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This article by Pat Summers was prepared for the October 2, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Ken McIndoe & the Street Painters
Once a week during August, Ken McIndoe drives two hours
to reach his job site, meets two colleagues for breakfast, and then
gets to work. Twenty hours later, give or take an hour, he arrives
back home in Hopewell. In the back of his car: three oil paintings
that he produced during the long day.
On August Wednesdays, McIndoe is a street painter in New York City.
At other times, he paints landscapes, portraits, still lifes —
"anything that stays still long enough," he says. Some paintings
spring from his imagination; others, from his drawings. Since 1981,
he has taught at the Art Students League, where as a student some
40 years ago, he first met Philip L. Sherrod, now his long-time faculty
and street-painting buddy.
Born in London in 1938, McIndoe moved permanently to this country
in 1957, and studied at the Art Students League around a two-year
hitch in the U.S. Army. Besides teaching at the ASL, he has conducted
landscape workshops in Ireland, Alaska, and closer to home, as well
as teaching at Triangle Art and Artworks in Trenton.
His work has been exhibited in this area at the Chapin School (U.S.
1, March 15, 2000), the Artful Deposit, Bordentown, and Mercer County
Community College (U.S. 1, October 31, 2001). Represented by Juno
Gallery, New York, and the Golden Door, New Hope, he is also one of
11 members of the Street Painters, whose annual exhibition is on display
in the Cork Gallery at Avery Fisher Hall in New York during September.
McIndoe has lived in Hopewell since 1973 with his wife, Connie Bracci-McIndoe,
a ceramic artist and teacher.
Founder of the Street Painters, Sherrod began with landscapes in his
native Oklahoma. While teaching at the ASL and the National Academy
of Design, both in New York, and New Jersey’s Summit Art Center, he
has packed his apartment with thousands of his paintings. Asked about
his colleague’s work, McIndoe says it’s "very strong, powerful,
quite aggressive — like he is."
Sherrod and Ivan Nunez, originally Sherrod’s student and now "the
kid," meet "Mac" near Sherrod’s home-studio on West 24
Street and go from there. It’s a jolly threesome. They joke over food
and between canvases, clearly having a great time.
On a Wednesday in mid-August, when the drought was in full swing and
the temperature was predicted to approach 100 degrees, their work
day began around 10:30 a.m. with — believe it or not — fried
chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, cole slaw, and biscuits.
It also began with me, thrilled to be there for as much of the day
as I wished, to observe, tape record, and photograph what they were
up to. "We’re taking bets on how long you’ll last in this heat,"
Sherrod said with a grin over "breakfast." (Let the record
show that I waited till they were well into their second canvases
of the day to almost literally melt away. They forged on, as planned,
to a third venue and one more painting each.)
I think of them as "romantic realists," who make an adventure
of their day painting in the streets — they laugh off annoyances,
put up with discomforts, and, in selecting and editing scenes and
colorizing what are actually quite gritty areas, they idealize the
act of painting and the scenes themselves. Forget about any Ashcan
School similarities; they are this century’s troubadours, visually
celebrating the city.
"The paints work much better than the owner does on a day like
this; they’re more supple," McIndoe had said on the drive in.
His self-deprecating view may have been colored by the stiff neck
he’d awakened with; it vanished quickly in the street-heat and activity.
"You’ve got to find a tree or a park bench, and don’t move too
fast," he added. This from a man who would work standing up till
near midnight, with periodic food breaks.
As for weather, although a hurricane "might" cancel painting
for a day, mere rain is no deterrent for those who can work under
awnings and trees. If street painters needed a motto, they could adapt
that of the US Postal Service: Neither sun nor rain nor heat of day
stays these artists from the swift completion of their street-smart
Parking availability helps determine where street painters paint and
what they eat. The KFC where we dined first offered two meter spaces
right out front. That was all Nunez, in the lead car, had to see.
As we moved further downtown, both its open spaces and four-hour time
span made a surface lot irresistible and determined that the trio
would paint in the Lower East Side, near the intersection of Grand
and Allen streets.
Wisely, the street painters don’t pay for parking till they’ve unpacked
their cars and set up equipment for the walk to the first promising
site. Then it’s a dollar an hour — and it beats feeding a meter,
which they’ve also been known to do.
Whatever their job, McIndoe had observed, people get into habits,
comfortable ways of doing things — and for a better result, it’s
sometimes necessary to break the habit. Street painters, for instance,
can’t let themselves park only where it’s easy, or let an area get
"painted out." Sometimes they’ve got to strike out in new
directions. And they start each day fresh, with no preconceptions
of where or what to paint.
Street painting has its conventions: people will stop
and look at the work underway; and they will ask what it’s of —
despite the clear answer in front of them. Maybe they’ll ask about
the price. Then, once the painter settles on the vista he will do,
he’d better be prepared for a big truck to pull up and park, blocking
the view, possibly forever. Time for a change of scene.
Smells are another distinctive "given" in street painting.
It could be garbage overdue for pick up, or ice water from fish stores,
now drying in the sun. Unmistakably. For the most pungent summer smell
in the ungentrified areas frequented by street painters, think only
of Broadway’s current surprise success, "Urinetown."
Like his companions, McIndoe carries his wooden easel over one shoulder,
with his first canvas fastened in place. He also lugs bottles of frozen
water and rags, double or triple-bagged in plastic, and his vintage
wooden paint box. Sherrod has a different system: he wheels a deep
wire basket filled with brushes in a can, rags, water bottles. His
paint box rests on top. Nunez adds a grip bag to the assemblage, and
his paint box is less encrusted than those of his more seasoned colleagues.
Possibly attracting more attention because Sherrod’s pre-used canvas,
facing out, bears an image of a nude woman that he will paint over,
the trio walk a few blocks to a likely spot and set up for business.
They may cluster at the same scene or, as happened August 14, fan
Only McIndoe holds his palette while painting; the others rest theirs
nearby. All three wear some head protection while they work; McIndoe
and Sherrod wear print bandanas, uniquely knotted, while Nunez sports
a peaked hat. "Fidel!" McIndoe had greeted him, although to
that and Sherrod’s "Kid," Nunez was impassive. A native of
the Dominican Republic, he came closest to complaining about the heat
and humidity — but soldiered on.
In the middle of Allen Street where it meets Grand, McIndoe positioned
himself on a median strip lined with benches, some trees, and too
many pigeons that foraged and flew in waves stirred up by pedestrians.
He faced a corner anchored by a beige, green-trimmed building with
a bright red awning, next to others of purple, yellow, and blue, all
printed with Asian and English lettering. Noon came, the heat index
rose, and walkers increased in number.
Using a brush and orange paint, McIndoe quickly blocked out the contours
of the scene he wanted. "Orange for sunlight," he said later.
"It was hot! I wanted to establish the rhythm and the mood of
heat — to get the feeling of what’s going on rather than just
Then he got into the painting, and deftly so, with a
palette knife. Thick or thin lines, sides of buildings, people crossing
the street, a patchy blue (and violet and white) sky — even a
few pigeons perched on the roof — all entered the picture via
that tool, used flat or angled or twisted, rapidly smoothing out or
adding thick texture, as with the tactile dark green shapes under
the roof line.
Stand back and look first where the painter looks, and then at his
canvas. From a short distance away, his art captures the movement
and excitement of street life in a quick impasto of swirls and squiggles
that careen and overlap and merge into his own vision. Cities might
be gray, but never in McIndoe’s cityscapes. Even his asphalt streets
and sidewalks are colorful, almost alive, in flesh tones with purples
and aquas. And he manages to suggest the roar of the traffic on each
side of his island.
Move too close though, and the image is broken up into turbulent texture
and raucous color. A viewer needs distance to pick up visual clues
and "read" what the artist, with his experience and knowledge
of color interactions, can "see" from any vantage point.
Three laborers on lunch break watched McIndoe for awhile, then walked
on, giving him a triple thumbs up. Another visitor asked him about
price, then described, at length, how the Internet could boost his
sales. Pleasant but minimalist in response, the artist now applied
white paint to the red awning: where heavy calligraphy characters
appeared in real life, he put white globs, and lighter wavy lines
stood in for smaller English print. Then on to the other awnings angling
down the street.
About two hours after beginning, McIndoe finished his first of three
canvases for the day — this one, a busy street scene, whose heat
is almost palpable. Sherrod pronounced it "beautiful," commenting
on its "high key" palette. By the time the three got back
to the parking lot, he decided McIndoe’s colors had held up even out
of the setting, and the sun, where they were painted.
The back of McIndoe’s car is fitted out with a rack that lets him
slide finished canvases in on their own shelves. In these temperatures,
he said, the paintings are well on their way to dry by the time they
That first canvas was followed by lunch in a Chinese deli. Then it
was back to the parking lot to unpack again and gird for the second
walk, the second canvas. This time the three amigos settled near Broome
Street off Allen, where McIndoe liked the look of an old synagogue
tucked in between dark brick buildings of five and six stories.
With deep shades this time, he started outlining the building shapes,
and . . . And so it went. Another canvas, another meal; a third canvas,
a ride home to Hopewell — and, then with luck, a Thursday morning
University, Woodrow Wilson School, 609-258-1651. McIndoe is one
of the artists featured in the group show, on view to December 1.
York City. Still life show, October 25 to November 30.
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