Oil painter of the urban landscape
Sharon Florin was born in Brooklyn, NY and has been painting in Queens for over 30 years. Florin describes herself as an "oil painter of the urban landscape," painting architectural structures of New York's cityscape. Florin earned her Bachelor of Arts in Fine Arts at Adelphi University in 1973 and studied painting at the Art Students League. Along with many solo exhibitions and commissions, Florin has received recognition from the National Association of Women Artists, The Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Art Club, the Allied Artists of America and the Butler Institute of American Art. Florin also presented her work in Equity's Members Invitational show in 2016.
You call yourself an “oil painter of the urban landscape.” Have you always painted cityscapes?
I started working from the model as most artists do, drawing and painting them at Adelphi University where I studied fine art, and at the Art Students League of New York. I’m a native New Yorker and have always been fascinated with the architecture of the city, often walking around taking photographs. So, I would say from the late seventies on, I’ve been an urban landscape painter, with street scenes, buildings, storefronts, and architectural details being my main focus in my painting.
And so, what borough do you find yourself gravitating towards in terms of architecture?
I was born in Brooklyn, grew up in Queens and found my studio in Long Island City in 1980, thirty-seven years ago, hard to believe. Over the years I’ve created many paintings of Long Island City, but also of Manhattan. Most of my paintings are either based in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn as I’ve never painted Staten Island or the Bronx.
What is it about New York that inspires you as an artist?
The diversity of this city is remarkable, especially the juxtaposition between the old against the new. There are all of these wonderful older buildings on side streets filled with history along with new buildings going up literally next to the older ones. Every language is spoken here, people from all over the world gravitate here, it’s a city of immigrants, always has been, always will be. The cultural offerings one can find here are extraordinary.
How have you seen New York change since you began painting?
Oh, don’t get me started! Being a born and raised New Yorker, seeing what’s happened to the city in the last fifteen years or so really breaks my heart. The city is losing its soul. A lot of the small mom and pop stores can’t afford their rents and are closing up, and these big chain stores are coming in. New York was never a chain store kind of a place. It was always made up of these small, eclectic places. There were department stores certainly, but there was such a diversity, and it’s disappearing rapidly. I walk around and I see so many empty storefronts that have been empty for a long time. In this neighborhood [Long Island City] alone, when I first came here, there were three hardware stores within walking distance. Now there are none. And it’s become so unaffordable for most people, especially the middle class. I grew up in a middle class neighborhood. My parents were working people and everybody I knew was middle class. That’s disappearing. Here in Long Island City there’s a real artist community that started in the late seventies. Now many of the artists are giving up their studios and leaving New York because they can’t afford to stay. A lot of the buildings where artist studios are located are now being bought and taken over by developers. I believe the artistic culture and the artistic community have suffered greatly, and it’s going to have a real effect on New York.
As an artist, how do you stay afloat in the neighborhood when rents are rising?
Artists always have to think creatively, not only with their artwork but figuring out other ways how you survive as an artist. How do you find the time to work? How do you find the money to pay the rent and all the bills? It means taking part-time jobs, it means doing a lot of things in order to create work. The gallery system has changed a lot. The goal used to be that you’d find a good gallery to take care of the business end. They would show and sell your work on a regular basis. They would take a commission, but you’d be free to have an income and do your work. That’s pretty much a thing of the past. Artists today really have to do about ninety-percent of the business as well as doing the artwork, meaning networking, sending out mailings, trying to find places to show their work. It’s a constant struggle. I think it’s far more difficult now than it used to be.
Has this urban development changed or influenced your work?
Yes, absolutely! I paint a lot of the older buildings with the idea that I will capture what is here today that might not be here tomorrow. Many of the places I’ve painted over the years are gone. They exist on a canvas but they’re physically gone. As far as the new architecture, I don’t like a lot of it. I tend to like the older buildings, the architectural details, the terracotta work. But as far as the glass facades of the newer buildings, they do provide a nice surface for reflections. Reflections of older buildings on newer buildings is a subject I find fascinating, and I have done many paintings along that theme. But I think a lot of these newer buildings lack character.
How does it feel to have your work reproduced as cards, calendars, and book covers?
It’s great! It’s a way for people to see my work who wouldn’t normally go into a gallery. As a matter of fact, I did a painting of the San Gennero Festival in Little Italy, and it was reproduced as the cover of a sociology textbook, because in the painting you see all kinds of people at a street fair in what’s left of Little Italy. It’s a very ethnically diverse mix of people in one place, which is what New York is. This is another way of having an income for artists. Not only can they sell the original, but reproductions as well. The artist receives a royalty, and it might result in a future sale, so yes, I think it is another way to survive as an artist.
How important is it for art to be accessible to the public?
There are only so many people out there who can afford the original painting. I can’t even afford to buy my artwork. There’s a John Singer Sargent painting that I love in the collection of the Clark Museum in Massachusetts. I’d seen it many years ago and when I saw prints offered on the museum’s website, I bought one and had it framed. It is hanging in my home. I have a lot of original work hanging in my apartment, but I also have this poster framed because I love that image—it’s a way of making art accessible to people who wouldn’t normally go out and buy an original piece of work.
Why is this accessibility so important to you?
A life without art, well, you’re not living. The first thing I do when I enter someone’s home is look to see what they have hanging on the walls or what they have scattered about, all their little knickknacks, because that tells a lot about a person. I can’t imagine a life without art.
You’ve been working in New York for such a long time. Why do you think it’s important for artists to have a community?
I think it’s important for every artist to be part of an artist community because by interacting with other artists ideas can be shared along with support. I’m a member of a number of organizations and have been for a long time. I think it’s very important that an artist doesn’t work in isolation all the time. Having artist friends is great. I love going to their exhibits and telling people about their work, sharing their work. And as a community of artists, if you ban together, you can get things done. I think it’s very important to be a member of a community in whatever field you’re in.
Why do you value organizations that specifically support women artists?
Women have always had a harder time. Maybe things are changing, but they’ve never been taken as seriously as male artists. I remember when I was in high school, I was really interested in art and and when I was fifteen I decided that’s what I wanted to do with my life. An art teacher at the time told me, ”there can never be a great woman artist because women are involved in the greatest creation, which is having children.” That was the attitude. In the 1970’s a lot of women’s art organizations were created to try and change that mindset. One of the first organizations I ever joined was Women in the Arts. A friend of mine told me about it and I joined in 1980.They were protesting that there were no women artists shown in exhibits and museums, just one of many organizations springing up to change the staus quo. Changes are happening, and that is encouraging. In all seriousness I believe the work should stand for itself, regardless who had been responsible for its creation.
Interviewed by Madeleine Le Cesne