For three decades, I’ve been fascinated by the built world; and in particular, the jumble of rusting industrial sites, aging infrastructure and funky waterways that populate the outskirts of America’s urban centers, and the stories these places tell about contemporary life and culture.–Valerie Larko
I am thrilled to chat with renowned New York artist, Valeri Larko. Based in New Rochelle, Valeri tells stories through her urban landscape paintings, which she creates on location in decaying and abandoned areas of the city.
Valeri and I spent some time together a few months back during her exhibit at WallWorks in the South Bronx, and I was immediately drawn to her landscapes. When I first saw her pieces hanging in the brick-walled gallery space, I couldn’t believe that I was looking at a painting and not at a photograph. She captures the essence and detail of each scene and finds artistry in what many would find unattractive, if not downright derelict.
Her body of work, which has been featured in museums and galleries around the globe, proves that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder. I find her pieces not only alluring, but thought-provoking. And of course, I am most attracted to her art because it celebrates the nooks and crannies of NYC, even after landmarks have been leveled. While most of her subject matter is in The Bronx, she paints in Brooklyn and Queens as well.
I caught up with Valeri recently, and we discussed her work and New York City.
TK: How do you decide on a location? What inspires you most?
VL: Several factors go into finding the right view to paint. Since all of my landscapes are painted on location, it’s important that I find a site where I can set up my easel for months at a time. Most of the time I try to be on public property, however, if I see a very cool spot on private property, I will ask permission. Occasionally, I find an off-the-beaten-track place where I can slip in unnoticed and set up.
I spent most of 2016 painting at an abandoned golf center in The Bronx. Most people wouldn’t think of going inside this place since it’s fenced in, but I was able to find a break in the fence and wound up doing multiple paintings at the site. Many of my paintings capture pieces of NYC history before they are demolished and built over. This current series of the abandoned Bronx golf center is one example.
Another example is the series of 21 paintings I did of the Ferris Stahl-Meyer meatpacking plant on Boone Avenue. The plant covered half a city block and was covered from head to toe with graffiti murals. The president of the company encouraged the local graffiti artists to use his building as their canvas. For over ten years, the building was a creative mecca for artists, musicians, models and tourists who came from all over to take photographs, make music videos, do fashion shoots, etc. One time I saw two limos pull up and a very large wedding party get out to take their wedding photos in front of the graffiti murals. Unfortunately, the building was demolished at the end of 2014 and another piece of Bronx history was lost.
TK: What media do you work in?
VL: I primarily use oil paint for both my large paintings and smaller studies. In winter, I paint small gouache & watercolors while sitting in my car. I call these my car paintings. Gouache, a water-based paint, is much easier to clean up and the car keeps me warmer when the temps get super cold.
TK: On average, how long does it take you to finish a painting?
VL: I spend hours roaming around an area until I find something that resonates with me. Once I do, I set up my easel and return to a site many times. A large painting can take me two or three months to complete.
The process of painting on location over a long period of time is crucial to my working method, because it allows me to form a deeper connection to a particular place through careful observation and personal interaction with the people I meet there. While talking to people in the area, I learn a lot about the sites that I am painting. There are a few adjustments that I make in my studio to correct for light and color indoors, but the bulk of the painting is done on site.
TK: Which of your works is your favorite? Or, do you even have one?
VL: My favorite painting is usually the one I am currently working on. I love to paint, and each painting has its challenges, and I tend to think that the one I’m working on now is going to be the best one. Obviously, that doesn’t always happen, but it does keep me excited to go out and paint each day.
TK: I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of change in the Bronx since you began painting there. What excites you the most about the borough’s future?
VL: I’ve seen a lot of fascinating places be demolished and built over, to be replaced by less interesting storage facilities and condos, but one of the most exciting changes I’ve seen in the Bronx is the renovation of the waterfront for the locals to enjoy.
I’ve been painting urban waterways for decades. There’s peace and beauty along the waterfront, but in many urban areas these waterfronts have been neglected. Regardless, the people in the neighborhood always seek these areas out, some to fish, some to swim, and many others just to enjoy the view and find a bit of quiet in the midst of a bustling city.
This dilapidated pier in Port Morris is slated to be renovated.
Plans are to create a nature walk along this old industrial area of the waterfront. The owners of the property have reseeded grasses and have done other renovations, but most of it was washed away in Hurricane Sandy. They have started to fix what was lost in the hurricane and they plan on doing more.
TK: What’s influenced your work the most?
VL: My major artistic influence is a response to the contemporary landscape with all its contradictions. Moving to Jersey City early in my career, i.e. just out of art school, plus my love of painting from life were the two factors that influenced what I continue to focus on thirty years later. If I had never moved to Jersey City, especially so early in my development as an artist, I doubt I’d be painting what I do today. That funky urban landscape grabbed my imagination, and combined with my love of painting on location, has provided me with endless inspiration.
TK: Which artists do you admire most?
VL: I admire many artists both past and present. Some of my favorites from the past include Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer & the Italian painter Titian. I’m also a big fan of Corot’s plein air paintings of Italy. Contemporary artists that I admire include painters Lucian Freud, Wayne Thiebaud, and sculptor Chakaia Booker. The things Chakaia does with car tires are fantastic! What most of the contemporary artists I admire have in common is that they make amazing art out of things most of us barely notice in our daily lives. I have always been interested in how the most ordinary things, things we overlook, can become fascinating when looked at differently by the artist eye.
TK: Where is your go-to spot to relax or have fun in NYC? (could be in any of the five boroughs)
VL: One of my favorite things to do in NYC is meet up with some friends on a Thursday evening and head over to Chelsea to check out the art openings. Chelsea has a number of terrific art galleries including Lyons Wier on West 24th Street, which currently represents my work. Most galleries have their opening receptions from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursdays, and after checking out the new shows I like to have dinner at one of the local restaurants like Pepe Giallo or the Half King Pub.
TK: What are three things in NYC you can’t live without?
VL: Just three? Not possible! I’ll try to narrow it down to a few places I enjoy. Because I live very close to The Bronx, I spend more time in this borough then any other.
Some of my favorite art places are – The Bronx Museum, Bronx River Art Center and WallWorks NY art gallery, all of which have great programming and many free events for the public to enjoy.
Favorite non-art spots are Arthur Avenue for it’s great mix of Italian food markets and restaurants. The Bronx Beer Hall is located inside a bustling Italian market where you can grab a craft beer along with something tasty for lunch or dinner. Another favorite is Teitel Brothers market, also on Arthur Avenue. My husband goes there on a regular basis to pick up Italian staples including their wonderful cheeses. A visit to the New York Botanical Garden is always inspiring.
I’d also like to give a shout out to Alexandra Maruri who runs Bronx Historical Tours. If anyone wants to see some terrific areas of The Bronx, I highly recommend taking one of Alex’s tours.
For more about Valeri Larko, visit her website.
Thanks to John Wyatt for the photos of Valeri painting on location.
Also, a Bronx street artist who started tagging but makes his living as an artist. And, where to see the best street art in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Plus, things every art lover and artist should experience in NYC.