Fine Arts Connoisseur

Pamela Talese was outdoors painting  a graffiti-covered wall and a giant gas tank in Rome’s Testaccio neighbor-hood when some gypsy children bicycled up to watch her work. So curious were they about her — and about why she wasn’t rendering iconic landmarks like the Coliseum, as so many other artists do — that they wouldn’t stop asking questions. Finally, Talese recounts in her diary, she had to tell them politely that she needed to work con calma (in quiet), and that she would talk to them later — though they returned every 20 minutes. In other Roman locales, be it a traffic circle or a Fascist-era water-works, “I barely apply a brushstroke to the canvas before someone says, ‘Brava, brava,’” she laughs. She is grateful for the praise, of course, but distracted by it, too.

When Joseph Paquet focused his painterly attention on a lift-bridge in a ruinous industrial landscape of Gary, Indiana, he was wary of the gang members who might appear. Recalling that as “the most dangerous place I have ever seen,” he is certain, at least, that no one would have “confused someone staring at an easel on an abandoned lot with someone selling drugs.” And when Kathleen Dunphy sets up her easel in an empty surrounded by dense Northern California forestland, she sometimes admits to “getting a bogey-man kind of fear,” though she brings her big dogs to war, real or imagined. “My dogs are good protectors, and they’ve seen me painting outdoors since they were puppies,” she explains.

What these three artists — indeed, all serious plein air painters — routinely encounter are the natural elements: rain, wind, cold, heat, blinding sunlight, approaching darkness. “It’s about being uncomfortable.” That’s how Paquet sums up the experience of painting outdoors. After 30 years, this St. Paul-based artist has become philosophical — and embracing — of the discipline: “By the time most people reach mid-life, they just want to be comfort-able. But plein air painting, or what I call painting from lifeds you the discomfort of living on the edge, which allows you to feel things differently. There’s something about the magic of discomfort that wakes you up.” Teaching a workshop in upstate New York, he once turned to his students, all soaked with rain, and declared, “This is what plein air painting is all about. You’re alive now.”


Plein air artists are hardly a new breed, though interest in their discipline has grown dramatically in the last two decades, along with the breadth of their subject matter. Pastoral scenes were once their principal focus, but now abandoned factories, ruinous farm buildings, prowl-ing wildlife, and silent small-town streets have also become typical. Leonardo, Corot, Van Gogh, Turner, Lorrain, Constable, the Barbizon School, and the Impressionists all worked outdoors — recording, analyzing, and, most importantly, interpreting the life of nature happening around them. That tradition continues today, perhaps more robustly than ever. Plein air has virtually become a brand, with juried competitions that resemble a kind of aesthetic sport. At such annual gatherings as Plein Air Easton (Maryland), the Laguna Beach Plein Air Painting Invitational (California), the Door County Plein Air Festival (Wisconsin), PleinAir Moab (Utah), and many others nationwide and abroad, it is not uncommon to find hundreds of artists competing, practically blowing on their paint to dry it faster.

There is even an organization that monitors and gives credence to the genre. The 31-year-old Plein Air Painters of America (PAPA) is a by-invitation fellowship of like-minded artists working to ensure that quality prevails and that expertise is shared with the public and others who want to paint this way. (Paquet and Dunphy are among its members.) “Through [the] approach of first-hand observation, our members strive to more fully explore and respond to the timeless beauty that surrounds us all,” reads PAPA’s mission statement. According to Susan McGarry, who served as its director for 14 years, PAPA has fewer than 40 “Signature” members: “Periodically, the membership is polled for potential new members,” she explains. “From the names suggested, a vote is taken and the top vote-getters are sent an invitation.” The organization hosts approximately four annual exhibitions of members’ works and con-ducts workshops for both aspiring and seasoned artists.

“Competitions have certainly raised public awareness of plein air painting, but maybe to a fault,” says Dunphy, who feels that the push for artists to paint fast simply for the sake of speed is not a proper goal. Some artists have likened this obsession to that of the culinary arts: on television, chefs who work quickest with a wok are lauded, while slower ones are left to simmer.

“We’ve always argued that plein air is a unique kind of painting,” says Maddine Insalaco, who, with her husband, Joe Vinson, runs Etruscan Places, the outdoor painting academy they founded more than 20 years ago in Italy. (They also conduct workshops in Ipswich, Massachusetts.) “It requires you to work quickly, with fugitive light conditions. There’s both an emotive and physical component to being outside and having to work fast. We feel that the only way to understand the colors of nature derives from the strength of the light as you are experiencing it. It’s about observation in the deepest sense.” While traditional plein air artists have long depicted the bucolic, as Insalaco and Vinson do, many others are moving beyond that terrain.

Insalaco, who has written much about the history of plein air painting, says the discipline expanded rapidly from the 17th century. But lighting as one reason many painters headed outdoors, Insalaco feels the boom also stemmed from their wanting to be social, to be among felloy. “Moreover, in much of 18th- and 19th-century Europe, working outside was potentially dangerous,” Insalaco explains. “There were a lot of criminals, so painting in the company of others was a way to remain safe.” So pronounced was criminal activity that some artists, such as Corot, tried to capture them on canvas; he even hired criminals to pose for him.

Another reason plein air painting has again become a genre as as, say, still life or abstraction is the aging of the baby boomers. As ever more of them reach retirement age, they have embraced plein air painting as a hobby and avocation. The fact that it can be enjoyed anywhere, alone or in groups, makes it particularly appealing to people who travel. Insalaco notes, “You can make something in the company of other people and be in a beautiful place while doing so.”


The French phrase “en plein air” translates as “in the open air,” and that is exactly where plein air artists work, be it in a forest or industrial zone, on a city street, or among animals in a meadow. “For me, plein air has to be about a landscape,” says the New York artist Henry Buerckholtz. “While painting a rural landscape in North Carolina or Florida or Massachusetts, I see color combinations I couldn’t invent on my own if they didn’t exist in nature. There is something outside that always leads to new ways of looking. Reality tells you more than a photograph.”

At first blush, it appears that photographing a landscape and retreating to one’s dry studio would be far more efficient than enduring the elements, making small talk with nosy passersby, or warding off muggers. “I started out working from photographs,” says Dunphy, who is known for her depictions of nature both wild and sedate — ocean waves crashing into cliffs, seemingly silent forests traced by streams, boats moored in still harbors — “but when I was introduced to plein air, I was shocked at how much more is out there than any photograph could capture. The human eye is infinitely more sensitive to subtle colors and textures than any cam-era could be.”

Talese agrees, stressing the difference between painting from a photograph and being in the landscapes you’re painting, places she accesses on the bicycle she has customized to carry some 400 pounds of equipment. “You see more in real life. It’s that simple. I do better outside. I see more. I share the energy of the place. I can watch the light move across things. Shapes are revealed by the sun.”

Few plein air artists, however, are able to — or wish to — fully complete their works in the field. Instead, they often return to their studios to apply details and, mostly, ruminate on what they have witnessed. Paquet, who says the “last five percent of a painting” is completed indoors, values this phase highly: “It’s about giving myself the time and the ability to make subjective choices that bring a picture closer to being a personal statement rather than just a representational image. I am trying to elegantly and subjectively sew the painting together. I am deconstructing nature and clarifying it. It’s not about copying nature. That’s when the art becomes your own.”
The Brooklyn-based artist Daniel Heidkamp, who works in several genres including plein air, often completes his industrialscapes on site within a few hours. “I’m not completely comfortable
with the term ‘plein air,’” he admits. “I say I’m a painter from life, an observational painter.” For his 2015 series Barbizon Beauty School, Heidkamp spent two weeks in France exploring locales once haunted by Corot, Sisley, Pissarro, and Millet. There he captured some of the giant boulders in this region’s forests, its waterfalls, and other pastoral elements, as well as scenes in Paris. “I didn’t touch those paintings after I returned to New York,” he emphasizes. “Whatever happened in France, where I was painting on site, was special enough.”

While most serious artists are insightful philosophers about their disciplines, plein air artists are particularly gifted at articulating their thoughts. Perhaps this stems from being outdoors — exposed in ways that indoor artists are not. Art is ultimately, of course, a solitary endeavor, even when you work in a group, but to paint outside is to become more vulnerable than you would be in a warm studio. When Talese bicycles to less-than-pastoral locales around New York City and Rome, she is keenly aware of traversing the land she is about to interpret: “I am in my own topography,” she says. “Being on the bike means getting a 360-degree feeling of everything. I know all that I have passed through getting to this spot where I set up the easel. I am really attached to a place that way, embedded in the story I’m telling with my paint.”

Sometimes when Dunphy is out in the cold, she feels the seductive allure of being inside with a cup of coffee. “But if I’m really excited about something I am painting outdoors,” she says, “nothing bothers me. It doesn’t matter if it is cold or hot, or if I have some halting fears running through me. All of what I am feeling comes out on canvas. A canvas might be blowing away in the wind, so all of that drama comes out. Plein air painting is really about emotion.”

Then there are artists like Heidkamp who, while studying a tree in detail, prefers to do so in some degree of comfort. “I try to create an outdoor studio for myself,” he says. By minimizing the materials he brings, he feels more able to experience “the epic feel of the outdoors — the sky, the clouds, the sun.” Heidkamp does not even bring an easel, preferring to put his canvas on the ground or on a folding table: “Painting outside, from observation, requires hunting down the subject, thinking about it, studying it so that you can paint something poignant.”

Insalaco notes that the plein air experience can, literally, color even the canvases of painters not working in a representational mode. Her husband, Joe Vinson, makes hauntingly minimalist compositions that involve hypnotic repetitions of colors in what he calls a “cross hatch-ing” technique. Although he paints many classic plein air landscapes, his abstractions could never be confused with them. But, he explains, “I paint landscapes outside, from direct observation. Producing paintings that depict the kind of light that our eyes were formed to see has proved the best way to learn color. It has laid the foundation for my abstract studio work.” Insalaco adds, “The only way to capture color is to be outdoors. The curator of a 2008 Georgia show of our plein air works insisted on including some of Joe’s abstractions. He felt strongly about showing the public that Joe’s insights into color, derived from working outdoors, enabled him to create elegant, successful abstract works.”

Paquet echoes this idea by cit-ing the influence of natural colors in some of Willem De Kooning’s can-vases: “He rode his bike back and forth from Long Island Sound to his studio, so his abstract paintings are informed greatly by the nature and colors he saw along the way.”


In the catalogue accompany-ing their 2012 exhibition of plein air works inspired by the Civita Castellana landscape outside Rome, Insalaco and Vinson emphasized the valuable role that plein air artists play in society: “Artists are people who notice things and bring them to public attention. Open-air painters are accustomed to looking at nature for long periods of time, and notice changes in the landscape even more.”

Though plein air artists paint different subjects and work differently — some striving to finish a canvas in situ, others taking it home to touch up or brush away some grit — what they share is a reverence for being outdoors, as life happens and as the wind blows. The studio they occupy is dimensionless, though what they seek to capture is just a portion of the life occurring within it. No matter where Talese pedals — be it Rome, Ireland’s County Kerry, or the Brooklyn Navy Yard — she knows she does not own that space. She is there merely to interpret it. “I am a guest on the site, wherever that is,” she insists, “and I have a reverence for it while I occupy it.”

Omen Arts Magazine

Pamela Talese paints urban scenes that compels us to look anew. She manages to convey something of her own enthrallment with a place or structure that we perhaps have seen before only as part of the larger urban scape. Indeed for Talese, painting onsite is essential to her process. As she puts it, her “connection to the scene comes from standing out in it.”


Rome day by day

Wednesday April 23, 2014

I sleep in until 9am! and then drag into the day. Still glum about yesterday’s session which is just silly, especially as I come up with a solution: to bungee the tripod to the bike rack which lightens the weight carried on my back considerably. So finally, after a bunch of emails (personal and professional, plus a communiqué to the real estate lawyer thanking him for overseeing stupid foreclosure situation. All resolved but still a bit irritated.) I eat lunch in the studio then push myself out the door at 2:15. I aim for Testaccio taking via Garibaldi down which is always fragrant with some flowering tree. Riding down the hill, seeing the city spread out below, and passing through this sweet spring scent I wonder why I hesitated indoors, but I’m often like this if I don’t get out fast. The landscape painters version of stage fright. On the way I pass the restaurant where I’ll meet Frank, Jay and Susan tonight at 7:45. On the side of the roadway are the usual political posters I see every year. Spring is election time. Inevitably the word ‘noi’ is used…aspiring for unity. The faces are friendly, the photographs so simple they seem like phone-shots, something impromptu, snaps from an afternoon out with the family. The expressions are ‘simpatico’, the soft smiles and large eyes of not especially interesting looking one after another. “Sindicato.” In a country which once stressed ‘la bella figura’ these ads are unimpressive.

I’m at the cactus and graffiti site (from last year) and ready to paint by 3pm but again, I’ve barely begun when a small boy on a bicycle comes to ask me what I’m doing. I knew this spot would be problematic as it’s a dead end street and many homeless families live tucked in the hedges along the river. It was fiercely bright and it took me several minutes to adjust to the glare. I should have worn the wide brimmed hat instead of the cap, and the there was the heat with which to contend. I poked at the pigments and endeavored to smear them in the right spot. I was working on a 9 x 12 store bought canvas board. Even though I know these things are total sh*t, I packed a bunch of them because they are slightly lighter than those I make myself. Now I don’t think this was the best decision. The paint doesn’t set up nicely despite the light toning with medium and pigment. Also, the new piece of palette paper seems to be coming up and I’m getting tiny bit of it combined with scraps of coagulated paint (little speck, I admit, but I hate these little specks) and as I am painting thinly, I start dissatisfied but lose myself in it and start having a good time-my mess not withstanding. I’m listening to The Long Winters which always makes me happy. Every now an then someone will walk by and I can make out what they are saying. Sometimes I stop the music. Everyone is very nice. As I’ve observed elsewhere, I’m so damn slow at the beginning there’s really nothing to see so onlookers get bored and walk on. I persevere and the husk+honey voiced John Roderick sings.

Circling around the street and popping up on the sidewalk next to me the sweet, soiled faced ragazzo returns with inquiries. He wants to know what I’m painting (good question), why I’m painting (better question) and begins to chatter away. I am nice but tell him that I need to work ‘con calma’, that there’s nothing to see and that he should come back in an hour or two. He’s back in 20 minutes, this time with a little girl, his sister. I smile, say a few things, then shoo him away again. The session is punctuated with these interruptions. I knew this was going to be tricky when I saw the family across the street. There is both a mother and father who seem nice enough from where I’m standing. They lounge in the shade on what seems to have the back seat yanked out from a car. A bit of seatbelt is flung out like a lizards tongue. I continue to struggle, and soon it’s revealed that the little boy has at least five siblings (there could be more-some perhaps cannot yet walk, or are older and picking pockets at Termini Station.) I made a strategic mistake by being nice to him in the first place. I knew it but couldn’t help myself. Now he comes back with some of the family. I say a few things then tell them I have to work. I make them stand together to I can take a picture of them (after asking ‘posso?’ to the mother) but mostly to make sure they are all in one place. After I take the picture I tell them, yet again, that they should go because want to work. One of the little girls comes around to my left and puts her tiny dirt-dipped fingers on the ipod nano I am wearing in my pocket. I look at her and move her hand away.

By 5pm the boy and the oldest sister are back with more questions. I tell them in Italian that I don’t speak Italian. They ask me my name. I tell them I don’t have one, that in the United States we don’t use names, we use numbers. They insist on my name. The boy is brandishing a naked Ken doll which has speaker holes in his chest and a heart shaped button (in sternum) but it doesn’t work. The boy gestures with the doll and the nylon blond hair shakes. Then he tosses it into the street while the girl asks me my name again and again. “Dimi! Dimi! Come si chiaimaaaaaah.” It has started to rain and it’s a fine time to leave anyway. I’ll need to come back but will have to bring a saber tooth tiger or something to keep the zingari kids at bay.

Transportation Alternatives Bike Blog

Pamela Talese is an on-site painter known primarily for her work on a range of subjects through out New York City, much of it done from her mobile bike studio. Her work has been the subject of reviews and articles in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, ArtNews, and CityARTS and her paintings are part of the New York Historical Society’s collection and many private collections throughout the U.S. and abroad.

Beyond working as a painter, Talese is a curator and activist, currently at work on a piece about the U.S. prison system. Talese has supported the work of Transportation Alternatives both as a decade-long member and a contributing artist to last December’s Life in Public art auction benefit. BikeNYC spoke with Pamela on making art by bike, New York City “chauvinism” and advice for aspiring artists in New York City today.

You’re a New York City native. When did you first start riding here?

I had a three-speed bike when I was a kid, but it was for Central Park adventures only. The city streets where pretty rough back then, with cobblestones paving 2nd Avenue above 86th street; everywhere else there were potholes large enough to sink a Volkswagen Beetle. I remember the first bike lanes on 6th and 7th avenues in the early 1980s, but their existence was so brief I never rode on them. My cycling life really began after leaving my last full-time job in 2000 where I worked as an interior designer and was expected to dress with a certain formal flair. (I had yet to discover Aerosoles, which — attention ladies — are perfect for cycling, even with 3-inch heels.)

You’ve said that you spend a lot of “pedal time” scouting locations. How has this affected your art?

I explore new terrain by bike and on foot, as a more gradual pace allows for closer observation and richer discoveries. “Place” is so central to my work, so I want a direct connection to the topography (as opposed to what author Will Self has called the “windscreen-based virtuality” of travel by car).

Riding from neighborhood to neighborhood, I collect visual details until the character of a place reveals itself to me. Only when I understand a location can I paint it. What moves me is the story of a site, which is why being there day after day is essential.

You’re currently doing a lot of your work from a bike-based mobile studio. How did that come about?

The current mobile paint studio began in 2006, but I’ve used the bike for painting on site from the start, usually availing myself of “advanced bungee-cord technology.”

My previous paint bikes were three-speeds with metal side and front baskets. First, a really old Raleigh, the rear wheel of which kept popping off on steep inclines because I over-taxed the rear triangle with too much stuff; then a less-ancient Schwinn. Later I used Specialized Mountain bikes with collapsible side baskets for city paintings and for rural paintings in Wyoming. The current Bike-Friday/Burley Trailer set-up came about so that I could haul more and make slightly larger paintings.

Every day on the bike is interesting but having large box on the trailer usually provokes remarks like, “You selling ice-cream?” or “I hope you got some beer in there!” On one occasion, after a long day on site and when I was looking particularly weary and paint-smeared, I heard someone call: “Yay! The circus is in town.”

It was not my best moment…

How do you scout subjects when working outside the city?

I always use a bike no matter where I go. I’m researching a new series of paintings in Rome where ‘il parcheggio’ (parking) is more precious than gold. Even the motorini have a tough time finding a spot, so a bike is a real advantage for oil sketches and small paintings.

In Wyoming, I found myself travelling ten miles in 30-mile-an-hour winds (not fun) to paint a grain silo or open field; in coastal Scotland I’d bike from fishing village to fishing village and be out all day, and each spring I am up and down the seven hills of Rome, but I usually don’t ride beyond 40 minutes of my starting point.

Your work focuses on the interaction of the man-made and the elemental. Biking also brings people closer to the elements, sights and sounds, and can give riders a sense of clarity and focus. Does the experience of biking itself inform or inspire your art?

Exactly! Biking does inform my work because of the direct connection to the site itself. I am seeing with my whole body. The physical act of travelling to and from a particular spot gives me a 360-degree understanding of the place, even if I paint one select view at a time. I am not looking just at the surface. My art is about how the spirits of places manifest themselves physically. So, traveling to a location and being there physically allows for a direct perceptual experience over time. For me, this brings forth the more beautiful parts of whatever I’m observing. I am suspicious of the technological world when people use it as a substitute for first-hand observation. I think too much ‘screen time’ weakens our natural animal skills of sight and interpretation. It also sets up an unrealistic understanding of how long everything takes. (Too many apps, not enough aptitude.)
Generally, I like to think that one is a better citizen on the bike because of this direct engagement. Cyclists are often more inclined to be present. We need to be so for our own safety, but I also think it’s easier for cyclists to ‘keep tabs’ on what’s happening in various neighborhoods because everything is at eye-level as we glide through the spaces we encounter.

Beyond your subjects themselves, what do you find inspiring about living and working in NYC?

I’m a chauvinistic native who loves New York City like a tourist. I’m on the bike most of the time, so when I take the subway, I’m filled with wonder. I love the old tiled walls and carefully crafted details and am a huge fan of the Art for Transit program that has transformed so many mundane station stops into a dazzling spectacle. I like observing my fellow commuters, counting how many of them are reading versus playing a game on their phone. I am wild about the bridges that connect the boroughs and the rivers they span. Culturally, there is an embarrassment of riches with so many museums and sites in all five boroughs, to say nothing of live music, variety of cuisine, culture and manner of dress, all of which is accessible by bike. Not having to own a car is one of the city’s great rewards (all T.A. members probably say this).

And I love New Yorkers in their many moods. Everyone is an expert, a critic, a comedian. If you don’t like what one person has to say, talk to any of the 8 million plus other New Yorkers or interview a foreigner. I have my gripes, too, but at least New York is never boring.

How has bicycling in the city changed since you first took to the streets?

Ridership is way up, especially since the introduction of Citi Bike, so there is a greater sense of safety as the cycling population becomes more integrated into the general population. Whenever I speak to a die-hard motorist — a term I use deliberately — or taxi drivers, I try to discuss how increased biking, however unnerving it may seem at present, is a necessary good.  I bristle at some motorists’ sense of entitlement, so this takes some self-control, but I try to have compassion for their adjustment issues and think the conversation is an important one.

What’s made you a Transportation Alternatives supporter?

I am so impressed by the organization’s ability to work on a local and a policy level, and the T.A. events and announcements are so spirited and well designed that I am proud to be a member. The collaboration with the DOT has been central to the many improvements we’ve enjoyed and I hope the good work will continue with the new administration. I’m a member and a huge fan.

Any parting advice you’d like to offer other bicyclists or aspiring artists living in New York?
In both cases, make yourself visible! For cyclists, use lights, add reflective details, pay attention and be polite. For artists, learn your craft, show you art, show up for the art community and participate in the larger art conversation. Let people know that the “Art Star market” is a media invention that serves the 1%, but not the whole art story. I salute the artists who are doing their work with integrity despite this impossible economy. Art matters and there are no short cuts. The spiritual reward cannot be monetized, even when the financial rewards don’t cover the rent.

Make something beautiful.

Fine Arts Connoisseur

Last season, art lovers in Washington, D.C., New York City, and London were treated to the superb touring retrospective of George Bellows (1882-1925), one of the American masters admired most by the contemporary artist Pamela Talese (b. 1964). Many Bellows paintings open a fascinating window on the dynamic growth that New York City experienced a century ago; indeed, many were conceived out-doors in some of the city’s roughest patches, most famously the deep pit that teemed with the men and machines constructing Pennsylvania Station between 1904 and 1910.

Bellows documented the start of New York’s greatest building boom, while Talese keeps busy chronicling its denouement — the deterioration of what Bellows’s contemporaries built — or what Talese affectionately calls “Rust.” Thus she can often be found pedaling her bicycle — which tows a trailer loaded with painting equipment — around the city’s decaying waterfronts and other no-go zones.

Talese is a highly observant plein air painter who requires many hours to capture what she is after. First, this means establishing legitimate and safe access to places where attractive women are not usually encountered, especially alone — such as the dry docks of the 200-year-old Brooklyn Navy Yard, or at the foot of crumbling power plants and sugar refineries. Once Talese has established herself on location, the men who work in these zones often take her under wing, and their stories and insights further inform her artistry.

Talese particularly admires the loose brushwork in Bellows’s 1912 painting Men of the Docks: “I am in awe of the way his bravura captured the tensions so evident in the building of early 20th-century America’s cities.” Like other Ashcan realists, Bellows felt that art’s main purpose was to communicate truthful and objective views of modern life. His circle rejected the classicism of academic art and the unrealistic or exotic themes of romanticism. Now, however, Talese does not see realists and academics as antagonistic, pointing instead to the great 19th-century critic John Ruskin, who felt that “All great art is praise,” even, surely, the ancient art of shipbuild-ing. “Today,” she observes, “contemporary academics often seek the sublime, the apex of beauty based on classicism, grace, proportion, and balance of color harmonies. Realists agree with all that — just not to the same degree. But we are all in alliance against the over-hyped garbage that passes for art in the mainstream these days.” Today’s main-stream certainly does not offer what Bellows sought when he quoted Aristotle: “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”

Talese spends a good deal of “pedal time” scouting potential subjects and places to paint outdoors. She was doing this long before the tragic events of September 11, 2001, after which wary neighbors began to interfere with her explorations. Who, they wondered, was this young (radical fundamentalist?) woman ped-aling a (suicide?) bike, towing a (bomb-laden?) trailer through quiet parts of New York, especially its (strategically vulnerable?) waterfront? Their apprehension was a key reason Talese sought access to the Brooklyn Navy Yard; though it took six months to secure official approval, once inside, she was suddenly free to work unmolested by suspicious onlookers. Better yet, she does not have to move to change subjects, because the subjects come to her.

“When a big ship comes in,” Talese explains, “I call the dry dock manager to learn if there’s going to be a great deal of sandblasting, how long the ship will be around, etc. Then I pedal over and start drawing.” This stage “is just a graphite expression of the looking stage,” but it also allows the crew and laborers to indicate if Talese is going to be in danger or in the way. “I can’t understand anything before I draw it,” she says. “I draw several sketches to work out the composition before making a small oil sketch that helps refine what I’m after with color and light.”
A “large” painting (which can be only as large as will fit on her trailer) will take several weeks to fin-ish “because I am going after real detail, a specificity of light and texture.” Talese says, “The outdoor ele-ments must be taken into account and become part of the picture. Unfortunately, a medium-sized canvas can act like a sail in high winds, and a few have even taken down my easel set-up along with them. This is all part of the process, and, as frustrating as it can be, it’s exciting to be outside and to share space with the object of my inquiry. In studying the scene, I become obsessive; the data gathered is empirical, but I am enthralled — absolutely in love with the mass of steel before me, the radio towers, the cracking concrete.”

Yet Talese is no photorealist, as there are passages in her pictures that are not tightly rendered. Spend-ing time on the scene allows her to see something new, or to find a better way to express what she sees. “Being out there gives me the opportunity to talk to those working near me. I am given details about the ship that help me understand, for example, the way its steel plates are joined. What occurs during the painting process is a temporal layering — an accu-mulation of perceptual experience over time.”

Usually, when we see an actual container ship or industrial landscape, it appears tired even as we first see it. Looking at a painting of it, however, allows us to see it anew, or — to invoke Aristotle again — to discover its inward significance. For Talese, this is true whether she is painting a scene in Brooklyn, Wyoming, or even Rome, where she has just completed her second stay as a visiting artist at the American Academy. “The only way a subject can become interesting, to my mind, is to be very specific — no generalizing. What is the weight and mass of this cargo vessel? What is the texture of the scars it boasts after a year afloat? I am fascinated by these details because they tell me about the life of what I see. This is really my way of trying to paint civilization: how we create, think about, and occupy our built environments.”

In reviewing Talese’s 2007 show at the Atlan-tic Gallery in Chelsea, New York Times critic Rob-erta Smith observed, “The subjects have all seen better days, but the images are not nostalgic …they record places of honest work by exemplifying it. They are carried by an unforced accuracy abetted by a subtle color sense and straightforward surfaces that are neither finicky nor juiced up.”
Talese’s fascination with rust reflects her concern about New York City’s steady evolution away from the manufacturing and shipping power-house it once was. Thus she has studied — and painted — wharfs and dry docks transformed into luxury apartments and commercial warehouses. “Someday,” she says, “I look forward to painting shipbuilding centers that are still thriving, such as Bath, Maine, or Hamburg, Germany.” New York is hardly finished as a port, though: Talese lives in Battery Park City, at the southwestern tip of Manhattan, where she is ideally positioned to observe constant maritime activity in the Hudson River and New York Bay.


Though educated in top Manhattan schools and then Smith College in Massachusetts, Talese comes from a family that has tradition-ally worked with their hands; on her father’s side were generations of Italian tailors, and her mother’s mostly Irish side boasted a few brave firemen. She and her sister, Catherine, were raised by parents who work with words: the famed writer Gay Talese and the noted publisher Nan A. Talese. She enthuses, “This family knows only continual work — nobody retires. It’s implied that ‘If you are not working, you are not alive!’”

At Smith, Talese studied English and printmaking, “but I also drew all the time.” After graduation, she deferred becoming an artist in favor of a career that would offer a “viable income.” She says, “I knew that my father wanted me to become a reporter for The New York Times (where he had once worked), so I felt my only option was to leave the country.” For a year and a half, she relished her glamorous odd jobs in Paris, but soon “my mother asked me a simple but profound question: ‘What do you do when time stands still?’ I thought for a second and replied: ‘Draw.’ That nagging feeling that I would become an artist had come closer to the surface, so I enrolled at the Art Students League of New York.”

Studying at the League — which Bellows had attended — “was a revelation.” Talese spent five years there part-time while juggling magazine jobs, including a stint as assistant art director at Vogue, where, she confesses, she “did not excel. The only times I felt centered were at the League.” It was during a summer class in Vermont that Talese discovered plein air painting under the legend-ary League instructor Frank Mason (1921-2009): “Now plein air is what I do,” she marvels. Talese worked as an interior designer until 2000, when she “went out to Coney Island to paint a build-ing I had my eye on, only to find that it had disappeared. I knew then that I had to spend more time painting.” Her prompt shift to full-time artmaking resulted in a 2003 solo show at Atlantic Gallery, 718: Changing Neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. In 2005 and 2007 that gallery presented two shows of paintings focused exclusively on the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and in 2009 came Rust Never Sleeps.

Plein air painting is hard work. “The physical challenge of doing the work is integral to the painting itself,” Talese explains. “It’s about being there. It’s immersion journalism with poetic license. Better to just push ahead as a farmer would, turning the corner at the edge of a field, at a slow but steady pace.” She admits, “At times I do see my whole enterprise as completely absurd. If I were to think about it too deeply, consider to whom the big prizes go, the adulation and auctions for this pile of wood or video of water dripping into a cup, I would go mad. I am a careful painter and don’t possess the elegant agility of John Singer Sargent, Anders Zorn, or even George Bellows, alas — so I will never be wildly prolific. But the time spent on site is alive for me, and I hope some of this direct engage-ment engages the people who see my work, sore back be damned.”


Perhaps it is reflective of her desire to “paint civilization,” but the artists that Talese most admires hail from all over the globe, and are not limited to painters. “In addition to Bellows and other Ashcan realists, the Precisionists of the 1920s who dealt with industrial structures interest me, like Elsie Driggs, Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, and, on occasion, Georgia O’Keeffe. And because of shared subject matter, I look at a lot of photographers — among others, W. Eugene Smith, Margaret Bourke White, and Walker Evans.”

Across the Atlantic, Talese cites England’s William Nicholson (1872-1949), “whose subject matter is more high-toned, but whose design and brushwork are electrifying,” as well as Glasgow’s Euan Uglow (1932-2000). She also admires the Russian Isaac Levitan (1860-1900), whose “focus on landscape is deeply moving, completely rendered, yet still mysterious and a little melancholy.” She goes on, “What I find myself drawn to now is not painting as often as really high craftspeople, like the Nigerian sculptor El Anatsui [b. 1944], who works with wood, clay, and — most recently — discarded bottle caps; the American Nick Cave [b. 1959], who makes ‘sound suit’ costumes covered with fabrics, objects, and beading; and the Chinese fiber artist Lin Tianmiao [b. 1961], who also studied at the League.” Clearly these contemporary artists reflect Talese’s inherited respect for people who make things with their hands, and who pay attention to detail. “But painting lives!” she adds. “I continue to meet fabulous and diverse paint-ers working today. Among the several art blogs I read, the ‘realist tribe’ is becoming more present. I am also impressed by the vibrant work I see coming out of the New York Academy of Art these days.”

When asked to advise young artists just starting out, Talese is very clear: “Draw, draw, draw.” More broadly, she urges them simply to cel-ebrate being an artist: “We care about truth and beauty, and appreciate the great privilege to witness life unfolding as it does, with both light and shadow defining how we experience our journey.” Talese’s daily writings transcend the amusing anecdotes about heavy backpacks and encounters with bystanders to reveal her joy in the work, and also her dawning aware-ness that painting is less about subject matter than about a way of seeing.

As noted above, Talese has recently returned from Rome, where she has launched a series of paintings juxtaposing the architectural styles, textures, and tones of different neighborhoods, especially those on the periphery. Rome is, quite literally, a place of layers, so it makes sense that Talese has been painting iconic sites such as the Foro Italico, but also the Palazzo del Sport, the Termini train station, and the terraces of mid-20th-century apartment buildings. Concrete was invented by the ancient Romans, so she is particu-larly fascinated by its usage across the centuries. Readers of Fine Art Connois-seur have every reason to anticipate Talese’s next show of the resulting works, to be announced in these pages con gusto.

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*This article is an updated version of an earlier piece in that appeared in the journal for AMERICAN SOCIETY OF MARINE ARTIST January 21, 2013

New York Social Diary

Shugah Sugah. You may remember, if you happened to read last Monday’s Diary, that I went to a party on New Year’s Eve at Nan and Gay Talese’s and ran into their daughter Pamela who is a painter and I asked her if she had some exhibitions coming up.

She sent me an article from last month’s New York Times about “art” in residential building lobbies. It’s not a new idea. Many residential buildings have some kind of art. 2 East 70th has some photographs by Jeff Hirsch which he took for the Diary.

What’s different about this new “art in lobbies” concept is the exhibition. Pamela Talese – who was mentioned in the Times article – just had one such exhibition called “Sugar and Fat.” This is something of a departure for the artist who is well known and notable for her city portraits which have the well known grit in all that beauty.

Pamela sent us a “virtual tour” of this exhibition. I asked her if we might run it on the NYSD. She was happy to. I don’t know if her comments with each painting were included at last month’s exhibit at the 350 Bleecker Street co-op lobby. I didn’t know what to expect, just from the title, although it’s loaded, so to speak. Looking at it, for me, evoked a lot of thoughts about a lot of things. But it was a little like eating one of those cupcakes that look like a swirling mound of pure pleasure that you know is bad for you but you don’t care. And it’s funny. The wit is definitely Talesian. I didn’t realize there was such a word until I saw this exhibition.

So have a look and read the artist’s comments. It’s a good way to start your week and all the calories are the good calories, brain-gain.

Chelsea Gallerista

If you glance back through this blog you’ll note that I’m a huge contemporary art fan – the weirder and more subversive, the better. But I do appreciate a good still life, especially if its weird, subversive, or makes me want to eat it. That seemed to be the gut sentiment of the enthused crowd who gathered in the lobby of a Greenwich Village apartment building to view “Sugar and Fat” by New York painter Pamela Talese.

The paintings featured some iconic New York sweets and treats, offset by unusual backdrops to give them a this-is-Talese-not-Thiebaud twist. Plates of mini-cupcakes disappeared in a New York nanosecond (the Oreos lingered), and many people were mesmerized by the buttery slice of brie in “Cheese and Hermes Scarf.” It was the first of the 19 small paintings to get the red sticker, even though you could have scarfed a boatload of the real thing for the listed price of $1700. Speaking of scarves, the caption read “… it helped me realize the true artistry of Hermes Scarf design.”

I first Pamela on her typical commute – on a folding bicycle. She flagged me down on the way to her studio in Brooklyn Navy Yard, where she’d often park her bike trailer to paint ships, rusting iron and other “patina opportunitues” en plein air.

If you read her bio, you might deduce that ships and rust are an antidote to her sartorial past in fashion, magazine design and interior design. In Sugar and Fat, there’s a spoonful that past sprinkled in almost every painting, where the calorific main event is paired with contrasting fabric and found object backgrounds.

While doing some calorific “research” of my own for iPad magazine Dinks NY I came across Delmonico’s famous Baked Alaska. This is an ice cream extravaganza covered in minarets of piped meringue, resembling a kind of burlesque bathing cap. I suggested it as an item for the series, but Pamela set me straight – she not only paints en plein air (in the open air), she paints the real deal, not from photographs.

Apparently, even with still life, something is always moving, and capturing that movement is what makes the stillness come alive. The “sitting” would have required several canisters of liquid nitrogen or a refrigerator full of duplicates. It was easier for me to just eat it and tell her about it for Sugar & Fat II!

SUGAR & FAT will be on view in the lobby of 350 Bleecker Street (between 10th Street and Charles) from October 25th through the end of November. Should you find yourself in the neighborhood, do stop in. There will be a reception on October 25th from 6pm-8pm, and in all likelihood, cupcakes will be served.

Wall Street Journal

Pamela Talese, an artist who has made a career, at least part of it, painting the tugs and fireboats that visit the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s dry docks for repair, would be the first to acknowledge that the historic Navy yard, where she has had a studio since 2008, is changing. “I fear it’s going to become the next High Line,” she said.

But even she was surprised when we had to make way for a tour bus on a recent afternoon. “This is unusual,” she conceded.

“It’s an interesting mix of the new sustainability and the old polluting industries,” she added as we strolled past IceStone, a company that recycles glass into high design.”Even though I’m a vegetarian, I prefer the old industries—visually.”

Ms. Talese doesn’t only paint boats. Her last show included a rusted crane, a Williamsburg Con Ed plant in the process of demolition, a painting whose title —”Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse After The Fire”—pretty much says it all, and the defunct Domino Sugar plant on the Brooklyn waterfront.

What rescues her art from becoming what she describes as “Ruin Porn” (“I don’t like to paint the Gowanus Canal,” she said in her own defense. “There are about 18 artists covering that territory.”) is the affection for her subject matter that seems to spring from every brush stroke. There’s also a wistfulness that somehow manages to imbue objects that aren’t only inanimate but unapologetically functional with subtle emotion.

“It has to do with history and scale,” she explained, as we turned a corner and encountered the passengers from the tour bus, now crowded onto a viewing platform overlooking one of the dry docks. “What I’m very interested in is the accumulation of detail over time, and sometimes the corrosion.”

She paints “en plein air”—in other words, outdoors—rather than from photographs. She does so alongside the vessels’ skippers and repair crews. “It’s honestly easier to paint from life,” she explained. “When the light changes what you thought is flat curves. You develop a visual relationship with your subject.”

As well as with the people refurbishing it. “This is what happens,” she went on. “The crew comes by and tells me what I have wrong. Or they say, ‘Are you going to paint me into the picture?’ I say, ‘Are you willing to stand here for hours on end?'”

When they get used to seeing the artist at her easel day after day, and discover that Ms. Talese is as devoted to their ships in her own way as they are, a relationship often develops. In November 2009, when the USS New York—a futuristic amphibious Navy transport craft that used steel salvaged from the World Trade Center in its construction—made its way past the World Trade Center for the first time and gave the site a 21-gun salute, the artist was aboard the Sturgeon Bay, a U.S. Coast Guard ice-breaking tug that was part of the flotilla. She had become friends with the boat’s skipper when she painted the tug while it was in dry dock during the summer of 2007.

And just the week before we met, she had been invited to take a ride aboard “The Bravest,” a new New York City Fire Department fireboat. “It’s because of hanging around,” she explained modestly, “and being this maritime geek. This is my
world. This is my community.”

Well, perhaps not entirely. Ms. Talese grew up on the Upper East Side. Her father is the journalist and author Gay Talese. He was hoping she would follow in his footsteps. “My father really wanted me to be a journalist and work for the New York
Times,” she remembers. She wanted to paint album covers for rock bands. “I knew the only way to avoid that was to leave the country.”

She moved to Paris in her early 20s, worked as an editorial assistant for Vogue—”You realized you didn’t care that much about clothes”—and eventually had what sounds like a not atypical twentysomething “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?” meltdown. Her mother, the editor and publisher Nan Talese, on her way to Frankfurt for a book fair, made an emergency stop in Paris, during which she asked Ms. Talese a question that any young person in search of his or her destiny might want to consider: “What do you do where time stands still?”

The answer was paint.

She returned to the U.S. and enrolled at the Art Students League. “Part of me really wanted to do this thing,” she said. “Another part of me thought this is really a terrible idea —the financial constraints.” Nonetheless, she started painting. And painting. Ms. Talese doesn’t usher from an unambitious family. “My mother asked me, ‘When are you going to show?’ I explained to her, ‘I thought I discovered an island. It’s actually a continent. I don’t know how long this is going to take.’

“It’s actually been a long road,” she conceded.

Her first show was in 1997, but for much of the time she was painting she was also employed as an interior designer. “One day I went to paint a building and it was torn down,” she said of a structure in Coney Island. The year was 2000. She went to her boss, the interior designer David Kleinberg. “I said, ‘I hate to have this conversation, but I have to quit my job now. I have to document the things before they’re torn down.'”

Ms. Talese said that in the wake of 9/11 she was frequently hassled by law enforcement while trying to paint her favorite subject matter—crumbling infrastructure. “One guy said, ‘For all I know you’re sending your drawings to al Qaeda.’ I said, ‘I’m not that good.'” Boats and demolished buildings constitute only a portion of her oeuvre. She’s also done a series of paintings titled “Sugar and Fat” that will the subject of a show at 350 Bleecker St. starting Oct. 25. And she’s participating in an open studio tour at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on Oct. 6 and 7.

If you can imagine a pink Hostess Sno Ball painted with the devotion of a Dutch still life (one of her works is, indeed, a Hostess Sno Ball) you begin to get a sense of her crullersand-cupcakes period. It came about both because of her affinity for sweets and because, come winter, it gets too cold to paint outdoors.

The final part of our Navy Yard tour occurred from the roof of the building where her studio is located. In the distance you could see the gleaming Midtown skyline and on the East River, the New York Fire Department’s $2.4 million, jet-powered fireboat “The Bravest”—the same one on which Ms. Talese recently hitched a ride. As sleek as it was, it apparently left her cold visually. “I probably won’t paint it,” she said. “It’s a little too James Bond for me.”

Judson's Plein Air Journal

Pamela Talese has been painting full time, mostly outdoors, since 2000. Living in New York City, she has found her muse in old icons of the manufacturing and shipping industries, so emblematic of the twentieth century U.S, which have begun to decline and even disappear.

This billboard for Eagle Electric Manufacturing Company, which was founded in 1920, no longer exists.

“What strikes me about difference between the billboard advertisements of Eagle era and those of today, is not only the loss of the ‘hand painted sign’ but the change in the products themselves and their target market. In neighborhoods where light industry once thrived, these well-crafted and exuberant signs reflected local pride in the manufacture of solid, useful products. Such products were often purchased by the same community that made them: the working middle class. The situation is very different today.”

She would take her painting supplies in a bike trailer to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for her “Working Waterfront” series. This 14×20 painting is entitled The Freddy K. Her most recent series, Rust Never Sleeps: Corrosion and Renewal in Maritime/Industrial New York, also focuses on the Navy Yard.

“What makes the plein-air approach of painting more dynamic to me is not only the changes of weather and light, but also encounters with various tenants at the Yard and conversations that help to inform my understanding.”

Fading Ad Blog

Eagle Electric Manufacturing Company, a maker of electrical devices, switches and circuit units, was founded in 1920 and based in Long Island City, Queens. The giant, illuminated billboard for Eagle Electric, a triumph of design and the combined efforts of sheet-metal workers, light- designers, and sign painters, overlooked the Queensborough Bridge and boldly stated in neon: “PERFECTION IS NOT AN ACCIDENT.” Above this claim, deftly depicted, were three of the over 2000 electrical products manufactured in Eagle’s many buildings between 21st Street and Jackson Avenue.

My first encounter with the sign was in 1989 and completely by accident. I was on my way to interview for a position at the New York Times Magazine. I had worked there as a copy girl years before, and was familiar with the IRT subway having taken it to Times Square every weekday for two consecutive summers. This time, however, I mistakenly took the train in the opposite direction. After seven minutes underground, I was greeted by daylight and the glittering neon sign for Eagle Electric Company featuring a noble looking eagle, beak in profile, wings flared, and the famous motto on perfection. When I arrived thirty minutes late to the interview and told my story about the sign, the editor asked me if I really wanted to stop painting and work for the Times magazine. I don’t remember how I answered but I wasn’t offered the job.

Four years later I was living in Long Island City. During another period of full-time work, this time as an interior designer in Manhattan, there were late nights when I took a taxi home over the Queensborough Bridge. What made the ride worth the fare was to see which of the letters in Eagle Electric’s slogan were functioning. Sometimes it was PERF____ON IS NOT AN ACC_____, or ____ECTION IS ___ __ACCID___, or other variations. Perfection was elusive, but nevertheless occurred on nights when all the lights were working in full neon blaze.

By the late 1920’s, with increased automobile ownership and commuter rail transit, billboard advertising expanded as well. Eagle Electric shared space along the elevated tracks with other area manufacturers. A few stops east, the Swingline Staple factory (temporary site of MoMA QNS) displayed an enormous neon stapler for “Swingline Easy Loading Staples.” Near the Long Island Rail Road, the banner-size lettering of the Adams/Chiclets Chewing Gum Factory floated above the roofline of the factory’s elegant art deco building. Today, along with the famous Pepsi Cola sign, the only remaining example of grand signage in the Hunters Point area is Silvercup Studios, once a baker of bread.

I painted the first version of Eagle Electric (Day) almost entirely on site during several consecutive afternoons in the summer of 2000, a few months after leaving my job to paint full time. (Refinements were done off-site a bit later, which is why this painting, now in the collection of the New York Historical Society, is dated 2001.) I also wanted to do a Night version of the illuminated sign, and as with the Day version, I stood on the pedestrian path on the south side of the Queensborough Bridge (now a roadway for cars). I was able to paint there without much trouble during the day, but as night fell, this became increasingly difficult. Cyclists zooming down the ramp were surprised to see me despite the many blinking lights attached to my backpack. Also, now a cyclist myself, I realized that taking up one side of the path was dangerous. After two evenings of painting and lots of swearing, I was so rattled by both bicycle traffic and some of the people on the bridge that I quit and finished the painting in my studio using Eagle Electric (Day), my drawings and my memory of what it looked like at night as a guide. I tried to remember the look of the red cars of the number 7 train, which ran in both directions on the elevated track, always screeching at the curve.

That September, the Eagle Electric sign went dark. I watched for its illumination but it did not come. My journal entry dated October 28, 2000 reads: “It’s gone. I could tell it was gone even though I couldn’t see out the window of the crowded subway car last night. This morning when I went out to look, all that remained was the steal armature that held Eagle Electric aloft.”

What strikes me about difference between the billboard advertisements of Eagle era and those of today, is not only the loss of the ‘hand painted sign’ but the change in the products themselves and their target market. In neighborhoods where light industry once thrived, these well-crafted and exuberant signs reflected local pride in the manufacture of solid, useful products. Such products were often purchased by the same community that made them: the working middle class. The situation is very different today.

Outdoor advertising (predominantly printed vinyl or printed paper) mostly focus on luxury goods and services, or emerging ‘brands’ predominantly made abroad. The impact of globalization goes far beyond this aspect of advertising, but to my thinking, it is a pity that signage from the middle 20th Century was not preserved in some way.

Art News

In “Rust Never Sleeps: Corrosion and Renewal in Maritime Industrial New York,” Pamela Talese struck an elegiac tone while deftly avoiding excessive nostalgia. The 20 paintings on view her depicted abandoned industrial sites, ships and tugboats in various states of repair, and such decaying or disappeared landmarks as Philip Johnson’s New York State Pavilion for the 1964-65 World’s Fair. While age, in the form of a ship’s rusted hull or a decrepit Con Edison building waiting to be demolished, hangs over all these pictures, the strong presence of sky and sea, and of light and air, animates them, making them feel as if they are part of a living world rather than simply appearing as embalmed images.

Much of the power of these paintings comes from Talese’s strong sense of color. A pile of discarded items, including old T-shirts, orange traffic cones, and yellow caution tale, sits in the foreground of Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse after the Fire (2006) creating a discordantly festive atmosphere. The varying shared of rusting metal in such images as The Valcogen Bow (2008) and Orton Blue Crane 1935 (2009) document decay but also exude vitality. A nicely painted sky at sunset lifts  some of the gloom from the abandoned building in Revere Sugar Refinery (2006). Talese is equally good at capturing the tones and textures of water.

Talese’s work may be seen to resonate with that of an artist like Tacita Dean, but it appear to be most deeply rooting in the tradition of Charles Sheeler. Although Talese painting images in physical decline, as opposed to the gleaming world of technology that fascinated Sheeler, the artists are united by a sense of optimism.  The world that Talese depicts may have seen better days, but it steadfastly holds on to its own particular beauty.


With admirable directness, Pamela Talese’s 20 paintings at Atlantic Gallery document the changing face of the overlooked byways of Brooklyn and Queens. Her small canvases, executed on location in a sprightly realist manner, affectionately tell the stories of neglected landmarks and factories—and especially the aging ships under repair at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where she maintains a studio.

If storytelling is a key impulse behind these works, the wall labels provide considerable background. Talese is clearly intimately acquainted with her subjects, and the labels’ descriptions reveal their peculiar, and often poignant, histories. It turns out that the broad-hulled ship in “The Valcogen Bow” set records for cargos of barley and soybeans. In another canvas, the artist captures the kaleidoscopic piles of color heaped at the Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse after a 2006 fire; the label discloses that these are the countless scraps of fabric once stored in the facility, which in an earlier incarnation housed what was probably the world’s largest cordage factory. And the Domino Sugar Factory, hunkering under a rainy sky—who knew this was once the largest sugar refinery on earth?

At times, Talese’s personal tales blend with her subjects’. Amidst the rusting hulks, an egret alights in a dry dock—”wildlife among industry!” Elsewhere the dockhands complicate the artist’s task by repeatedly changing the lines tying up a tug.

Visually, the most striking images feature end-on or sidelong views of the weather-worn vessels. Subtle colors in “The Charleston” vividly convey the shadowy zone in the dry dock beneath the great, swelling hull.

As a kind of visual journal, Talese’s paintings brim with a sense of engagement and enthusiasm for her motif. The artist’s work may be less aggressively engaged with art trends, either contemporary or traditional; while they evince the honesty and empathy of Homer’s early scenes of Civil War soldiers and British fishermen, they show rather less of his pictorial adventurousness in seizing upon a jutting mast or lowering cloud. But Talese’s paintings speak amply about her devoted labor, and of the tactile pleasures of paint—qualities totally at one with the rusty nobleness of her subjects.

Brooklyn Eagle

For Pamela Talese, painting the corroding landscapes of Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront is a race to capture what’s
left before it’s gone. As the daughter of author and journalist Gay Talese and editor Nan Talese, she was always drawn to
arts, but came late to painting, ‘avoiding’ it for years before committing herself full-time.

As her show Rust Never Sleeps: Corrosion and Renewal in Maritime/Industrial New York runs this month in Chelsea,
Talese shares with the Eagle how being considered a ‘terrorist’ drove her to take up a Navy Yard studio, and how we should consider what is at risk as the wrecking ball continues to swing.

When did you start painting?

Late, when I was 22. In college I took a double major in literature and studio art, but did printmaking, and my plan was to become a graphic designer —or something with a salary.

I worked during college summers in the design departments of various magazines, then moved to Paris where I worked freelance for American Vogue, the Herald Tribune and other publications.

After two years I returned to New York and went to The Art Student’s League, when I realized that I had been avoiding painting all of my life. But New York is expensive, so I’d paint for a while, then get a job.

What media do you work in?

Oil on linen or oil on panel. I sometimes grind my own pigments. I’m ‘old school.’

How have your parents influenced your art?

My parents are literary, not visual, so they didn’t influence my interest in paintings, as we had none. My parents worked very, very hard which was important to see. They also valued things well-made and well-written, so I’ve never been swept away by trends. I thank them for their standards in this regard.

Did they encourage you in a particular direction?

They encouraged me to work hard at whatever I did and to not be concerned with prizes. Regarding my interest in art, which was always there, my mother was always encouraging, but my father wanted me to become a journalist more than anything.

Looking back, I realize that I do paint ‘non-fiction’ and that my process of immersion into the subject matter is very much like what my father does when he writes, so that’s a big influence.

Like all parents, they both worried about how I would support myself. I ultimately became an interior designer in high-end New York firms for about eight years.

I drew and did what I could on weekends and had a small landscape/still life show in 1997 by which time —living in Queens and socializing in Brooklyn —I was bitten by the industrial-landscape bug and the idea for 718: Changing Neighborhoods in Brooklyn & Queens (2003) began to fester.

Living on the east side of the East River, I began to see things change with increasing speed. Interesting old buildings came down, new boring ones went up. This made leaving my job to paint even more urgent. I’d been squirreling away money for a few years, so could make the leap in 2000.

For how long have you kept a studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and why did you choose the location?

When I began painting on site in New York City in 2000, I worked throughout Brooklyn and Queens, traveling by bicycle, and could set up anywhere I pleased. But after 9/11 I suddenly became ‘a terrorist.’

I understood that my predilection for gas tanks and bridges made me the object of suspicion, but I paint so slowly that there was really no stealth involved.

Nevertheless, one policeman suggested that I might be sending my sketches to Al Qaeda. I told him that I wasn’t really “that good” and that photographs would be more helpful, but he still told me to “leave the premises.” This became annoying but I was able to do enough work for 718.

After that show, my next big idea was to do paintings about the changing waterfront. I set out to document structures from Astoria Park to Red Hook. I rode by bike up and down the waterfront, with my painting equipment bungeed together, drawing and sketching as I was able. But in 2003 New York seemed to still be on “orange alert” and I became discouraged at being asked to move on so often.

During this period I passed the Brooklyn Navy Yard often. It’s a fascinating place, and my logic was that if I were a ‘known quantity’within, chances of my being seen as a terrorist (I’m not kidding about this) would decrease. The Yard is rich in motifs and in history, which made it even more compelling to an urban history geek like myself. My last three exhibitions, A Short Season in the Navy Yard (2005), Working Waterfront (2007) and the current show Rust Never Sleeps: Corrosion and Renewal in Maritime/Industrial New York, focus on the Yard.

When were you first drawn to “rust”? What is the “renewal” part of your current show?

When painting industrial sites, rust is part of the pallet, and there’s no avoiding it. But it doesn’t have to mean the end of whatever object it is consuming, and my point in this show was to document those structures that were in disrepair, but to also celebrate those people who work toward maintaining what is left of New York City’s industries.

We’ve let a lot go. This is a national trend, but from a cargo perspective the Harbor of New York is still the third largest port in the U.S. We do still have a maritime trade that links us back to the very beginning of this country’s economic success.

Also, [in 2003] development was beginning at such a pace that I realized that this project was going to be a total
heartbreak, even more than 718, because the wrecking ball was moving faster than I was.

Now, with our nation’s waning economy, I would like people to consider what is at risk when communities prefer luxury housing over industry. We used to make and export things. We don’t now. This has been my rant since 718. Ever on the soapbox, I always include text next to my paintings to give the history of the site I’ve painted, or to gripe a little.

How does Brooklyn influence your work?

I see new sites every day in Brooklyn. Brooklyn was a separate city, so the buildings, both public and private, are amazing. There are exceptions, of course… like the Metrotech area, which reminds me of Atlanta, GA.

Which neighborhood is home for you?

I was an [Upper] East Side child when New York was bankrupt so my street looked rougher and more beat up than it does today. But if someone followed you home from school (this was common) you’d just dart into a candy store, a head-shop, whatever. Every kid knew what to do in the 70s.

I lived in Hunter’s Point LIC, Queens for 14 years. I now live in lower Manhattan but work in Brooklyn, which is a magic borough.

I’m at home in any neighborhood where you can walk down the street and relate to the people and see some of our
history in old buildings. Curiously, I feel awkward on the UES, the place of my birth. It’s just too shiny.

What are your plans post Rust Never Sleeps?

I have about three new ideas but I am rather tightlipped about any new project until I have a substantial amount of work done. What I can say [is that] I will continue working in the Navy Yard because I’ve fallen in love with it.

People often ask me, somewhat hesitantly ‘So, are you going to keep painting boats?’ but how can I not?

I feel like Robert Caro (author of the extraordinary Robert Moses biography The Power Broker) who keeps adding new volumes to his Lyndon Johnson biography. When you are enthralled with your subject matter you find so much to say about it. Whether others will be interested in my vision is an open question.

Rust Never Sleeps: Corrosion and Renewal in Maritime/Industrial New York runs through October 30 at Atlantic Gallery, 135 West 29th St. Suite 601.


Big event this week:  Wednesday, Oct 21 . . . Rust/River:   Jessica Dulong reads from My River Chronicles amid Pamela Talese’s painting, juxtaposed below with my fotos.  Here’s Pamela’s Matthew Tibbetts and mine . . . in the 2008 Tugboat Race. Her Marcus Hanna and my Katherine Walker.  Hmmm . . . wonder if any other blogs have renderings of 175′ buoy tenders . .  or plan to?  Here maybe? Pamela’s Baltic Sea low and dry  and and mine high and wet. The subtitle for Pamela’s show is “Corrosion and Renewal.”  Will the corrodedFreddy K be renewed . . .  or forbid the thought . . . will Freddy K ride out on a barge like Crow is pulling here.  I know you can’t save them all, but but . . . . I can’t make Wednesday’s event, but Pamela will also be at the gallery all afternoon Friday, Oct 23, which is when I’ll drop by.

New York Observer

It turns out, there still is a boatyard at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. You just have to go there to find it.

Pamela Talese, who painted the above painting and 19 others of the Brooklyn Navy Yard now up at the Atlantic Gallery, started going there because she was being hassled wherever else she went. “I was painting things that represented different kinds of working-class aspects of the city. And then 9/11 happened, and the types of things that I was painting–bridges and gas tanks–suddenly made people very nervous,” she told The Observer. “I wanted to be in a walled city so I wouldn’t be hassled either by the lunatics of Coney Island or the police.”

So for the past two years, the plein air painter (who also happens to be the daughter of writer Gay and publisher Nan), has been riding her fold-up bike from her home in Long Island City out to a corner of New York most of us only see from the Manhattan Bridge. She tries not to be too nostalgic about New York’s industrial heritage–the Navy Yard is one of those places where the Bloomberg administration sees a future for a blue-collar economy, after all–but it is hard not to be.

“They make luxurious things there like movies and things that people value but there is not a lot of flash there,” she said. “The brilliant thing visually is that there are no billboards, no chain stores, a lot of brick, which makes it tremendously different.”

New York Times

Pamela Talese’s small, quietly observed works, painted from life, honor the plein-air tradition that many assume to be dead by turning to industrial subjects and pushing the style slightly toward documentary photography. Fittingly, they record a dying phase of New York history: the piers, buildings, cranes and docking equipment of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, along with tugboats, fireboats and ships in and out of dry dock.

The subjects have all seen better days, but the images are not nostalgic. And despite the paintings’ documentary aspect they clearly could not be photographs; they record places of honest work in part by exemplifying it. They are carried by an unforced accuracy abetted by a subtle color sense and straightforward surfaces that are neither finicky nor juiced up.

The total effect is unexpectedly convincing, all the more so because each painting is accompanied by a brief text explaining its subject. The added information suspends this work somewhere between a belated W.P.A. project and a conservative variation on Conceptual Art’s image-text combination, by now a tradition of its own.

Art & Antiques

Painter Pamela Talese can often be spotted bicycling her way through Brooklyn and Queens on the way to a favorite abandoned industrial incinerator or pair of derelict gas tanks. In the true tradition of the plein-air painter, Talese sets up her easel in situ, the renders gritty industrial details in such a way that they mutate into noble urban landmarks. “I’m not Canaletto” she say, referring to the Baroque artist who painted scenes of Venice, but “I do paint the real life elements of a city, the once useful things that may now be outmoded but still have integrity as objects.”  Talese has a diviner’s ability to root out industrial structures that wind up being demolished, so much so that her friends often say, “Please, don’t paint m apartment building.”

Talese’s show, “718: Changing Neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens” opened September 9th at the Atlantic Gallery (40 Wooster Street). Rarely has a roomful of mostly Manhattanites (including her parents, legendary book editor Nan Talese and writer Gay Talese) been as entranced by paintings of a neon Pepsi sign and graffitied bridges.  Talese, who worked as an interior designer, left the profession to paint full time. “One evening after spending the entire day looking at dizzying, complicated fabrics, I walked across the Pulaski Bridge connecting Brooklyn and Queens and had a kind of hallucinatory experience,” she says. I looked at the walkway pattern and thought this is so beautiful it can’t be real. I wanted to capture details like that.”