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.