When I was in my 20s, I took a dozen or so snapshots with my point and shoot Brownie camera of the Lower East Side. I was doing some street scenes (my social realist period) and needed reference material. I admired the work of Ben Shahn but never thought I could come anywhere near his level of technical skill. Little did I know that he worked from photos all the time, perhaps even mechanically transferring them with an opaque projector to his canvas. I don’t think we’ll ever know the truth; he was pretty secretive. But, if Vermeer could do it, why not Ben Shahn (or me)?
Anyhow, about two years ago, I abstracted my Lower East Side photos into a series of eight large paintings designed to fit together to make two 16’ long murals. I was pleased with the results, some of the best work I have ever done (See Post #68 Dear Reader page). I think now that sufficient time has passed, I’m ready to revisit the theme, only now I want to re-create Harlem, both as it looks today and as I remember it. My ‘alma maters’ (the High School of Music and Art and City College uptown) were located in Harlem and I lived in Morningside Heights when I first got married. Over the years I have watched the area fall and rise. In my early twenties, I remember going to ‘rent parties’ where folk and jazz musicians played and you donated (into a passed hat) to pay the rent. One evening I found myself on a mattress next to a curly haired, stoned banjo player who “looked familiar,” Woody Guthrie.
Now that Harlem is “safe” again, I have enjoyed revisiting it, taking photos for a new series of street scenes. Fortunately, I have a friend who walks across 125th St. once a week to teach at Columbia. I have persuaded him to snap whatever catches his attention with his I-Phone (pretending to be talking into it) while on his weekly trek across town. He doesn’t have time to be selective or compose anything but it doesn’t matter; I get his images developed at Walgreen’s and take what I want out of them. I never draw directly from photos; I absorb them. The results are kaleidoscopic, real but unreal. So far, I have finished several sketches of people on the street that I will ignore once I start to paint. In the finished work, you’ll see fragments of Harlem: the signage, the Apollo Theater, elevated train stations, vendors, and street life. I can’t wait to get to work!