Valeri Larko is best know for her densely painted landscapes of the urban fringe, all of which she paints on location. She is attracted to the decaying and abandoned structures that populated the outskirts of America’s urban centers and the stories these places can tell. Join Valeri and I as we discuss the sometimes frustrating but ultimately fruitful experience of painting on site as well as her unbelievable and often hilarious series "Sign of the Times".
Valeri Larko’s paintings have been exhibited in museums and galleries in the US and Europe. Solo exhibitions include Bronx Museum, NY, Lyons Wier Gallery, NYC, WallWorks NY, Bronx, Hampden Gallery, University of Amherst, MA, Montserrat College of Art, Beverly, MA, The Morris Museum, Morristown, NJ, The Hunterdon Art Museum, Clinton, NJ, The New Jersey State Museum, Trenton, Safe-T-Gallery, Brooklyn, NY, Bronx River Art Center, NY, The College of New Rochelle, NY and the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, Summit.
Notable group exhibits include The Bronx Museum, NY, Fleming Museum, Burlington, VT, Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH, Lehman College Art Gallery, Bronx, NY, Addison Ripley Fine Art, Washington DC, Barbara Frigerio Gallery, Milan, Italy, Stockton College Art Gallery, Galloway, NJ, The Katonah Museum of Art, NY, The Jersey City Museum, The National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC, Aljira, a center for contemporary Art, Newark NJ, Bruton Street Gallery in London, England and the American Embassy in Minsk, Belarus. Valeri Larko is represented by Lyons Wier Gallery, NYC.
In the fall of 2000 Valeri Larko was awarded a major mural commission from New Jersey Transit and the New Jersey State Council on the arts for the Secaucus Transfer Station. She painted four murals for their north mezzanine. Completed in August of 2003, the Secaucus Transfer Station is the largest train station in the state of New Jersey. Additional honors include grants from The Joyce Dutka Art Foundation, the George Sugarman Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts Strategic Opportunity Grant, New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship and an Artist in Residence Fellowship from the Newark Museum. Ms. Larko’s work is in the collections of the Jersey City Museum, The Montclair Museum, The New Jersey State Museum, Johnson and Johnson, Rutgers University, Hudson County Community College and a number of other significant organizations.
Valeri Larko grew up in Lake Parsippany and lived in Northern NJ most of her life surrounded by endless miles of industrial parks, highways and shopping malls all of which have contributed to her fascination with the built environment. She was educated at the Du Cret School of the Arts, Plainfield, NJ and the Arts Students League, New York City, In 2004, Valeri moved from northern New Jersey to an artist loft building in New Rochelle, New York from which she is currently exploring the fringes of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens.
When did you begin painting and where did you acquire your incredible skill?
I enjoyed painting as a kid. The enjoyment stayed with me, so after high school I decided to take a painting class at a community college. It was love at first brush stroke! The rest is history, as the saying goes. I realized shortly after taking that class that I wanted to pursue a career and life as an artist. I also realized that to sharpen the skills required for an art life, I needed to go to art school. Community college wasn’t going to cut it. I enrolled in the three-year art program at DuCret School of the Arts in Plainfield, New Jersey. It was the least expensive art school I could find, but it turned out to be a great education. After that, I continued my studies at the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design. I was awarded scholarships to both schools.
One constant in my painting process is that I prefer to work from life rather than photos. Art school was great because I had life models to paint from, but after school I realized that people don’t like to pose unless you pay them and I didn’t have a lot of money. So that’s when I pursued my other love, which was painting landscapes on location. As far as refining the painting skills I learned at DrCret, that’s the result of many years of practice doing what I love and continuing to challenge myself.
What about the urban landscape continues to draw you to it as a subject? Did you grow up in this type of environment?
I grew up in suburban New Jersey in Lake Parsippany, so, no, not an urban environment. But right after finishing my studies, I moved to Jersey City. I looked around and thought, “What am I going to paint here?” Although I didn’t know it at the time, my move to an urban environment would change everything and lead me on a lifelong path of creative adventures. Moreover, in addition to the urban milieu of neighborhoods and buildings, Jersey City is surrounded by industrial parks. I started exploring them, and that’s how I became interested in painting industrial scenes at the city’s edge. I love exploring the fringes of the city, places that aren’t too busy and have so many visually interesting contrasts. I’m fascinated by the way the built world and nature collide at the edges of the city.
Your paintings often capture elements of cities that may go overlooked, such as scenes of abandoned buildings or underneath train tracks. What interests you about these types of spaces in particular?
The urban fringe, as one of my friends calls where I paint, fascinates me. It’s here that we see the past slipping away. Vestiges of our culture persist, but they’re transitory and that’s what I try to capture before these places are gone and lost forever. I consider myself a visual storyteller. Finding and sharing interesting places that will soon be lost to the ashcan of history is what I love to do.
Do you wander the city streets often for your source material? How much time do you spend in each local on?
I’m always looking for new painting sites. Whether I’m driving or walking around, I’m always on the lookout. Some days I go looking for painting sites, and quite frankly I have no idea what I’m looking for. I like to keep an open mind and see what grabs my attention. I like sites that have interesting juxtapositions, such as signage with other urban elements like train trestles and urban waterways. I’m also drawn to places that look like they’re on their way out, their life and usefulness finished. I like to capture these places before they are lost and gone forever, especially if they have an interesting story or some local history. Occasionally I find a place that lends itself to creating a series of paintings, such as the abandoned Bronx Golf Center. It’s a twelve acre site that was once a vibrant family entertainment center and now contains crumbling old structures that nature is slowly reclaiming: remnants of a miniature golf course, a driving range, and batting cages that are disappearing under creeping vines and weeds. I love the contrast of the built world of the Golf Center with nature reclaiming it. The place is still standing and has become a de facto urban wildlife sanctuary in the middle of a bustling city. I wound up doing thirteen paintings of the site over a two-year period. Some of the paintings are large. A large painting takes me two-to-three months to complete on location. Due to the changing light, I work on one painting in the morning and a second one in the afternoon.
I noticed that most of your cityscape paintings don’t include people. Is this a conscious choice?
That’s a practical issue, I paint from life and people don’t stand still long enough for me to include them. If I think a person is a necessity, I will add them from a photo. I have nothing against working from photos, but the main reason I paint from life is that it’s so much more interesting than sitting in my studio with a static photo. Cities are fascinating places, and the people I meet who live and work in the places I paint add so much to my understanding of these sites. Although there are rarely people in my paintings, my paintings are informed by the people I meet along the way. Painting on location is a learning experience, fascinating, entertaining, and occasionally frustrating, but it’s all worth it.
Can you talk a bit about your public commissioned works and your experience creating large-scale works?
I’ve done two public art projects, neither of which I was seeking. They found me. The first one was for four large-scale murals for the Secaucus Transfer Station, which is the largest train station in New Jersey. I was asked to submit a proposal by someone who loved my paintings. Although I had never painted a mural before, I jumped right in. I did some research and then hired a friend who had experience in painting murals to help me execute the project. The canvases were so large that I needed someone just to help me move them around the studio. They took me much longer to complete than they probably should have because I wound up doing all of the details with a #2 paintbrush, which is a very small brush, but that’s the way I roll.
The other public art project was easier and less time consuming. It was for a bus shelter in Summit, New Jersey, where I used to live. All I had to do was give the Summit Public Art Committee watercolor paintings of my images. They had a company create fragmented glass versions of them to install in the shelter.
I love your series titled “Sign of the Times”, partially because the billboards featured in the paintings seem to be devoid of place—these billboards could be almost anywhere across the U.S. Can you tell us about this work and what inspired it? Do any (or all) of these billboards exist in real life?
You know what they say, fact is stranger than fiction and I have found that to be true! All of the “Sign of the Times” billboards are real.
The very beginning of this series was after the great recession when I noticed a lot of billboards going blank in the Bronx and surrounding areas. I found these stately structures with no message fascinating. In the winter of 2012, I painted a small gouache and watercolor of blank billboards while sitting in my car in Brooklyn called “Sign of the Times.” Fast forward to the winter of 2018/2019 when I started painting more of these blank billboards, this time on wood panels. After doing a few of these, I liked the way they looked together when displayed in a grid, so I kept going with other billboards that had inspirational sayings, religious messages, and advertisements for personal injury lawyers. One of my most recent billboard paintings is an ad for penis enlargement. Seriously, one of the funniest billboards I’ve seen to date. Everything about it was over the top, meant to grab someone’s attention, but it was also hilarious. Lately I’ve noticed that the injury lawyers are upping their game with outrageous sayings like this one that I painted last fall: “Personal Injury Law without the greasy, slimy, aftertaste.” With billboards like these, it never gets old. LOL!
If someone wanted to see your work in person, where can they go to do so? What are you looking forward to in 2023?
Currently I have a few small paintings at Antler Gallery and their sister gallery, Talon, both in Portland, Oregon. I’m also available for studio visits at my New Rochelle, New York studio. If anyone wants to see what I’m currently working on, they can check out my Instagram feed. I post work in progress and recently finished paintings there.