Monday, November 29, 2010

A Pitman Painter in the Family

As I was walking down 47th Street recently, I came to a halt in front of a poster depicting coal miners holding paintings and brushes. The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall is playing just two blocks from our apartment through December 12th. I had to go see it.

Cup of the Day #49
 by Gwyneth Leech 2009
India in on white paper cup

The play is funny, and melancholy, the thick Northumberland accents a little hard on American ears. A group of miners learn to paint. It changes their lives, but does not change where they live. They remain rooted in their small mining community and make art about it for the rest of their lives.

One character is a young man, unemployed, unfit for the mine for some reason. He is the only character to break away from the mining world. He joins up, marches off to the second World War, and exits the frame of the play.

This echoes uncannily my grandfather's tale. Michael J. Gallagher, born in 1898, was a sickly boy in a family of Irish Pitmen in Scranton PA and he was never employed in the mines. He joins up for WW1, ships out - and contracts TB at boot camp. Fortunately for me - and his other descendants - the story doesn't end there. He is sent to a sanatorium to convalesce. He draws to amuse himself and a doctor is so impressed with his talent that he gives him all the materials he needs and recommends art school.

Coal Miners 1936
by Michael Gallagher
India ink and China white
7 x 9 inches

Mike recovers fully, moves to New York City, works as a bell hop and takes etching classes at the Art Students League. From there he goes to Philadelphia to the School of Industrial Arts, and meets Katherine McCallum - a fellow art student who came from Bloomsburg PA, just over the mountain from Scranton. They marry, three children follow. Louise Leech, the eldest daughter (my mother) grows up to be an artist too.

Mike never returns to Scranton and he makes his way as a print illustrator whose principal medium is wood engraving. His spots appeared in the New Yorker and other magazine for years. At a time of great hardship for the family, during the Depression of the 1930s, Mike is offered the job of technical director of the Philadelphia Printmaking branch of the WPA art project. This is a financial lifeline and a creative boon, leading him to produce a striking series of dark and haunted images in wood-engravings and in a new technique he develops with Herbert Mesibov and Dox Thrash; The Carborundum process. His subject of choice - the coal mining life of his youth. Toiling miners below ground, miners trudging home at nightfall against a backdrop of breakers and slag heaps, mine explosions and brief cheerful respites in prints such as Saturday Evening, where lovers are out walking at sunset, create a vivid evocation of that now-vanished world.

Black Country, By Michal J. Gallagher
wood-engraving on paper, 1941
11 x 13 inches
WPA Art collection

 My favorite print is the Coal Miner's Kitchen. To one side, a blackened miner is washing at the sink, exhausted at the end of the shift. On a cast-iron stove in the foreground the coffee pot is set to boil by the shadowy miner's wife. A deep-seated memory from his childhood.

So it was possible to take the man out of the coal mine town, but it seems, nothing could take the coal mine town out of him.

Sunday Afternoon (also titled Sunday Evening), 
By Michael J.  Gallagher, 1936
8 x 11 inches
Photo: Susan Teller Gallery, NYC

In her recent review of the play, Roberta Smith wrote, "“The Pitmen Painters” was written in part to protest cuts in arts endowments in Britain. Its lesson is that in looking at art and articulating our responses, we find essential parts of ourselves that enable us to lead happier, fuller lives and, yes, probably be better citizens. That is something that no nation can afford to ignore."

The legacy of that brief shining moment of unprecedented arts funding in the USA which was the WPA art project of the 1930s lives on in museums and libraries around the country. I have learned that some 16 of my grandfather's WPA prints are in the permanent collection of the Metropolitain Museum here in New York City. I plan to make an appointment to see them.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

How to Collect Art: Starting Small

Anyone can be an art collector, as demonstrated by the following story:

Cup of the Day #48
by Gwyneth Leech 20210
White out pen and Sumi ink on brown paper cup
in Eat/Art at Atlantic Gallery November 30th to December 23rd

I was at the Container Sore in Chelsea the other day, dithering over how to display several of my coffee cup drawings which will debut in a group show,  Eat/Art at Atlantic Gallery opening on November 30th.
I was at the back, surreptitiously removing some display items from an attractive clear acrylic corner shelf with a rounded front, and trying out my cup drawings for effect. Lovely. Perfect!

I went in search of a customer service rep who could hunt up stock.
Paul was happy to oblige, and returning a few minutes later with three shelves, he asked me what I planned to be putting on the them, thinking of weights, screw, and wall types.
"These," I replied, and lined up six cup drawings on a display table.

"Nice!" he said, examining one closely. "Reminds me of my mother's friend in Queens who made a million bucks manufacturing paper coffee cups. You know, that Greek kind - We Are Happy To Serve You."
Was her friend, Leslie Buck the man who designed the Anthora cup and who passed away recently?
"I don't think so. I believe it was the guy who printed and distributed them. They were everywhere at one time. My mother used to tell me, you can make a living in a myriad ways; If you find out everything there is to know about a thing, the world will beat a path to your door."

I like the way she thinks.

Looking at my cups led Paul to another story. "I have been in New York City all my life - well since I was four. Back in the 1980's I bought a piece of matchbook art, covered in a graffiti design. Bought it from a graffiti artist in Washington Square. Tag name was SAMO. He turned up not long after in art galleries:  Jean Michel Basquiat.

 Jean-Michel BasquiatThe young art star who shot so brightly across the New York '80s scene and came to a tragic end at the age of 27. One of his paintings sold for over $14 million at Sotheby's in 2007. I would love to see that matchbook!

"I picked up a Keith Haring back then too, and some pieces by other graffiti guys. They were selling them on the street and I loved the art they were making. I still have those paintings."

As I headed to the cashier, I asked Paul if he has a secret vocation.
"Not really," he said. "I do like to talk to people, which I can do in this job."
"Oh," he added, "and I have a pretty great art collection."

Moral of the story: buy it because you love it.

Graffiti Art lives on
The ever evolving graffiti museum in Queens, NY

For people interested in collecting art, here are
some websites where you can find quality artists to follow:

Don't hesitate to contact directly artists whose work you like and ask where they are exhibiting or how you can see their work in person! Artists will be happy to add you to their mailing lists for upcoming shows and open studio events.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Staying, Not Going: Artists Loving New York City

There was dire and somewhat funereal news from Crain's Business this week in an article called Artists Fleeing the City. It paints a depressing picture of a future New York City with no practicing artists, turned into a shopping-mall art center showcasing only artists from out of town. 

 Cup of the Day #46
Dark Cup by Gwyneth Leech, 2010
Sumi ink on white, encasustic treated paper cup

It is true that the cost of living is high and buyers scarce. Yes, the city has gentrified and those derelict neighborhoods which artists have so successfully pioneered are few and far between. Long commutes and job juggling are exhausting realities for many and can surely interfere with the regular and high level production of artwork. Consider my portfolio of paid jobs since coming to the City: university teacher of digital movie-making, professional choral singer, portrait painter, maker of commissioned videos for artists, census worker, music librarian, writer, movie extra and, last but not least, exhibiting painter (yes, even some commercial gallery shows and art sales).

But this is the sentence that lost me:  "Though the nation's bulk of the art galleries are still here, artists and other creative workers say the feeling of community that used to exist in New York is gone, and with it the spark that fueled ideas".

Really? They must be living in a different city from mine.  I can't go anywhere around New York City without falling over artists I consider part of my community. These are not just visual artists, but choreographers and dancers, writers, video artists, actors and musicians of many stripes. And none have plans to move. Yes, we complain and we do talk about real estate a lot, but the exchange of art ideas continues to be vigorous and fruitful and fueled by the unique character of the city. We just have to keep thinking broadly, creatively - and collaboratively to get the best out of this town. 

Back in the 1950's, what was the New York art world? Fifty men hanging out in the Cedar Tavern and  five art galleries galleries to show in. Now it is thousands upon thousands of us, of all races and both genders, crossing paths in every neighborhood. And what is the secret to hanging on, staying motivated and keeping the artwork flowing? Strength in numbers: getting together in groups large and small to drink coffee, pool our resources and share what we know. I do this literally, several times a month. Generosity is the key, and despite its cut-throat reputation, New York City artists are the most generous people I know. 

Yes, times are tough and money is tight - but the abundance is real.

Cup of the Day #47
Burgeoning, by Gwyneth Leech 2010
India ink on white and green printed cup

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Breakfast on the A Train

I was on my way downtown, bleary-eyed, to attend a monthly meeting of artists at breakfast time. I stopped on the way at Amy's Bread on 9th and picked up an oat scone studded with golden raisins and walnuts (amazing, always) and a Twinings English Breakfast tea in a white paper cup.

Cup of the Day #46
Networks, by Gwyneth Leech
Colored ink on white cup, 2010

At 8th Avenue and 42nd Street, I boarded the A train and got a seat.

Eating breakfast on the subway train always feels a little weird, but I was hungry and my scone was calling out to me. Surreptitiously, I opened my paper bag without crinkling and then maneuvered the tab on the cup lid without spilling or elbowing my neighbor. Having accomplished these difficult tasks, I looked around and took a quick survey:

3 starbucks drinkers,
2 deli coffee drinkers,
1 Amy's cup (me),
6 wearers of Ipods  with identical white cords and earpieces,
3 newspaper readers,
1 book reader,
1 young person desperately trying to finish writing an essay,
And 4 people asleep.

The woman opposite me with the heavy makeup and tired eyes had a laptop case at her feet. She was juggling an Ipod, the New York Times AND a Starbucks Vente coffee. 
Clearly for some people, sleeping on the way to work is not an option!

Waiting for the subway 
with his morning brew, NYC
photo by Stanley Klevickas

Monday, November 15, 2010

Pushing the Limits: Coffee in Islip

I was out in Islip on Long Island three times this summer, going to and fro with paintings for a group show at the Islip Art Museum called All in the Family, curated by Jason Paradis. I am pleased to have had a set of six family portrait paintings included.

Cup of the Day #45
Life Should Be Delicious
Colored ink on white cup, 
by Gwyneth Leech 2010

The day of the artist's reception they had a hurricane out there and I tired of waiting for the rain to stop, so I got wet on the way back to the train station. With time to spare before the NYC bound departure, I went looking for a cup of coffee in the company of the artist Jane Schreibman who had photo works in the show and was also heading back to the city. Islip on a wet Sunday afternoon. Desperate. I actually bought a cup of coffee in a gas station. It was terrible, but a welcome hot drink on a damp afternoon, and in Jane's company the train ride back to the City seemed short.

I went out the third time to Islip in early September, once again by train, to pick up the paintings. It was a dry day this time and places were open. I stopped in at Bagels and More with time to kill before the return train and made do with ice tea. There, I fell into conversation with a senior citizen who recommended the coffee (decent drunk black), but they were serving in styrofoam cups so I wasn't tempted.

He talked about his mother and her taste in coffee: black, no sugar, something sweet on the side. I agree with that. Can't stand sugar in the brew, but love my cookie or scone to go with. My dad, on the other hand wanted it all - milk in his, two sugars and a Snickers bar. Now that's a sweet tooth.

A half an hour later, while waiting on the platform with my package of paintings, who should appear but Jane Schreibman carrying her wrapped artwork. We talked all the way back to the city.

Jane got in touch just the other day. As a result, we are going to be in a group show at the Atlantic Gallery in Chelsea called Eat/Art that opens November 30. I will be showing three cup drawings that fit the bill. Watch this space for a preview!

Floating Head
Papier Maché Idol, Mumbai Beach
Photo by Jane Schreibman

Thursday, November 11, 2010

How Sullivan Street Came to Midtown

Cup of the Day #44
Midtown Cup Verso
Colored ink on white cup, 2010

One of my favorite things about living here on the far West side of Manhattan is the easy access to the Hudson River. The Hudson River Park, comprising bikeways, walkways and landscaped piers now stretches from the Washington Bridge up North at 172nd Street, all the way down to the Battery at the Southern tip of the Island. After dropping Grace off at school, I often head the two blocks across 45th to pier 84, eager to see sunlight scintillating on water, ferries traveling to and from Weehawken on the New Jersey side and fuel barges plying their way upriver towards the misty bridge.

Yesterday morning, I stood alone at the river end of the pier with my back to gray green water and watched the sun come out from behind the massed apartment towers of 42nd street, all new since I moved to the neighborhood 10 years ago. The wind was blustery and blew my mental  cobwebs away.

Heading home up 47th I stopped in Sullivan Street Bakery which serves up excellent pizza bianca and rustic breads as well as a strong cup of coffee - Vita beans from Seattle (press pots only).

Why is it called Sullivan Street Bakery? I asked Michael, who was cutting my length of pizza bianca. It used to be on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village, he told me. Then there was a split. They came here with the name, plus the original baker. The other party got the storefront.

I also learned that Jim Lahey, the owner, planned to spend his life as a sculptor before he travelled to Italy and got into bread. Well, I am glad he did, and glad they are baking just down the street.

Neighborhood pet parade, 
Pier 84, October 2010
Photo by Gwyneth Leech

Monday, November 8, 2010

Cinnamon Apple Crisp with Coffee: Chickens Coming Home to Roost

I came across an apple sale on 9th Avenue the other day. 43rd Street Kids Preschool were raising money with a fine selection of New York States apples - Macoun, Macinstosh, Honey Crisp and Empire. I am a sucker for apples generally and the New York State varieties are terrific in season. I staggered home with plenty (watch the elbow!) and now need a recipe. I am still dreaming about a dish of hot apple crisp and a hearty cup of coffee I had with it at the 165th Annual Dutchess County Fair not too long ago.

Cup of the Day #43
Strutting Cup by Gwyneth Leech
Colored ink on white cup, 2010

I was there at the tail end of the summer with my sister, her husband Scot and my younger daughter. Kitty and Scot have a farm in Dutchess (Scot is a Timothy Hay farmer among other things, but that is another story) and they go every year. There are animals, agricultural exhibits, carnival rides and food, food food. Where to begin? How could anyone eat their way through it? We did our best, and here I am two months later still thinking about that apple crisp. 

On the animal front, there were cows, pigs, sheep, goats, rabbits. All highly entertaining to the seven year old member of the party. Being a city kid, Grace usually only sees these in books.

Cup of the Day #43
Strutting Cup, Verso by Gwyneth Leech
Colored ink on white cup, 2010

Towards the end of the animal exhibits we entered a large hall - chickens and roosters! The fancy breed poultry!! The cages in rank upon rank took me straight back to the first time I saw this type of exhibit - 1983, the Royal Highland Show outside Edinburgh, Scotland. I was an art student. Those birds were heaven-sent. At least five years of poultry-inspired art ensued: paintings, drawings, sculpture and videos. There is something in the shape of a rooster as it cranes and struts that has persistently fascinated me. Generally, I don't use chickens as subject matter anymore but an underlying form is still lurking in my artwork and pops out when I least expect it. Why, a veritable flock of chickens appeared unexpectedly on this cup drawing just the other day.

They reckon dinosaurs looked a lot and walked a lot like chickens (and ostriches and Emus). I like that thought.

La Poule, Video Installation by Gwyneth Leech 1988
With a 2008 Soundtrack by Martha Sullivan
inspired by Jean Phillipe Rameau's 
18th Century harpsichord piece, La Poule
(Paolo Bordignon on harpsichord)

Friday, November 5, 2010

NYC Costume Designers: Just Their Cup of Tea

The Halloween candy hangover has pretty much worn off, replaced by a political kind, but the high holiday of New York City costume designers deserves to be noted all the same.

Cup of the Day #42
by Gwyneth Leech
India ink and Sumi ink on white paper cup, 2010

The Saturday before Halloween, I was warming a bench in Hell's Kitchen Park, a cup of afternoon tea from the deli in hand and a swarm of small kids in costume around me. It was the annual Halloween Party hosted by the 47th Street Block Association.
A Central Park carriage horse patiently plodded around the block pulling a squirming cargo of kids in a hay wagon, police cars fore and aft. Grace had had her turn, petted the horse's nose and was now on the loose in the playground with her Nikon Coolpix camera recording rather than take part in a halloween parade.

She fired off a great shot of fellow PS 51 parents William Ryall and David Brooks, at their knee level. They were dressed as creepy Nasa scientists, escorting their daughter who was dressed as a purple space alien. William, a fine dancer and veteran Broadway performer opening soon in Anything Goes and David, costume designer for ABC's One Life to Live, were jointly responsible for the family  ensemble.

William and David In charge of Halloween Space Aliens
Hell's Kitchen, 2010
Photo by Grace Wilson

Halloween is a sacred holiday for my costume designer sister Kitty Leech who arrived in the afternoon of the day itself laden with armloads of glamour that have been in the works since July. My older daughter was Helen of Troy, escorting Grace as a small mermaid. I agreed to be a Sea Queen. Our diaphanous garb was a chilly affair as we set out trick-or-treating in the 9th Avenue shops, but definitely no coats allowed.

Sometimes we go the full distance and take to the streets of Greenwich Village, enjoying the skills of the city's designers and artists on full view in the annual Village Halloween Parade. This year we just made it as far as Manhattan Plaza, twin apartment towers of subsidized housing for the city performing artists, where a cornucopia of candy and haunted houses was to be found.

A highlight of the weekend was a trip to the theater.
Saturday, Kitty scored us free tickets for the Gypsy Run of Elf at the Hirschfield Theater on 45th Street - the preview attended by friends, family and broadway colleagues. We strolled over to the theater after dinner and collected the tickets at the stage door from Kitty's long time friend and colleague, Gregg Barnes, the show's costume designer. The line stretched down the block and Kitty, who recently celebrated 30 years in New York City, greeted a slew of fellow designers as we took our place at the end, waiting for the doors to open.

Several hours later, we emerged all jazzed up by a torrent of glittering costumes, gags and snowflakes. That is one entertaining Christmas show! Christmas? did I just say that? Please, not yet. Halloween may be past, but I fully intend to linger in Harvest mode for a few weeks more.

Kitty Leech (left) carrying the Trojan Horse
With niece Megan Wilson as Helen of Troy
Halloween, 2010
Photo by Gwyneth Leech