Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘New York’

20 MARCH, 2014

Hello, New York: Julia Rothman’s Illustrated Love Letter to Gotham’s Five Boroughs


From bodegas to bras, a visual serenade to Gotham’s emblems and eccentricities.

On the heels of Wendy MacNaughton’s magnificent Meanwhile in San Francisco (which is less about San Francisco than about the human soul) comes Hello, New York: An Illustrated Love Letter to the Five Boroughs (public library) from Brooklyn-based illustrator Julia Rothman, who has previously given us such charming treats as The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science, Drawn In, and Farm Anatomy.

Rothman takes us on a tour of New York’s hidden treasures and traces the little-known, fascinating stories and personalities behind the city’s most iconic landmarks and places, from the rare books curator at The New York Public Library to the Hasidic Jewish couple that runs New York’s go-to store for bras, from standbys like the ubiquitous bodega and the yellow taxi cab to curiosities like the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, an extraordinary time-capsule of working-class immigrant life in the 19th century, to cultural icons like the ghostly beams illuminating the skies where the Twin Towers used to be.

Just like San Francisco’s Dolphin Club Swimmers, New York has its own brave souls who plunge into the East River — here they are, mere minutes from my own abode in Brooklyn:

Then there are the buildings, reminiscent in spirit of James Gulliver Hancock’s illustrated architectural tour of Gotham, but bent through the lens of Rothman’s distinctive style:

But my favorite section, perhaps predictably, is an homage to one of the city’s greatest cultural institutions, the New York Public Library, guarded by its famous lions, Patience and Fortitude:

Complement Hello, New York with two very different love letters to Gotham: a photographic one, honoring its humans and a literary one, celebrating Central Park.

Images courtesy of Julia Rothman / Chronicle Books

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10 MARCH, 2014

A Love Letter to the City


How artist Steve Powers made sign painting the voice of the community and the shared narrative of urban life.

Every city needs a love letter. Some are poetic, some photographic, some cartographic, some illustrated, and some private. But few come close to the beautiful and heartening typographic murals artist Stephen Powers has been painting in cities around the world for over a decade, working closely with the local community to give breathtaking visual voice to a neighborhood’s narrative. As a longtime fan of his work, which I first encountered in the Brain Pickings birthplace of West Philadelphia years ago and which appeared in Sign Painters, I’m thrilled for the release of A Love Letter to the City (public library) — a magnificent monograph from Princeton Architectural Press, in which Powers takes us through the creative process and cultural context of his murals spanning Brooklyn, Syracuse, Coney Island, Philadelphia, Dublin, Belfast, São Paolo, and Johannesburg, based on a combination of Powers’s own ideas and overheard snippets, fragmentary thoughts, and everyday aspirations from members of each local community.

What makes Powers’s work so singular is that it lives at the uncommon intersection of street art and community activism, subverting the conventions of both. It appears where street art ordinarily would, but it isn’t illicitly done under the radar of civic authority — rather, Powers is commissioned by public art organizations or the city itself; it’s the work of a single artist, but he open-sources the creative process to engage the local community in constructing a collaborative point of view.

In the foreword, Peter Eleey, curator of MoMA’s PS1, captures the unusual result beautifully:

His murals humanize the anonymity of urban landscape.


Powers is a traveling salesman for the social media age, in which the things we can’t find, say, or share online often turn out to be the very goods we need. And so he heads out on foot, knocking on doors, putting up ladders, and rolling out paint. The world’s a big place, but as he would point out, on the road most traveled, there is no reason to ever leave home unless you are making the road better. Look for the man in the yellow raincoat hawking something at the corner of “Above” and “Beyond.”

Steve Powers and his son, Philadelphia

Powers, who came from the world of street art, reflects on how he came into his singular style as he contemplated the challenges of the graffiti genre of urban art in his early twenties:

The problem with graffiti [was that] for all its efforts to communicate, most people don’t understand it, and if people don’t understand, they don’t take ownership.

Aware of this ownership disconnect, Powers found himself longing for a new communication medium that would both honor the traditions of street art and resonate with the community whose walls it graced — walls that would become not barriers but gateways to understanding. He found his answer in Coney Island:

There I found a middle ground between the graffiti I spoke fluently and the painting language I could speak only well enough to order a beer. So I ordered a beer and made paintings that looked like Coney Island signage, except I stripped out the commercial and inlaid emotional content. The resulting art was visually clear and direct, unflinchingly confronting the complexities of love and life in a way I avoided in my everyday living. Coney Island was both sandbox and toolbox, a place where I learned to make effective paintings, perform effective community service, and be an effective carny making cash in the summer sun — all useful skills when it was time to make sign painting the voice of the community, the way Stay High had once made graffiti “The Voice Of The Ghetto.”

At the same time, Powers was noticing that some of Coney Island’s most beautiful hand-painted signs were being replaced by sterile vinyl lettering. So he began offering his services as a sign painter, for free. But even that seemingly simple and altruistic aspiration became a lesson in community context:

In Coney Island, “FREE” means a scam, so I had no takers until Dick Zigun, a mayoral presence in the neighborhood, vouched for me, and I got my first job painting letters on the back of the Eldorado Arcade.

Soon, Powers caught the attention of legendary public arts organization Creative Time — who were also behind Trevor Paglen’s The Last Pictures — who offered patronage to transform his grassroots Coney Island work into a full-blown collaborative art project. Together with 40 other artists brought in by Creative Time, Powers and the team painted some sixty signs around the neighborhood.

In 2007, Powers received a Fulbright scholarship, which he used to paint signs and murals in neighborhoods around Dublin and Belfast. Arts programmer Ed Carroll reflects on Powers’s work in Ireland:

Steve’s distinctive practice draws out the narratives of street life, its people and places. You see it in the Fulbright work in Francis Street, Dublin, and Shankill Road, Belfast. Call Me, We Need to Talk, Hope This Finds You Well, and Worth Less are all fragments of exchanges among strangers, yet somehow intimate, too. The Fulbright project conceals a longer story from the creative community bench. This story is a testament to friendship and the time it takes to create a local ecology for a little epiphany of beauty.

In Ireland, Powers painted one of his murals on a wall facing a row of houses, which he observed for half an hour looking “for any sign of life” as kids from the local school marched by. At last, as a mother peeked out from one of the houses, Powers asked her what he should paint. “Tell them to play nice,” she answered. And so he did:

But one of Powers’s most charming signs in Ireland, painted at Dublin’s Tivoli Theater, is a wink to the biological factlet that pigeons mate for life and, as Powers puts it, “make sure they pick a partner they can coo with”:

Powers, who had grown up in the rough neighborhood of West Philadelphia himself and returned to the community to paint 25 years later, reflects on working with Jane Golden of the city’s famed Mural Arts Program:

At my first meeting with Mural Arts’ Jane Golden as Pew grantees, I laid out my vision for the look and feel of the project. Jane stopped me and said, “You mean it’s going to be all words? No pictures?” I dug in. “No pictures.” Jane crossed her arms like she was tying her oxfords and, once tight, told me, “You have to sell the idea to the residents of West Philly, one community meeting at a time.” I could feel the fear building in me, but I remained cool and asked, “How many meetings?” We had about nine months before we were to start painting. Jane thought ten meetings would do it. She then assigned me a handler who also had disconnected roots in the community, and together we started planning meetings.

Jane’s methodology is flawless: go into a community, tell people you are going to paint a wall, take suggestions from everybody, work up a sketch, go back to the community, show it to everybody, make changes based on the suggestions, then paint the wall. The art is secondary to bringing the community together and getting everyone to agree on something. The wall stands as testimony to a unified community, even if the artwork is completely boring.

In Syracuse, the project quickly became a testament to the power of process over product, learning ground for improvisation:

A Love Letter to Syracuse is meant to be from Syracuse to Syracuse. We found, as we were painting, that the love letter is also dedicated to industry: to the trains that pass over the bridges, to the act of painting hot steel in the summer, to collaboration, to polite drivers, and, especially, to improvisation. After painting the two West Street bridges, we realized the design I created for one of the sides of the West Fayette Street bridge would be unreadable from most angles and impossible to paint without blocking off traffic completely. So we had to rework it on the spot. We did what any good signwriter would and worked with the architecture of the bridge to make the words fit with grace and ease. The result is different from our original design, but it serves the words and Syracuse well.

One of my favorite murals is a beautiful long poem, which Powers painted in my neighborhood in Brooklyn:

He contemplates how this particular project, painted around an old Macy’s department store in the facade space between the floors, embodies his general approach:

When I go into a community, I try to find visual cues that are already there and introduce them into the work.

Many consider it an homage to or a riff off Jay Z’s “99 Problems,” but Powers says this wasn’t his intention and adds mischievously:

It’s not, but the thought has crossed my mind about ninety-nine times.

The full text of the poem reads:




Dave at The End of Sixth Grade c. 1980



Another Powers gem in my neighborhood, across from The New York Transit Museum, titled Train to Always:

A Love Letter to the City is impossibly moving in its entirety, at once a rare glimpse into the mind of an artist with an uncommon point of a view and gripping testament to the power of art as a common language that brings a community together. Complement it with the bittersweet Sign Painters, where Powers’s work appears, and with Candy Chang’s Before I Die, one of the best art books of 2013, which explores a different facet of the same immutable longing for blending the public and the private in urban space.

Images courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

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31 JANUARY, 2014

Herman and Rosie: An Illustrated Ode to Finding a Sense of Purpose and Belonging in the Big City


Why life is like jazz on a New York City rooftop.

“Most people do not grow up … our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias,” Maya Angelou wrote in her beautiful meditation on home and belonging. So how do those shy magnolias find a sense of purpose in a world of billions and amidst the hustle and bustle of a crowded city? That’s precisely what Australian author and illustator Gus Gordon explores with infinite gentleness, simple words and gorgeous pictures in Herman and Rosie (public library) — the story of a crocodile and a deer who live as neighboring strangers, like most New Yorkers do, until they discover that they have two profound things in common: an enormous love of music and a deep-seated lonesomeness in this big city they call home but never quite feel embraced by.

Herman Schubert lives on the seventh floor of a typical New York City apartment building, and Rosie Bloom two floors below. Herman has a soft spot for “potted plants, playing the oboe, wild boysenberry yogurt, the smell of hot dogs in the winter, and watching films about the ocean,” and Rosie loves “pancakes, listening to old jazz records, the summertime subway breeze, toffees that stuck to her teeth, singing on the fire escape, and watching films about the ocean.” They both enjoy the city but…

After a long day of phone sales in his cubicle office, Herman plays the oboe at night on the rooftop. Rosie, who works in the kitchen of an upscale restaurant, rides her bike to a singing lesson every afternoon and performs every Thursday night in a small jazz club.

One day, Herman overhears Rosie singing and finds himself inspired to improvise “a groovy little jazz number” during his rooftop oboe session that night. Rosie, taking a bath, overhears Herman’s music.

For days, each of them has the other’s tune on mental repeat like a delightful invisible companion everywhere they go.

And then, disaster strikes: Herman is fired because he can’t sell enough useless things to people, and Rosie finds out her beloved jazz club is shutting down.

Herman Schubert sat in his small apartment eating pretzels. To cheer himself up he decided to watch his entire Jacques Cousteau underwater film collection.

Packed away neatly under the bed sat Herman’s oboe.

Rosie Bloom stood in the kitchen of her small apartment making pancakes. Lots of pancakes. Way more than she could ever possibly eat.

This didn’t make her feel any better, so she sat down and watched her entire Jacques Cousteau underwater film collection.

Weeks go by as Herman and Rosie sink into disheartenment. “The city kept on moving, but everything had fallen out of tune,” Gordon tells us with his tender touch and poetic mastery of language. And then, one sunny spring day, Herman and Rosie go walking in the city until a chance encounter brings them together at a Central Park hot dog stand and puts a smile on both souls.

That night, Herman picks up the oboe again. “The city seemed pleased to see him. Even its rattles and honks sounded musical.” Rosie, herself in an unusually joyful mood, overhears the music from her kitchen, leaps out onto the fire escape and up the roof, and discovers her new Central Park Friend, her very own oboist neighbor.

With its impossibly charming illustrations and timeless story of loneliness and belonging in the big city, Herman and Rosie is honey for sight and soul, bound to bring a smile to hearts of all ages, reminding us that in the big city, as in life itself, happiness comes from finding your tribe and savoring that shared sense of purpose.

Complement it with Little Boy Brown, a lovely vintage illustrated take on life in Gotham, arguably the greatest ode to childhood and loneliness of all time.

Images courtesy of Roaring Brook Press

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28 JANUARY, 2014

Industrial Sublime: How New York City’s Bridges and Rivers Became a Muse of Modernism


How a city of contrasts inspired a generation of artists.

When the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, a cathedral thirteen years in the making permanently changed the riverscape of New York City. In a short period of time, three other major bridges would join it — the Williamsburg Bridge was begun in 1896, the Manhattan Bridge and the Queensboro Bridge in 1901. The waterway was now a river of canyons, and the city became a spectacular form of natural and manmade wonders. Industrial Sublime: Modernism and the Transformation of New York’s Rivers, 1900-1940 (public library), the book companion for the Hudson River Museum exhibition of the same title, reveals how in the first half of the twentieth century, these manmade marvels embracing New York’s river banks enthralled a generation of influential artists who had once turned to nature as their muse.

'East River From the 30th Story of the Shelton Hotel' by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1928 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

For a youthful America in the beginning of the nineteenth century, the painters of the Hudson River School created a vision of arcadia in the new world, with the waterway at its very heart. The Catskill Mountains and the New Jersey Palisades became as worthy of contemplation as any poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge or William Wordsworth.

America, with its vast frontier, could be a place of Romantic wonder.

'A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning,' by Thomas Cole, c. 1844 (Brooklyn Museum)

But what some Hudson River painters delicately left out of many of their views were the encroaching factories and docklands on New York’s picturesque rivers. In Samuel Coleman’s Storm King on the Hudson, a factory competes with a local mountain called Storm King for sublime attention: one is submerged in clouds, the other creates its own industrial cloud.

'Storm King on the Hudson' by Samuel Coleman, 1866. (Smithsonian American Art Museum).

'The Hudson River from Hoboken' by Robert Walter Weir, 1878 (Detriot Insitute of the Arts)

The river itself became a place of business as sailboats, steamboats, and tugboats crowded the water like a highway. But the success of a city could be defined in the image of its bustling waterway, and artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe and John Sloan became fascinated with the intersections and collisions of nature and industry: the edge of a dock, the darkness under a bridge, the lights along the span of Queensboro at night.

'The East River' by Carlton Theodore Chapman, 1904. (New York Historical Society)

At the turn of the century, Gotham was a city of stark visual contrasts: the brightest day could be met with a shadow from a building that could cast a viewer into night, and electric lights might turn the blackest city park into a bright new square. Sublimity could be found in these contrasts, where joy could turn to fear along any street.

'The Bridge: Nocturne' by Julian Alden Weir, 1910 (Smithsonian)

By 1920, life in America had become primarily urban; according to the census, for the first time more people lived in cities than in the country.

'Office Buildings from Below,' photograph by Paul Strand, 1917. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Even in the 1930s, fifty years after its completion, the Brooklyn Bridge remained a source of inspiration. More architecturally beautiful than its East River counterparts, it was the first hint of the industrial sublime in New York, and its most enduring symbol.

'Brooklyn Bridge' by Ernest Lawson, c, 1917. (Terra Museum of Art)

Hart Crane’s The Bridge became an American response to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, with the East River and Brooklyn Bridge as its inspiration:

A tugboat, wheezing wreaths of steam
Lunged past, with one galvanic blare stove up the River.
I counted the echoes assembling one after one,
Searching, thumbing the midnight on the piers.
The blackness somewhere gouged glass on a sky.
And this thy harbor, O my city, I have driven under….

'Power' by Edward Bruce, c. 1933. (The Phillips Collection)

Industrial Sublime is a vision of New York that recounts a time when artists reconceived the beauty, terror, and awe of the place they called home, as the city’s rolling hills could no longer resist the greatest grid amidst a city at the height of metamorphosis.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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