Plein Air NYC

You may not know this about me.  My first career was in Historic Preservation.  I 'climbed' the scaffolding of tall building facades in NYC, up close to stone carvings and carefully formulated mortars, colored bricks, cast iron, terra cotta, and copper ornamentations, determining what could stay, what had failed the test of time, and what could be carefully crafted 'back to life.' 

I loved it.  I loved it because it connected me to a tradition of valuing, cherishing, and holding on to what has existed long before me.  And because it combined my interests in architecture, monuments, history, culture, and craft, in a city I loved. 

Although I no longer live in NY and my interests have evolved over the years, leading me to where I am today with pursuing my art, I often go back to visiting NYC.  This time, I decided to make an effort to do some plein air work and chose the site of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine for my creative excursion. 

Working here out in the open air, is quite different from studio work.  Being up front and close to your subject, being able to walk around it to find the perfect location, the curious onlookers, the wind in your hair, the changing shadows on the subject, the nearby sounds, which in this case were traffic, conversations of elderly people outside the nearby nursing home, music being blasted in a car parked beside where I sketched, and the repetition of the church bells when I went to go paint on the grounds.  And of course there is also the immediacy of time and the limited palette and art supplies on hand.....all part of both the challenge and joy of painting outdoors.

Back in the days of preservation work, I performed 'inspections' from high up above the facades of structures; many of which contributed to giving the city a sense of the past, all the while the hustle and bustle of city life below spoke of the immediate, the now, and the future.  The juxtaposition always struck me, always intrigued me.  

And so it was with delight that I encountered, by chance, an interesting installation when I went inside the cathedral, which also spoke of contrasts. Two Phoenix sculptures, by Chinese artist Xu Bing, were installed 'flying' in the central nave of the cathedral. Made of recycled found material and illuminated by tiny lights, they are a lovely foil to the built form and construction of the cathedral.  Facing the entrance rather than facing the altar creates a dynamic play between the front and back of the cathedral, as the in-flight gesture of the birds is contrasted with the receding perspective towards the altar.  

The end of my visit, saw me in the cathedral grounds where I blissfully sat on benches enjoying the view and lovely weather,  while working on two small watercolors.


On another note I am excited to share that my Watercolor postcard, Venetian Whispers, is currently on view as part of an exhibition in Vicenza, titled Homage to Venice and the Cities and Places of Art in the World.  Do stop by if you are in the area, or happen to be traveling there. (Info below) 

Photos from the first exhibition location, a cloister in Venice, can be seen here.

(This post first appeared on my online diary on 6/10/13)


Mick Carney said...

Fascinating post for a variety of reasons. Your beautiful renditions of aspects of the built environment are an obvious reflection of your work experience. What an exciting way to spend work time, examining the craftsmanship of previous generations.
Love to see closer images of your work done on the day.

Sophia Khan said...

Thanks so much Mick. It was definitely an interesting field to be in...so glad to hear that experience shows through. Hope all is well in your creative corner :)

Lucinda Keller said...

Love when you can see the paintings and sketching and the subject at the same time. I feel like I'm there. I just LOVE your watercolors. So gorgeous.