“Mechanic Distractions”

“Mechanic Street I”, by Robert Leedy, 2004,
watercolor on Arches cold press paper
collection of Mr. & Mrs. Fred Stzul, New York, New York

Thursday we painted on Mechanic Street. This is the same location where I painted “Rockland Shipyard” two years ago. As the street name implies, this is a pleasant little working class neighborhood. There is a nice view of the bay from the top of the hill. In addition to the shipyard, there is a boat launch and city park. Outward Bound’s Hurricane Island operation also has offices here.

Plein Aire painting involves a lot of interaction. Not just interaction with the paint, paper or canvas – but with everything happening around you. Beyond what is immediately in front of you, it’s usually just curious onlookers who want to know what exactly it is you’re doing. You learn to filter out a lot of things yet your senses are still in order and not unlike a computer in sleep mode. You are fully aware of events taking place but your concentration is focused on the painting before you; You can carry on a conversation but most likely you are not the best of company. If you are easily distracted, your painting suffers.

I set up in the middle of a dirt road in a parking area. Rather than look towards the bay, my interest turned to the grouping of neighborhood houses in the afternoon light framed by a large dory in the foreground. As I began sketching, I became more and more aware of things happening around me. A woman in her fifties came out on her front porch and took a seat to watch me. Her interest in what I was doing waned as a man pulled up on a Harley and greeted her. They hadn’t seen one another in a while and were catching up. I sensed their friendship went back a bit. They probably attended the same high school.

A couple walking a dog veered from their normal route to discreetly (or so they thought) walk by and see what I was doing. These sneaky types are common and I am used to their tricks. Their footsteps seemed to be magnified as they approached and I could almost read their thoughts…

A schizophrenic homeless man was talking loudly to himself and headed my way. I am normally a magnet for these guys and knew that if he stopped and wanted to talk, it would really throw off my concentration. Fortunately, he was on a mission and continued on without muttering a word. As he got a hundred yards or so past me, he began screaming as if someone or something was torturing him. This went on for quite some time and I was very impressed with his vocal stamina. His screams got louder and I briefly looked up to see him on his way back towards me. I made sure he was not carrying an axe and went back to work. As he approached me, he had the courtesy to refrain from screaming. Once he got a good distance past me, he resumed his tortured howling. Despite the noise, my concentration held in there and it wasn’t until the fourth pass that I realized I was the epicenter of this poor man’s mission.

The conversation on the porch turned to questions about the woman’s younger sister and it became evident that the motorcyclist’s intentions were premeditated. As soon as he got the info he needed, he bid goodbye and zoomed off down Mechanic Street.

A man drove his car by me and was going fast enough to drench my back with water from a puddle. Fortunately, no dirty water got on the painting. I muttered a few words but he did not hear me. He was more interested in the performance of the homeless man and delighted in his screaming which sort of made me angrier.

More dog walkers snuck up. The homeless man continued his haunted opera. He now had the added help of several dogs barking at him. The porch lady swept her porch and the asshole in the car was coming my way again. He slowed down and shifted his weight towards his car window as if he were going to ask me a question or look at whatever it was I was doing.

“Thanks a lot for splashing me, ” I said as I tugged on the back of my shirt for proof of evidence.

I was expecting a confrontation and as I looked up and saw a slobbering Rottweiler hanging out of the rear passenger window, I realized I might have been better off keeping my mouth shut. The man’s reaction threw me:

” Oh……..I’m sorry,” he said with a surprising, timid voice.

” Uhh………..it’s OK, ” I answered.

Three days later, I saw the man and his wife approaching the coffee shop where I sat outside enjoying a morning latte. I guess my plein aire activities have sharpened my senses and hearing – for I could hear the wife say:

” Look Ralph….it’s the guy you splashed with the car the other day….

” They briefly stopped to confirm it was me and giggled as they went into the coffee shop.

My painting began happening and I wondered if its success was due in part to the distractions around me.

On Friday, I went to the Farnsworth Museum an saw a small but excellent show on Edward Hopper’s Rockland paintings. He had what looked to be the same neighborhood in his paintings and I wondered if he too was subject to all of the plein aire distractions. I’m sure his were worse than mine.

My painting sold almost as quickly as I painted it. I can now add more Manhattan collectors to my list and delight that it is owned by good friends and I will most likely see it again one day….

Robert Leedy

a second, smaller version of Mechanic Street can be seen here – “Mechanic Street II” .

About this entry