There’s No School
Like the Old School
My art education can be broken down into two separate and distinct phases.
As a student in New York City’s High School of Art and Design, I developed my skills in drawing and painting. Max Ginsburg and Irwin Greenberg taught me how to paint portraits in the tradition of Rembrandt, Velasquez and John Singer Sargent. I caught the painting bug and joined their early morning painting group, affectionately known as the “Old Hat’s Club”.
In my second phase, I was a student in the BFA Illustration program in the Parsons School of Design, where my professors started to undo all that I have learned. Instead of focusing on traditional painting and portraiture, I studied color with Martin Canin, value studies with Bill Clutz and composition, drawing and illustration concepts with David Passalacqua. During this transitional time, I used to visit my old High School whenever I needed a painting “fix.”
When I attended the Parsons in Paris summer program, I discovered a newfound passion for painting from observation, but years of college education has changed me. I was no longer interested in painting what I saw… I needed something more. So I started my paintings from a different point of view, constructing scenes using color, lighting and composition.
In the spring semester of my senior year, I created the painting, Stratford Avenue of my father’s store, the Wah Mee Hand Laundry. This was done from memory, without photographic reference and was influenced by Edward Hopper’s painting Early Sunday Morning. Stratford Avenue was displayed as my final piece for the Senior Illustration show.
Much to my parent’s chagrin, I graduated with a BFA, one portfolio piece and no real job prospects. But Stratford Avenue became an important piece because it laid the groundwork for a new body of work and the beginning of an artistic journey. I continued creating additional paintings based on my childhood in the Bronx. I wanted to explore the juxtaposition between figures and space; nudging shapes and colors to create complex compositions.
Rediscovering The Bronx
I used these childhood memory paintings to talk about the many changes I experienced while growing up in the Bronx. During the 1960’s my old neighborhood was vibrant, diverse and exciting; but all of that changed in the 70’s when unemployment, drugs and crime became a plague in the city. I wished to convey the city as I saw it: looking for beauty in urban decay, discovering signs of life in an abandoned building or street.
Buildings as Main Characters
My early portfolio included six paintings from my Childhood Memory project, supplemented with black and white pen and ink drawings. Art directors responded positively to the emotional impact of the paintings, but I still did not get any commissions.
The subject of my paintings became a limitation:
Yes, I could paint a New York tenement in shadow, but could I paint an interior scene or rural landscape?
Were my paintings limited to the NYC environment?
A New Day for the Bronx
My first major break came from the New York Daily News. Thomas Ruis was the art director for the Sunday Magazine section and he was putting together a special supplement called “A New Day For The Bronx?” Since my paintings conveyed the right combination of urban realism with hope, he decided to take a chance with me and commissioned five illustrations for the magazine. What a thrill to be working on this dream assignment!
When the magazine came out I received a call from the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, Jimmy Breslin. He wanted to meet me and was interested in purchasing the original painting from the magazine cover. A second piece, The South Bronx, won a Silver Medal at the Society of illustrators Annual competition. This commission helped to launch my career as a freelance illustrator.
Looking back over the years, this early work represented an exciting phase in my development as an artist. Even then, I knew that I needed to expand my horizons, to create paintings of places other than New York City. But it took a few years to get there.
That’s okay, because the journey was fun. Eventually, we must all leave home.