When You Can’t Read, Paint

I have a confession to make. After I finished my Master’s degree in English Lit, I didn’t pick up a book for a long, long time. Probably a month, which is a long time when you’re used to reading at least two books per week. I had no desire to read, and this bothered me greatly. After all, this was the time I was supposed to enjoy reading whatever I wanted (thankfully I am at that point again – I credit Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy for this renewed interest).

But before this renewed interest, I was talking about my apathy towards literature with a friend a few months ago who did not seem surprised at all by this, and, in fact, thought it was normal. In response to my anxiety over not reading, he simply said, “So don’t read. Paint.”

This was a novel idea (no pun intended), and one the intrigued me because it’s not what I do. And I didn’t do it right away. Yesterday, however, a combination of curiosity, encouragement, and the desire to try something new produced this:

Not anything spectacular or post-worthy, I know. But the important thing is not so much how or what I painted than the fact that I painted. I painted! I I haven’t picked up a paintbrush since taking an art class in Grade 9. That’s ten years ago now. It makes you wonder about the things we give up because of time and circumstances, and which time and circumstances in our lives lead us back to certain things.

Since I painted an urban scene (surprise surprise), I may as well talk a bit about cityscapes. And here comes another confession – I’d love to say the picture was my own idea, but in truth, it was an ad for something I saw in a New York subway station. What drew me to it was its simplicity of streets seamlessly morphing into skyscrapers. It juxtaposes the two most prominent architectural elements of cities: its streets and its buildings. One could say that streets are horizontal buildings and buildings are vertical streets.

Two Vancouver architects, Bruce Haden and Joost Bakker, are playing with these ideas. They are taking the traditional vertical tower and literally flipping it on its side to produce a horizontal condominium and office tower development on the eastern end of False Creek. They call it the “bridge form – a tower laid horizontally across two smaller supporting towers.” Check out the article here in The Vancouver Sun.

I’m trying to imagine a city of skyscrapers without streets: Trees without roots. Helium-filled balloons with the strings cut. Height without depth. Towers of Babel disconnected from earth in their effort to ascend to the heavens, to achieve man-made immortality. Le Corbusier’s Radiant City of concrete monoliths.

Le Corbusier's Radiant City proposal for Paris. Photo from http://www.agingmodernism.wordpress.com

Now what would it be like to have a city of streets without skyscrapers? Visual tedium. A bird that never left the nest. Roots but no wings. Breadth without height. Nothing to mark the distance and make the distance matter. Suburban sprawl as far as the eye can see.

"Suburban Sprawl Nowhere USA" By Erin Silva. http://www.erinrsilva.com

Taken to their individual extremes, skyscrapers and streets don’t work well on their own. But put them together and there’s beauty in the balance of multiple heights and distances conducive to mixed-use spaces, neighbourly interaction, and visual interest.

Speaking of visual interest, my friends have heard me say that as much as I love Victoria, I am not a fan of its skyline. I mean, look at it – nothing of prominence to write home about:

Some friends tell me they like Victoria’s small scale heritage buildings with their restricted heights that give the city more light and which makes them feel less like forgotten pedestrians walking through a concrete jungle. I get that, but I can’t help comparing skylines and being drawn to cityscapes like this:

Or this:

Here’s an artistic rendering of the Manhattan grid that emphasizes both New York’s streets and buildings:

From MoMA's "Talk to Me" exhibit

The paradox for pedestrians (or maybe just tourists) in New York is that you’re stuck looking in two directions – up and across. You want to look up because the height of the skyscrapers is so powerful and magnetic, but you can’t because you also have to keep your eyes on the street and focus on getting through the grid – and the crowds.

Anyway, those are just some thoughts provoked by a simplistic, three-building skyline I painted. If any of you are similarly tired of your same old, same old, or are looking for something new and creative and cathartic to take up in the New Year, I highly recommend painting. And if you’re sick of painting, well, try reading.

Following Mondrian

My first post featured Dutch artist Piet Mondrian whose oeuvre of grid-like paintings with squares and rectangles of primary colours has inspired a plethora of Mondrian objects from architecture to clothing.

Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow (1930)

It seems like the world just can’t get enough Mondrian.

Without intentionally seeking him out (okay maybe a little bit), I came across Mondrian in my recent travels to Ottawa and New York and figured I would write a follow-up post in lieu of these discoveries.

I’m not sure if the idea of coloured window blocks in architecture derives from Mondrian, but seeing multiple buildings in both cities with this feature certainly made me think of him.

Coloured Windows in New York

Coloured Windows in Ottawa

During my travels, I paid a visit to my Alma Mater. A lot of construction was started there as I was finishing my degree, and I wanted to see the completion of these new buildings. Not only did I see finished projects, I also saw buildings erected that I didn’t even know were part of the plan. The building above is a new residence standing in what was one of the precious few green spaces left on a campus that everyone used to adore for its green spaces. Can you tell I’m a bit nostalgic about “the good old days” when I attended Carleton?

These other Ottawa buildings also have Mondrianesque qualities to them:

In New York, I went to the Museum of Modern Art on their free “Target Fridays” – a time frame that I would recommend avoiding because of the massive crowds. It actually felt more rushed and crammed than the streets, partly because I only had an hour before closing and so was racing from painting to painting to absorb as much as I could – not the ideal pace to appreciate art.

But it was still worth it, particularly to awe at Monet’s water lilies and to contemplate this painting by Piet Mondrian that he made as an ode to the Big Apple.

Click on the right picture for an enlarged version of the painting’s fascinating description.

Looking back at the painting on the left, can you picture the city grid with the yellow lines as streets, the blue and red squares as nodes of people and activities, and the occasional grey thrown in as moments of pause or respite from the daily grind? Other New York images this painting evokes for me are traffic lights, the omnipresent yellow of taxis, the neon lights of Times Square, and the colourful lines on the subway map.

Even though the painting doesn’t literally speak, I look at it and hear the noise of the city. It’s loud. Cars are honking. People are getting in and out of taxicabs. Vendors are trying to make a sale. Strangers are getting impatient while waiting in line for their morning Starbucks. Considering that jazz music inspired this painting called “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” Mondrian’s title invites us to “hear” his painting – to mix one sense impression with another sense in what’s called synesthesia.

Composition in White, Black, and Red (1936)

Whereas the dynamic spaces in his previous compositions (such as the one that was on display beside it, which is pictured above) appear at the edges, the dynamic spaces in “Broadway Boogie Woogie” emerge at the intersections – where people, buildings, streets and conversations collide in a syncopation of lights as colourful as the city itself.