, stones, twigs and other dross that hadn't broken down. Then the precious compost was decanted into tubs ready for distribution.

In the process of shoveling and sorting I learned that egg shells, coffee grounds and tea leaves are all worth their weight in composting gold. Rich in nitrogen (and calcium for egg shells) they make superb fertilizer for a garden or planter and can be used directly on the soil, without needing to be broken down. Who knew?

On the other hand, the left-over honey comb from the garden's hive emerged these many months later as an undigested horror and had to be hidden inside a bucket for someone braver to deal with.
I have a plot here, about the size of a single bed, among a hundred such beds intensively and lovingly tended by us nature-starved city dwellers. I was on the waiting list for eight years before our family name came up. The plot has had many prior owners in the thirty year history of the garden so it has delighted me this Spring with a succession of surprises: daffodils, hearty tulips, sprays of violets and now a rich display of what I think of as Scottish blue bells. Wild hyacinth really. They carpet the woods near Glasgow in May and David and I used to trek out to see them anually when we lived there.

On these Spring mornings in New York City I like to come early and sit cross-legged on the brick path in front of my little plot, drink my morning tea from a cardboard cup and let my mind wander to woods and gardens far away.

Video still
Apis Millifera by Gwyneth Leech, 2008
with music by Martha Sullivan
taped in the Clinton Community Garden
View on Youtube here