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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

art.

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

out.

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

an image."

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

reach home.

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

sleep-in.

After September 11, Bernstein Gallery, Princeton

University, Woodrow Wilson School, 609-258-1651. McIndoe is one

of the artists featured in the group show, on view to December 1.

Ken McIndoe, Gallery Juno, 568 Broadway, Suite 604B, New

York City. Still life show, October 25 to November 30.


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