My paintings are a celebration of people and places that capture my imagination because of their unique composition, play of light, and color juxtapositions. I seek out images that transcend everyday experience, striving to elevate the ordinary to something poetic.
I’m drawn to the beauty of nature and specifically the subject of people working the land. I find the human form -- rooted in nature, working or resting -- endlessly fascinating. In my paintings I hope to express the timelessness of people’s connection to the earth, something that for many has been lost. And I want to convey the necessity of finding harmony in this relationship once more.
For many years I lived in Oaxaca, Mexico, where I painted farmers in a small Zapotec village. It was a transformative experience for me as an artist. I was struck by the fact that most of the farming was being done by women, and I learned that this was because many of the men were working in the United States. This gave rise to the empowering of women, who found themselves for the first time in positions of authority -- in the fields, at home, and in local government.
Over time I became close to many of these women and was invited to accompany them to the fields. It was a special privilege, and it allowed me to paint en plein air where I could capture the light and subtlety of color. I also took photographs of the women to use as a reference. At times I returned to the fields alone, painting the landscapes at different times of day. In my studio I worked from the images I collected in the field, creating full-size paintings.
Recently I moved back to New York City. I craved the images of people working the land and began a series of paintings of the city’s rooftop farms. Though a world apart from southern Mexico, these farms in the sky have a beauty and power of their own. They bring people together in a special connection with nature, creating new possibilities for the greening of the city, and providing a ray of hope for the future. They also have inspired me to embark on a new project rooted in my deepest passion.
New York: Rooftop Farms
For the first time in human history, a majority of the world’s population lives in cities. Within a generation, two-thirds of humanity will be urban dwellers. The negative impacts of urbanization are well documented, but less attention has been given to the pioneering efforts to green the world’s cities – a key to our global future.
Here in New York City, a network of urban gardeners and farmers are quietly transforming the urban landscape. From the rooftops of industrial buildings in Long Island City to community gardens in the Bronx, a new model of local and sustainable food production is arising. One of the most creative initiatives is the rooftop farm.
The benefits of green roofs are well known: plants and flowers provide insulation, lowering the cost of heating and cooling, and help to control storm water runoff, improve air quality, and create a habitat for wildlife. But the rooftop farm takes the idea of a green roof a step further, with plots that provide healthy food for local residents and the chance for volunteers to connect with the soil.
New York’s rooftop farms are still at an early stage, but they offer a powerful vision for the future of the city. Visiting the farms, one feels the world turned upside down – literally -- as the ground has moved to the sky. As an artist, it is this extraordinary feeling, and the beauty of the farms themselves, that gives me hope and inspires me to paint.
Eagle Street Rooftop Farm
Started in 2009 by Ben Flanner and Annie Novak, Eagle Street Rooftop Farm was the first commercial green rooftop farm in the United States. On the shoreline of the East River in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with a sweeping view of Manhattan, Eagle Street Farm has chickens and bees in addition to growing organic vegetables on its 6,000 square foot roof. Volunteers are welcome throughout the growing season during which Eagle Street also runs an onsite farmers market and bicycles fresh produce to area restaurants. They are partnered with a food education organization, Growing Chefs, to provide farm-based educational programs as well.
Check out Annie Novak's book:
The Rooftop Growing Guide: How to Transform Your Roof into a Vegetable Garden or Farm
Brooklyn Grange, occupying more than two and a half acres across two rooftops in Brooklyn and Queens, is the world’s largest rooftop soil farm. Founded in 2010, Brooklyn Grange grows more than fifty thousand pounds of organic produce each year, selling to restaurants, CSA members and at local farmers markets. In addition, they have egg-laying hens and an apiary, keeping bees in over thirty naturally-managed honey bee hives on roofs throughout the city. Brooklyn Grange also hosts events and lectures, runs educational programming, and consults with others to promote green spaces and urban agriculture around the world.
Check out Anastasia Cole Plakias' book:
The Farm on the Roof
Founded in 2009, Gotham Greens has built three commercial rooftop farms in New York: a 15,000 square-foot greenhouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn; a 20,000 square-foot greenhouse, on the roof of Whole Foods Market in Gowanus, Brooklyn; and a 60,000 square-foot greenhouse in Queens. In addition, Gotham Greens has built a 75,000 square foot greenhouse in Chicago, the largest rooftop greenhouse in the world. The pesticide-free vegetables and herbs are grown using hydroponic techniques, renewable energy, and water conservation techniques. The enclosed greenhouses protect against inclement weather, allowing them to grow food year-round, and help to control pests.
David Graves – Urban Beekeeper
David Graves is the originator of rooftop beekeeping in New York City. A fixture at the Union Square Greenmarket, and the Berkshire Berries jam maker, first started looking for homes for his honeybees on city rooftops when bears got into his Massachusetts hives. Today, Graves has 15 hives scattered on rooftops across Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. He maintains the hives, trains the owners to be beekeepers, and gives them honey as rent. According to Graves, the honey collected by New York City bees is distinctive, varying in flavor from borough to borough and even neighborhood to neighborhood.
Oaxaca: People in the Fields and Landscapes
Painting in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca
San Bartolomé Quialana is an ancient Zapotec village in the southern state of Oaxaca. Located in the Central Valley, known to be the birthplace of corn, village life still revolves around the planting and harvesting of corn. The land surrounding the village is communal and extended families, grandmothers and young children, plant and harvest together. The work is back breaking yet there is laughter and storytelling and always a mid-morning meal in the shade of a tree.
Like many of the villages in Oaxaca’s Central Valley, San Bartolomé has been profoundly affected by migration. Half of its population is working in the United States. Yet despite this, the village has preserved its rich cultural traditions, Zapotec language and campesino way of life.
I was first drawn to San Bartolomé because of the women’s colorful headscarves, dazzling in the market of Tlacolula, and began painting there in the spring of 2008. Invited to join families in the fields where they work, I quickly fell in love with the beauty of the landscape. But what struck me most deeply was the spirit of the people and their relationship to the land. To work the land that belongs to you, to feed your family with the food you’ve grown, is at the very core of life in San Bartolomé. Nothing seems more essential, or more vital for the future.