NYC Week Fourteen: 10 things I miss about home and school (aka rural America)

Read last week’s post here or view all other New York City posts.

I’d just settled on the bench, purse and my bag of leftover food from work on my lap, one per leg. Done with work, time to wait for the F train and go home.

“Meredith?”

I looked up to see a familiar face, soft round features I recognized but couldn’t place. Danny’s, I knew that’s where I knew her from but . . . I felt my brain sputtering to find a name. None came.

“It’s Kyle,” she said.

Kyle. Yes. That’s right. The name I was trying to remember was wrong — I was thinking of her doppelganger who’d worked nextdoor.

“Is this for real?” she asked, half smiling.

“Yeah.” My only word. Still in shock.

“Do you live in the city?”

The M train screeched to a stop. The doors opened.

“Yeah.” Again, all I could manage.

“All right — me, too. I have to get on this train, but it’s good to see you.”

“Yeah.”

She climbed aboard. I stayed where I was, smelling tbsp on me, thinking of Danny’s, and trying to soak in what just happened.

In a city of 8 million strangers, I’d run into someone I knew from home.

Growing up in small town America — “small town” meaning a town with two main intersecting roads and no traffic light — running into someone I knew required only that I step out the front door. Or the back door. Neighbors, even if I didn’t know them well, I always greeted with a “how’s it going” when I passed them in their driveways on my way to the library, bank, post office, or park. I only didn’t vocally greet neighbors if I was running or if they were the creepy ones. But I took for granted that I’d see people I knew — even if I traveled 45 minutes to the nearest Walmart, I expected to run into a familiar face.

It’s not like that here. There’s one older short, black man I end up on the same bus and train with every once in a while. We nod our acknowledgements and occasionally shrug our shoulders at each other in response to weirdos on the F. But that’s it. And my not seeing people I know isn’t just because I don’t know anyone — even New York natives are surprised when they run into a friend on the street.

There are a lot of things I miss about home and school, living in the City. Most of them have to do with fundamental differences between rural America and urban life, and most of them I rarely thought about before living here. Running into familiar faces is one. Below are nine more.

1. Going “the back way” on quiet dirt roads canopied by trees.

There’s nothing like following a long day of work with a quiet drive through the hills. The roads are narrow — I typically pray the whole time that no one will come the other way — but the silence, the scenery, and the dirt and stones your tires kick up as you ride over hole after hole is well worth it.

2. Air that smells like water, dirt, and trees — not exhaust fumes, smoke, and dust.

Because even the exhaust coming out the back of your little 2001 Corolla doesn’t ruin what the trees and creeks are giving back. And let’s face it — people, even when they try to smell good, still smell bad.

3. Local food that’s actually local, as in you picked it yourself in your backyard or your neighbor’s field.

If it’s not in season, it’s not fresh and it’s not local. Strawberries are one of the first crops to ripen. Then raspberries, then tomatoes, then blueberries, apples, corn, potatoes. Picking, processing, and freezing things yourself is the best (though labor-intensive).

4. Backyards with enough room to play volleyball, soccer, and run through a sprinkler — all with their own space.

This would be my backyard at home. And a lot of my neighbors’. Plus, there’s a park two blocks away with basketball court, playground, baseball diamond, and enough grass for casual soccer and football games to take place simultaneously. When I’m home for less than 24 hours in a week and a half, I’m going to find some grass and roll in it.

5. Fresh roadkill venison you don’t think twice about eating because you know who hit it and when.

I grew up eating more deer meat than beef, and I miss it like crazy. It’s a meat you eat and still feel healthy afterward. At least, I do. And yes, a lot of what I ate was hit by someone’s car. These things happen on dark, curvy roads at night. No reason to let the animal go to waste.

6. Open fields, open roads, and open roads next to open fields.

One of my favorite views is driving home south on 205, where the road runs along the hillside and the valley lies spread out beside it, trees, fields, a barn here and there. You realize how big this one corner of the world is, and then how big the world must be in comparison, and how small you are. And you quiet.

7. Quiet.

No trains rumbling past. No airplanes or helicopters flying low overhead. Cars, but few buses, little honking, screeching brakes typically belonging to teenagers or a tractor-trailer or that guy nobody likes. Sirens, but not constantly and always making way for a crew of emergency personnel you trust, because you know them. They live down the street.

8. Trees. Good for climbing or just sitting under.

Maybe an evergreen or a maple. And if it’s maple, best if someone taps it in the spring for sap — thus, real maple syrup. Trees are everywhere: the front, back, and side yards; the edges of the park, all over the hills that border you on every side. In the fall, they’re the best: orange, yellow, red, evergreen. In the winter: snow-tipped, the pines looking like frosted shredded wheat or something equally sugary and delicious. In the spring: new leaves, like a new page of a new life, budding from thickening branches. In the summer: green, green, green. All shades.

9. A clear, cool creek you can wade in barefoot and follow under the road and into town in one direction, or up the hill and into the woods the other way.

Toward what we like to call “civilization” or away from it, into what actually looks more orderly and less chaotic than anything people put together. No honking bus drivers or swearing cabbies, no swerving around or weaving through slow-but-not-really lanes of traffic, no derailing trains or flooding subway stations — because there aren’t any. Just you and creation. And the reality that, yes, this is good.

M3367S-4504205

Bringing you up-to-date:

Sunday: Church. Worked out (my route in 10:38 plus sprints and various other things).

Monday: Internship. Worked out (included 51 push-ups).

Tuesday: Work. Worked out (sprints with my housemate, plus core).

Wednesday: Internship. Worked a catering event for Spoon.

Thursday: Work.

Friday: Work. Made a specific goal of applying to writing jobs this weekend. Ran into Kyle while waiting for the train to come home.

Saturday: Mother’s Day brunch at church (always a weird thing to be part of as a woman who’s nowhere near motherhood). Choir. Worked out (highlight: box jumps on the front step). Did laundry. Read narrative nonfiction/longform articles (reading recommendations coming tomorrow). Wrote this blog post.

When the perfect job becomes a total nightmare

Some things shouldn’t change. My first job was one that did.

Last week, I posted this piece on Medium. I wrote it last semester for Advanced Creative Writing and have been holding onto it, waiting to be sure I wasn’t returning to my old job and wanting to be careful about where I shared it and how.

Names have been changed, but those who know me know the place and the people — all of which still mean a lot to me. Read and feel free to comment, keeping in mind that this story is close to my heart.

When the perfect job becomes a total nightmare: Some things shouldn’t change. My first job was one that did.

I miss the dragon kite. I miss the picnic table in the back parking lot, the neat stacks of Coca-Cola trays, the recyclables organized next to the green dumpster with April’s butcher paper note forbidding residents of the Ironclad Building from putting their trash in Benny’s dumpster. I miss the parmesan bread twists, the peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, and homemade Focaccia bread. I miss the muffin-offs, setting Brett’s strawberry cheesecake muffins against my blueberry lemon poppy. I miss the fresh produce: crisp and tart apples, blueberries the size of your thumbnail, peaches whose juice drips down your arm and off your elbow.

I miss Benny’s Market as I first knew it. I miss the Benny’s that was all of this.

I only know Benny’s from behind the counter. The first time I stepped inside, I was job-hunting with my best friend. I’d never been there before and our 90-second stop furnished me with only . . . READ MORE.

NYC Week Eleven: False fronts

Read last week’s post here or view all other New York City posts.

The Ironclad Building on Main Street in Cooperstown looks well-kept from the outside: two clean, windowed storefronts on the ground level, second- and third-floor windows surrounded by if not fresh, at least not peeling paint.

The Ironclad Building

You would never guess, from looking at the outside, that the Ironclad Building has an uneven staircase made of raw, unfinished wood with holes allowing sunshine, shadow, and all matter of dirt from climbers’ shoes to fall through onto the equally uneven, possibly more treacherous staircase below. You would never guess it has a slight bug problem, seeing the types of hairy creepers that prefer hanging out in dusty corners of old buildings.

Down the street, the building housing the Village Library, Police Department, and Art Association has kept up similar appearances.

Ctown library
Looks can be deceiving.

 

Grand columns flanked by low balustrades, double doors taller than Goliath, seemingly flawless stonework. No wonder the bad roof — collapsing over books in the library, forcing the Art Association to close its main gallery — came as a surprise: it looked fine from the outside.

In New York City, many buildings are similarly old and grand, but the fact that they need reconstruction is made obvious by the scaffolding set up in front of building after building after building. No street is scaffold-less; something is always in-the-works. But the construction is mainly on the front, the first impression, the facade.

What comes to mind when you think of a city?

I think of appearances. Appearances and everyone obsessing over their own because they have something to prove — to themselves, to the strangers in the subway, to the world. They have to make an impression, and a unique one in order to be memorable. So they dress in strange patterns, clashing colors. They pierce their noses, lips, and eyebrows; gauge their ears, shave their heads, dye their hair, paint their eyelids, lips, fingernails. 

They can’t just rest in the body they’re in, accept what they look like when they wake up. They won’t. Because that person isn’t them. They want get as far from that person as possible.

I hate appearances. I hate that others define us by ours and that we turn around and define ourselves the same way. I hate the constant pressure (especially on women) to look good, have it all together — skin flawless, every hair in the proper position, clothing perfectly matched, fit, and situated — and the guilt and self-consciousness that settles in when we don’t. I hate the fact that makeup exists and people feel ugly without it. And I hate that people use their appearances to conceal who they really are.

In the Christian community, we have a lot of conversations about the expectation of perfection, which brings us to church on Sundays and keeps us there pretending our lives are perfect, we have it all together, and whatever we don’t have all together we’re just waiting on God’s timing for — when in reality, our lives are falling apart, we’ve been crying ourselves to sleep at night, and we haven’t prayed since last Sunday. This is an unfortunate reality for many Christians in many churches, but it’s at least talked about and those conversations typically bring participants into genuine conversations about what they’re struggling with and what they need prayer for — outside of Christendom, a call for genuineness leads to whining and unwanted advice — confrontations, really. And we all love those so much.

But there’s a deep-seated need to be real.

“Don’t you get tired of this?” I asked a co-worker earlier this week, in reference to his constant just-kidding-but-only-sort-of badgering. His favorite toward me is, “Could you just work for five minutes?” which anyone who’s ever worked with me knows is just too funny.

“Don’t you get tired of spewing it out? ‘Cause it’s exhausting to deal with,” I said.

Not a beat later:

“Come on, Meredith, just work for five minutes.”

“Really?” I said. “I was just being real with you.”

He shook his head at himself. “I know. I’m sorry.”

What do we lose when we bury our problems deep inside and gloss over our surfaces so nothing seems wrong? What are the consequences of allowing issues to burrow deeper into our beings while we pretend they’re not there and promise others we’re just fine? What staircases are we eroding, what books are we damaging, what galleries are we closing?

If the inner man is more important than the outer man, the answer is probably those that are most important, valuable, and beautiful.

To remember:

The Lord said to Samuel, “Look not on his countenance or on the height of his stature, because I have refused him: for the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7

 

Brooklyn 1

Bringing you up-to-date:

Sunday: Church.

Monday: Internship.

Tuesday: Work.

Wednesday: Internship. Went to Brooklyn for the first time in order to do research in the Brooklyn Historical Society’s library.

Brooklyn street He is risen

Thursday: Work.

Friday: Work. Good Friday service — went straight from work, sang with choir. Truth brought to life.

Saturday: Slept in. Budgeted. Went thrift shopping for kicks and giggles. Got groceries. Chilled. And (as usual) spent too much time on this blog post.

NYC Week Six: Rejoining the workforce

Read last week’s post here or view all other New York City posts.

I rose early this morning, beating the sun by a hair. Crawling out of bed, I shut off my alarm, turned on my desk lamp, and paused, sighed.

6 a.m. Day has broken. 

A quick trip to the bathroom, splashing water on my face, and then back to my room, on with another light, dig in my shirt drawer for the second of two new t-shirts: charcoal gray with sky blue text across the chest, reading “spoon-fed”.

Look out work — here I come.

Oatmeal, scrambled eggs, and a full glass (well, mug) of milk. Wash, dry, put away. On with the boots, scarf, coat. Double-check my pocket for my phone and MetroCard, my bag for my sneakers, wallet, keys. Button, button, button, button up. Unlock the door in front of me; step into the waking world, sunbeams tinting the sky; lock the door behind me. On to the bus stop. On to the subway station. On to Manhattan. On to work.

This past Thursday, I filled out tax forms for my new part-time job as a counter person at tbsp (pronounced tablespoon), a restaurant operated by Spoon Catering on 17 East 20th Street. (Apparently, tbsp’s tables came from Cooperstown.)

tbsp
It’s cuter on the inside.

For the first time in a long time, I’m the new kid on the block, the one who has to ask questions about everything from “what’s in the frosting” to “do we have more of these” and “what should I do with this”. It’s tough going from a system you know inside-out to a brand new work setting that’s similar to where you’ve worked before, but different in the way it runs.

I’m used to Danny’s Main Street Market, the place where if you’re behind the counter, you not only take orders and ring out customers, but you make bagels, come up with sandwich specials, wash dishes, mop floors, sharpen knives — and you answer questions based on your knowledge from doing everything behind the counter. I’m used to a place where, by being hired, you’re expected to do it all. And I’m used to knowing exactly what “all” is.

Now, I’m the newbie, the one who busies herself with straightening paper bags and stocking soup cups because she doesn’t know what else to do — only to find that it’s actually the paninis that need to be restocked, meaning the cold sandwiches need to be transferred to the grill. And, yes, the cold sandwiches are right here, on a tray in the rack under the counter. Be sure to put on gloves.

I’m used to being the one who’s been there for years, seen the place through ups and downs, multiple owners. Now, I’m the new kid who knows nothing and knows nobody, but knows, for sure, that she doesn’t agree with multiple co-workers’ choices (no surprise here) and knows she doesn’t want people who barely know her to write her off as a hater — especially since she actually loves people, loves getting to know them, learning their stories, and figuring out what they’re into and what makes them who they are.

Right now, getting to know the other people is what I’m focused on. I may already have some favorites.

Introducing (some of) my co-workers

Ashley: One of tbsp’s managers, Ashley thinks I look like one of the cheerleaders in Glee. She talks super fast and went to a Catholic school somewhere in the City.

Drew: Flamboyantly gay and super particular in all things regarding the new espresso machine. He recently received training in cappuccino art and, just this past week, I witnessed a girl Instagram one of his drinks. Excitement ensued.

Jenay: Full-time tbsp staff who’s working on a fiction book about the impact of generational abuse. She found out I studied writing and immediately launched into an introduction to her own thoughts and research on writing and publishing. She’s pointed out one literary agent who comes in regularly with a stack of manuscripts under his arm, and I’ve since seen at least one other person carrying binder-clipped, size 12, double-spaced, Times New Roman piles of paper.

Yordana: One of those people who’s so cool, you don’t know what to say. Studying criminal justice and psychology at one of NYC’s many universities, Yordana is barista for weekend brunch and works shifts during the week as well. You can tell just by looking at her and hearing her voice — low, confident — that she’s smart and she’s tough.

Brianna: Born in California, raised in Dublin, Ireland, Brianna has lived in New York since last September. Her accent is delicate, not always obvious, and Brianna is hard to read. I’m never sure if the look on her face is because I did something majorly wrong or because something completely different is on her mind.

Then there are the Mexicans who work in the kitchen, Jen the pastry chef, the owners Melissa and her husband (whose name I hear and forget every day I’m there), the weekend brunch staff, the weekday delivery guys, and a couple others — a lot of people to keep track of. I don’t think I’ll ever know everyone’s name (but we have a staff meeting tomorrow, so I’ll at least hear everyone’s name).

I always start off quiet, shy, and gradually become more outspoken. At the beginning, Customer Service Meredith interacts with everyone — customers and co-workers alike. The drive-thru voice turns on, smile grows big, and the problem-solver, who deals with difficult customers very sweetly, runs at full throttle. As time goes on and I get to know the place and people better, more of me and the inner workings of my brain leak out and those I work with, along with a few select customers, get to hear what I think.

I’m not there, yet, with tbsp, but in the past week, I’ve started to crack open a bit — the amount of cracking directly related to the growth in my ability to independently recognize my duties and fulfill them. I expect, as time goes on, this relation will continue and the less I feel like a know-nothing newbie, the more I’ll feel free to let my thoughts fly. I look forward to that.

Reflection

Bringing you up-to-date:

Sunday: The end of Faith Baptist’s revival, containing two messages from Paul Schwanke.

Monday: Dim sum (which I guess means real Chinese food) with a Chinese lady from church and Mara Burns. Internship.

Tuesday: I met fellow Taylor grad, Hanna Ryberg, at her aunt’s apartment building on the Upper West Side. We went for a run in Central Park, and then I walked a good bit of it myself (shorts weather!) before heading downtown to get my New York Public Library card.

Upper West Side  Good day to be outside Spring is comingCentral Skyline  Looks Familiar

Wednesday: Internship + 1.4 mile run in 11:15 + church.

Thursday: Worked at tbsp. Filled out tax forms.

Friday: Worked at tbsp. Called my family and talked to everyone except my 10-year-old brother. =(

Saturday: Worked at tbsp. Waited in a huge line at Trader Joe’s to get my housemate fancy salt from the Himalayas. Hit Aldi on the way back from Manhattan. Successfully resisted the urge to buy ice cream or chocolate or both. Ran 1.4 miles in 10:51. Ate chicken and rice soup for supper. Spent way too much time on this blog post. Oh, and I took this picture. Notice how what makes the buildings good are not man’s designs but God’s creation: the sun, the clouds, the sky.

Saturday park

NYC Week Four: Seeing the homeless

Read last week’s post here or view all other New York City posts.

I wanted to give him my peanut butter sandwich.

Him. The man standing directly in front of me on the 6 train, dirt under his fingernails, clothes faded and filthy.

I wanted to give him my peanut butter sandwich, made with the last scrapings from the jar, stuffed in a ziplock, stuffed in a backpack with carrot sticks, an apple, my mostly empty wallet, and my $350 refurbished MacBook.

Only a cart of his belongings and entirely different goals of existence separated us. My goals: follow God, write stories. His: stay alive.

I wanted to give him my peanut butter sandwich, but then I thought it through:

It’s almost my stop. The sandwich will barely hold me over ’til supper. I’ll get so hungry on the ride home, I’ll get shaky. He’s reading that free newspaper very intently.

He got off the train before I did. I kept my sandwich and ate it for lunch, the cold, dry peanut butter making me feel cold and dry for keeping it.

Homelessness is a fact of life in New York City. As of January 2013, the estimated number of homeless New Yorkers was 64,060 — roughly 10 percent of the national tally and a 13 percent increase from 2012

When I moved here, I knew I would see homeless people on a regular basis. I knew there would be dirty, sad, sometimes scary people wandering the streets because they had no place to go. But I was not prepared for how merely seeing these people would affect me. (I credit it to the work of a friend of mine on a documentary about a man who is willfully homeless in order to help the Indianapolis homeless population.)

Get up at six a.m. on a Saturday. Catch the bus to the train station and climb aboard. Switch in Manhattan to a Brooklyn Bridge-bound 6 train. Scan for a seat and notice someone wrapped in a blanket, laying on a bench at one end of the car, their cart of belongings — one vibrantly-colored hat among them — on the floor in front. Notice a puddle on the seat next to the woman you stand in front of. There’s a half-soaked napkin in the puddle. Urine? Quite possibly.

On a different day, on a different train. Another early morning. Quietly, take a seat with space between you and others, if possible. Scan those around you, and settle in for the ride. Watch a dirt-ridden man pass through the aisle. Smell the stench he leaves behind, a sharp smell, almost like something dying. Wait for the cologne-ridden to board and overpower the scent.

Walk a street. Or maybe just a block or two. Notice the scaffolding that seems to have a permanent presence in front of the grand old buildings that are — like most cities and, if we’re honest, people — more about appearances than genuine, inside-out authenticity. Quick, look down. Before you trip over the body, covered head to toe with a blanket thinner than the comforter on your bed. Remember how you checked the temperature this morning and bundled up: sweater, coat, scarf, hat, gloves. Twenty-two degrees. Your cheeks are red from the wind. Your eyes are burning. Imagine sleeping outside. On concrete.

I’m a Christian. I am convinced God has a purpose for every person on this planet and that, because He loves them, He is actively working in each person’s life, creating a story unique to them that will eventually come to the happiest ending if they allow Him work in their hearts. I believe that any life has potential to be beautiful, no matter where the starting point or what happens along the way. He turns ashes into beauty, coal into diamonds, and grime into gold, so any hideous parts of life, God can make beautiful.

This means not that I look at a homeless person and think, They just need to wait on God’s timing. He will provide, but that I have a genuine interest in the welfare of others and the specific narrative they’re living out.

When I see a homeless person, I want to help them in some way. But I’m held back by fear — sometimes for legitimate reasons; other times, as in the case of the newspaper-reading-man-with-a-cart, for no reason other than the idea of an empty stomach for an afternoon.

Flatiron District

Bringing you up-to-date:

Last week, I wrote, asking you for suggestions of writing topics and accountability in pursuing them. It’s a good thing I was the only one to respond to my request for topic and deadline suggestions, because this week ended up being way crazier than I had anticipated — but crazy in a good way.

Sunday: Church. It’s practically a full-time job — show up at 8:30 or 9, don’t leave until 2 or later. Afterward, I handed a resume in to a coffee shop in the Queens Center Mall and got groceries with my housemate at a nearby Aldi (my all-time favorite grocery store).

Monday: Internship. I honestly don’t remember much about this day. It feels like forever ago. I think this was the day I made Pennsylvania Pot Pie, but that might have been Tuesday.

Tuesday: Two in-person job interviews with eateries in the Flatiron District. When I got home, I received a phone call from a third place in the same area and was interviewed on-the-spot. All three bumped me to the next round of the hiring process.

Flatiron

Wednesday: During my intern hours, my editor and I met with three CUNY journalism graduate students whom we’ll be collaborating with on our arson project. I explained my research findings and suggested several directions they could take their own project.

Thursday: Met a Taylor grad, who works in the publishing industry, for lunch. On the train back, I missed a couple interesting writing opportunities.

Facebook Post

Friday: In the evening, I made chocolate chip cookies with Krystle, but she wanted to cut the butter in the recipe so they didn’t come out perfectly. In the morning, I went into Manhattan for a four-hour paid job trial at one of the eateries I interviewed for on Tuesday. They asked me to come back Saturday to learn how to host, so . . .

Saturday: I worked nine to a little after four, hosting a restaurant for the first time in my life. I’m on the schedule for next week at this place, but I’m not officially hired, so I’m not naming names, yet. =) When I got back to the house, I ate dinner and then made muffins (with Danny’s recipe) with Lili. Three kinds: strawberry, apple and — my specialty — lemon poppy. On the subway ride back, I saw this ad (shout-out to my home region):

Cooperstown

So I didn’t meet any writing goals this past week, but I’m a big step closer to accomplishing another: getting a job. This week’s a test round with one place, so next week, I’ll update you on my employment status.

Framed: Questions with Elissa Gore

This is another piece I wrote for my internship with the Smithy Center for the Arts.

Framed: Questions with Elissa Gore

“Before you start peppering me with questions, can I pepper you with a couple? I like to know who I’m talking to.”

Those were the first words of Elissa Gore, 62, in her interview last week.

The practically-minded landscape artist has an Ivy league education, an extra bedroom in her New York City residence and, for several years after college, made her living as a medical illustrator.

“I pursued medical illustration as a profession that would support my habit as a painter and a way to use the skills I had,” Elissa said. “I loved the idea of being able to use my skills as a visual communicator to help people.”

Elissa shared her background in art, her thoughts on differences between illustrators and painters, and what she believes to be the most important thing for creators to know about art.

SCA: When did you decide to pursue art?

Elissa: When I was in high school. It was the thing that I enjoyed doing the most. We could take art every day, so I did. I headed in that direction. I have an Ivy league education, but every time I decided I was going to major in philosophy, the next semester I’d spend more time in art studios than anywhere else.

SCA: You’re originally from Philadelphia and now you live in New York City, but you paint landscapes. How does that work?

Elissa: I grew up in a semi-rural part of southeastern Pennsylvania. I was born in Philadelphia but I grew up in the country, and I didn’t move to New York until I was 30. I have always spent at least three months out of the year in the country. Now, I am usually in upstate New York, which is why I show in Cooperstown.

SCA: When you’re working on your landscapes, do you work from photographs or memory?

Elissa: I work from everything. I work from observation, as well as photographs, as well as from the studio. . . . During the past five years, my stuff’s been chosen for the Art in Embassies program for the U.S. State Department, so I have paintings overseas in the ambassadors’ residences. I was fortunate enough to have an art gallery in New York with the same person who’s represented me for the past 20 years. I also have been exploring smaller pieces, sometimes in the studio, sometimes outside. . . . In the past three years, I’ve started traveling more to paint directly from observation of the landscape. I’ve been attending plein air events and competitions, mainly on the East Coast within a five-hour drive of where I live.

SCA: What’s plein air?

Elissa: It’s a French term for painting outside from observation. There is a movement in landscape painting to get more people engaged in painting from life. . . . For the past 10 years, I’ve been teaching a landscape painting class at the New York Botanical Garden, where we trot around from one location to another in this 300-acre park in the Bronx. So plein air has been a continuous part of my discipline for many years.

Part of [the challenge of plein air events] is not knowing the locale. I’m going to completely novel places, where I have to hit the ground and figure out the topography and where the light might be good. It’s great. It’s kind of like a sport.

I’ve [also] been working on landscape paintings that are transitional to abstraction. Those are the paintings I’m going to be showing in Cooperstown in July in the three-person show. Those paintings are all oil paintings . . . and they’re all invented . . . from my imagination. If you spend a lot of time observing nature and observing the real world, there’s a great library of observation you can draw from.

At times, there’s a cross-over between my different ways of working. There are times when I’m working outside from observation and I’ll get the palette knife and I’ll be much more interpretive about the way I’m working.

SCA: You say that you are especially attracted to landscapes with earth, air, and water. Can you expand on that?

Elissa: Without water the plants all die, and the same thing with life. The paintings become paintings about the environment. I’m not an illustrator of a conservation message, but the concept is this is the natural world and it’s very beautiful. Let’s keep it the way it is.

There are different ways of looking at the world and organizing our perceptions. I like to say there’s a painter’s frame and there’s an illustrator’s frame, and they both use the same stuff . . . elements of design and composition and color theory—all the elements are the same. But with the illustrator’s frame there’s a concept behind the piece of artwork that tells a story. Not necessarily a narrative, but something specific that it needs to convey. So the place you enter in the image might have very specific details that make the place identifiable. In a painter’s frame, the place might be identifiable, but there isn’t a concept or story. What’s much more dominant are the formal elements of composition and design. The point of the image is to put together something that’s expressive of the emotional observations of the person making the art.

At plein air events, painters are there all working at the same time. At the end in the exhibit, I can see the ways that 30 different painters are applying paint or how they compose, the kind of images they choose. Many of the most successful plein air painters are illustrators professionally.

SCA: What’s most important for people to know about art?

Elissa: As an appreciator of art or a creator of art?

SCA: A creator.

Elissa: The most important thing for them to know is how they feel about their subject. Because the expressive content of a work of art is the driver . . . You have to have a motivation to make something and the motivation is how you feel about the subject of your artwork. No matter whether you’re sculpture or performance art, a drawing or a painting, the first thing you have to know is how you feel.

Elissa Gore‘s joint exhibit with Joanna Murphy and Jody Primoff opened on July 1 on the first floor of the Smithy Pioneer Gallery at 55 Pioneer Street.

– Meredith Sell

Pieced together: Products of Nate Katz’s obsessions

This is the final piece I wrote for my summer internship with the Smithy Center for the Arts, and probably my favorite piece from this summer.

Nate Katz, 23, leans over the table, a strip of Scotch tape stretched between his thumbs. He’s focused on a small stack of paper in front of him, an inventory of some kind with thumbnail images of movie covers in the top half and a list in 14-point font in the bottom half. He’s just updated the list, cut it to size, and now has it lined up with the thumbnails, ready to be made one by the power of Scotch.

Nate’s father, Jeff, stands at the side of the table, talking about Nate’s strip mall portraits which hang in clear glass frames on the surrounding walls. Some are long rows of stores from various Chicago-land suburbs. Others are just 8 1/2 by 11, on Nate’s standard—computer paper—featuring before-and-afters of Dunkin Donuts and Burger King renovations, with floor plans of restrooms sketched out below the colored pencil portraits.

“Is this one real, Nate?” Jeff asks, holding one of the before-and-afters. Through the clear glass of the frame, the back side of the portrait’s paper is visible. Two photos: one of a toilet, one of a sink.

“I don’t know,” Nate replies, glancing up as he tears another strip of tape. “It’s in my mind.”

Creativity—putting pen to paper or hand to keyboard—is one of Nate’s main ways of getting what’s in his mind out. At age three and a half, Nate was diagnosed with Hyperlexia, a form of autism characterized by early advanced reading abilities, excellent visual and auditory memories, but a slow learning of language. Because of this, Nate has a hard time communicating to others what’s going on inside of him.

What others tend to see of him are his obsessions: bathroom fixtures and setups (he puts together booklets titled “The Complete Fixtures of” various townships and maps out floor plans of public restrooms); in grade school, The Simpsons, until he decided no more, for reasons still unknown; and since moving to Cooperstown with his parents and younger brothers in 2003, strip malls from familiar Chicago suburbs that he misses.

These strip malls—drawn in pen, filled in with colored pencil, laminated with Scotch tape, and framed front-and-back in clear glass—currently stretch across the Smithy-Pioneer Gallery’s third floor walls. They are simple, in no way claiming to appear realistic. Yet, they are detailed. Look closely at the Dunkin Donut door handles and the KFC Colonel’s face in miniature. Each piece requires thought and precision, which Nate carefully provides.

Jeff now sets a three-dimensional open-topped cardboard house on the table. The second floor fits the first floor, the three sides of the front bay windows lining up perfectly. Nate made this. A scaled-down model of the Katz’s house in Illinois. The only thing missing is the addition made by the new owners. Nate’s seen it, but only from the outside. To do a proper model, he’d need to see it from the inside, so he could know the floor plan.

The detail on the house’s interior is better than any Lego model would allow: from door and window placement to the red, white, and blue stripes on Nate’s bedroom walls. He recently repainted his Cooperstown bedroom to match.

“There’s a true authenticity to what he’s doing,” Jeff says, as Nate presses the final piece of tape onto his inventory and leaves the room.

Jeff opens a cartoon cookbook that’s sitting on the table. Nate designed it from cover to cover and put it together, joining the pages on their left edges and making the cardboard cover. It’s themed around a cartoon character Nate likes. Nate made it because the cartooners hadn’t.

“He makes things he wishes come real,” Jeff explains, flipping through the pages.

The strip malls?

“They’re just something he loves and he wants drawn.”

Nate’s strip mall portraits are currently on display on the third floor of the Smithy-Pioneer Gallery at 55 Pioneer Street.

– Meredith Sell