For the past three weeks, through our interview with Sandra Bloodworth, we have presented a treasure of untapped information about the incredible public art that has transformed New York’s subway system. The Director of MTA Arts & Design is also an accomplished artist herself and today we talk about her work as a painter. She began her career in her home state of Mississippi, working as a painter and instructor in the college and university environment. Early in her career, she became a figurative painter, with an emphasis on the portrait, to tangibly capture the people in her life. Still lifes, flowers, and people are all subjects she chooses in her practice as a painter. She focuses on portraits while intensely observing the natural world around her.
Her paintings are currently on exhibit at the SOMA NewArt Gallery in Cape May, NJ. Titled, “Six in the City,” it presents six new portraits of people she admires – one choreographer, one novelist, one poet, and three visual artists. This is the final of our four part interview with Sandra Bloodworth. The interview was conducted by Catherine McKeon Mondkar and Bhushan Mondkar.
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Six In The City- A Conversation with Sandra Bloodworth and Duke Riley. Video: Wild Rhino Films
Untapped Cities: Can you tell us about your journey as an Artist in New York City?
Sandra Bloodworth: I came to NY in 1980 to pursue my career as an artist. I had a masters degree in art education from The University of Mississippi and had a good amount of success as an artist in Jackson, Mississippi. I was a known artist at the time in that place, with a facility for realism and I wanted to push past technique. I went back to graduate school at Florida State, got an MFA in painting, and really started focusing on figurative work. I was drawn to artists such as Alice Neel and Alex Katz.
One of my professors, printmaker Arthur Deshaies, became a mentor of sorts and told me, “You have to go to New York.” This advice was repeated by other professors such as sculptor Don Bonham. It was a very foreign thought to me, but six months later I sold my car, took that bit of money, and got on a plane with what I could carry. I landed on the Upper West Side rather than an artist community, which was rich in experience but somewhat isolated from other striving visual artists. I worked different jobs while trying to get into the arts field, but it was very difficult.
In the late 1980s, I got a job with “Studio in A School,” a non-profit arts organization that places visual artists in schools. I worked there for a year and heard about a job at the MTA managing their temporary art program. All this time I was still painting and did portraits of Alice Neel as well as Alex Katz. Meanwhile, I applied for the arts manager position at the MTA and got it!
Elijah Staley (Carolina Slim) 1991, Acrylic on Linen, 30” x 60”
From the beginning, I was fascinated with the subway system and its magnitude. I came from a town of 2,500 people at the edge of the Mississippi Delta, so Manhattan was mind-boggling. But I loved being part of this huge, complex organization that ran the transit system in New York City. I became a transportation person, but I brought an artist’s eye to the work. As far as my career as a painter, I never gave it up. There were a few periods when it was very difficult to go home at night and paint, especially when I first became Director of Arts for Transit in 1996, but by the late nineties, I had re-established my own studio.
Harry Nugent 1991, Acrylic on canvas, 62” x 28”
Untapped Cities: Tell us something about your paintings and how they have evolved from the ‘subway stories‘ to ‘intimate feasts‘ and back to the incredible portraits.
Sandra Bloodworth: Up until 2003 my work had become predominantly figurative such as Subway Stories, which evolved from the NYC subway and the people and my experiences there. With these figurative portraits, I tried to both capture the personality of the subject and, in turn, reveal some of my own. In 1999, my life changed drastically when I met my future husband, Fred May. We both loved to cook and so we began entertaining friends and family with some frequency. The two of us would always lay out a big meal and photograph the tablescapes which became more elaborate over time. One day in 2003, as Fred was cooking and I was preparing the table setting, a friend, Natasha Hopkinson, suggested that I should be painting the tablescape and the meal we were serving – and so the “intimate feast” was born. It is a series of about 80 paintings that I worked on in every spare minute I could cobble together for four years. The portraits of meals were about celebrating the personal part of my life and the shared journey with my husband.
But I never left the portraits and was constantly drawn back to the people and their stories – the work that I had come to New York to do. Because I had such great opportunities and experiences in my work life, I was fortunate to have met some wonderful people and I felt compelled to capture their personalities, like I did in my early paintings of Allen Ginsburg and Isaac Singer.
My current show at SOMA NewArt Gallery reflects some people in the arts I have crossed paths with. The show is titled “Six in the City” – some are people I have worked with and others I have shared a podium with or experienced the inspiration of their art. Each painting delves into the personality of the subject from my point of view. All of these subjects are well known, though not necessarily household names. All excel in their fields and are creative and intriguing. I hope to capture that spirit and at the same time inspire the viewer to get to know the subject and their art a little better.
(Left) Elizabeth Streb 2014, Oil on Linen, 60″ x 40″ (Right) Reif Larsen 2014, Oil on Linen, 60″ x 40″ These paintings are part of the exhibition- Six in the City at the SOMA New Art Gallery
I see my work changing, delving deeper than what I literally see. In the early portrait of Alice Neel, I did not capture the Alice that I knew from studying her so much; the Alice Neel I captured was the frail person she was at the end of her life. I had read everything there was to read about Alice and studied every painting that I could of hers. But, looking back, rather than paint the person I knew her to be, I captured her in the place she was at the end of her life, I wish I had reached back and painted her as I knew her to be, with her vibrant personality. But now understanding that, impacts my work and I think that is what is present in the work now. I don’t stop until that person I am trying to capture seems to be present. I want to see their personality in the paint. I think the work is stronger now. I hope so.
Duke Riley 2014, Oil on Linen, 40″ x 60″
Untapped Cities: What lies ahead?
Sandra Bloodworth: Well, I set out to do a lot of things, and I have not given up on my dream–I am a painter and an artist in NYC. When I walk in my office door, I work for the MTA and my focus is on the tasks at hand. When I leave there, I can’t help but take away the experiences from the MTA and let them go through me until they come out in a more personal way, a way that breathes these experiences into my painting. Over the next ten years, if I could have another dream come true, I would be working full-time as a painter, exhibiting in galleries in New York. I have been fortunate to show extensively these past few years in Janet and Stephen Miller’s SOMA NewArt Gallery in Cape May, NJ where Fred and I have a place and spend our weekends and summer vacations. I’m thrilled with the tremendous response from people to the work, but I need to focus my attention on exhibiting in New York. That’s what I came here to do and I haven’t fully accomplished that yet. So if you’re out there with a gallery and looking for a painter that is driven to capture people and personality in paint and canvas, give me a shout!
Sandra Bloodworth in her apartment where she has carved out a studio space to work. Photo: Frank Weiss