6sqft’s series The Urban Lens invites artists to share work exploring a theme or a place within New York City. In this installment, Janice McDonnell shares some of her paintings of the Brooklyn waterfront. Are you an artist who’d like to see your work featured on The Urban Lens? Get in touch with us at [email protected].
In a city as bustling and overbuilt as New York, it’s easy to forget this metropolis’ roots as a port city, and that all boroughs but the Bronx are islands. The timeless beauty of NYC’s watery surroundings are not lost on artist Janice McDonnell, who has produced a series of paintings of the Brooklyn waterfront. “It started out as just documenting to enjoy myself,” McDonell said. That’s how it started, but the more she got into it from her Dumbo studio, the more the combination of buildings near the broad harbor and their contrast to the sky began to resonate with her. Ahead, see Janice’s paintings and hear all about her inspiration and process.
Tanks 4 & 5
Before the series, McDonnell would simply get distracted by the water from her Dumbo studio. “I didn’t really do anything with landscape but I would stare out my window and watch the tugboats go by on the East River. It was a great procrastination thing, but it was also very peaceful,” she said in an interview. It wasn’t until one day when she was biking through Red Hook, where her current studio is, that she realized how inspiring she found the landscape on the borough’s edge. She was struck by “the nature of New York and being an artist in New York – you just know that you’re going to have to move on eventually,” and decided she “should start painting here before it’s changed or I’m gone.”
Red canoe in the canal
Do you find the waterfront is becoming more or less inspiring as it becomes more built up?
I think it’s like anytime you spend some time with an idea or a subject. At first glance, you may not have seen it or recognized it, but at the same time all these changes are happening. I started putting red canoes in my paintings because now there are red canoes on the Gowanus Canal, and people are starting to pop up in my paintings because there are so many more people. I’ve learned to finish my paintings because all of a sudden a condo will pop up. I haven’t put the new condos in yet.
When’s the best time to paint the Brooklyn waterfront?
No wind. I can’t handle wind because I do paint outside. It’s more times of the day. When people paint outside, this is a generalization, but they want to have definition, shadows. So earlier in the day, things become kind of interesting. Noon is the worst because everything sort of just flattens out.
I’ll go out and paint smaller ones. I call them sketches, and then I’ll come in and make bigger paintings out of them.
Do you remember the first time you saw the waterfront?
I think it was about five or six years ago. I was on the Ninth Street Bridge and it was just the right time. It’s interesting about the Gowanus, they’ve cleaned it up a lot. They used to call it Lavender Lake, and it has that oil slick on top, and if you hit it at the right time, usually in the morning, it can be so blue, because it’s really reflective. The mirror of what’s above it is really what grabbed me.
Someone planted these red flowers in these boxes along it. That was just insane and amazing and beautiful.
Brooklyn Navy Yard pool
I love that your theme is “Pretty Industrial.” Are you nostalgic for the time when the waterfront was “Very Industrial?”
I don’t think so. I think the industrial part that’s kind of appealing to me is the swarms and shapes, and just that mankind ingenuity. It’s usually in these areas that are not overly populated, because it’s usually somewhat dangerous, that there’s this nature and man, and these things are becoming no longer relevant. The nature’s kind of creeping back in and taking it back over. There’s something in that relationship that’s so fascinating. The forms are very spacey and interesting, steam vents, and as someone who’s painting shapes, they’re just endlessly fascinating.
Gowanus tank #4
I actually have been more interested in seeing what happens with the people in the red canoes. I think, somehow, putting human beings in the paintings is sort of adding a narrative that wasn’t there before. I think that’s helping me stay engaged.
All paintings © Janice McDonnell
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