The paintings of Ellen Bradshaw, a Seaport resident, were first displayed at the Bridge Street Café in 1995. Her husband brought a few down there, unbeknownst to her. They all sold that weekend. The painting pictured next to her is October Sky of the White Horse Tavern. Above is Walkers.
A haunting quality
Downtown painter captures moody side of local saloons
By Alison Gregor
Ellen Bradshaw has been visiting saloons for a year now. But its not the prospect of a good drink that is drawing her, its the bars themselves. Or rather their artistic potential.
A downtown resident, Bradshaw has been painting the saloons and restaurants of Tribeca, the Seaport and the Village capturing a haunting quality.
Her latest show, New York Haunts, ghosts and all, displays two dozen of her moody paintings. The show opens Oct. 19 at the Pleiades Gallery of Contemporary Art at 530 West 25th Street.
Since theyre all really old bars and a lot of them claim to have ghosts, I thought I could tie the show in with October, said the petite redhead, relaxing in her Greenwich Village studio, which is located near the top of a narrow, winding staircase in a quirky historical building itself.
I think its the character of the old buildings themselves that attract me, she added.
Or perhaps the characters. Bradshaw, 43, said her husband, a stockbroker and part-owner of the pub PJ Kellys on Fulton Street, often finds his way into her paintings.
Hes got a character kind of face, she said, chuckling. Hes from lower Manhattan all his life, which is probably another reason that I paint lower Manhattan he doesnt ever leave.
Typically, Bradshaw is not fond of depicting people in her oil paintings of urban landscapes, and in fact, many of them display the heavy influence of Edward Hoppers strangely stripped-down, unpeopled urban landscapes. But she does capture the spirit of people, behind a half-drawn shade or in a cast-aside bicycle. Even in an indistinct figure now and then, such as someone walking a dog or peeping from a barstool out a taverns cracked door.
These, the latest of her paintings, recreate the historical ambiance of Lower Manhattans inns and taverns, such as Chumleys, Delmonicos, Walkers and Puffys Tavern, among many others. More than a few of them are rumored to be haunted. Theres the White Horse Tavern, where Dylan Thomas met his maker and supposedly returns to rotate his favorite corner table. Or the Landmark Tavern, a former Irish waterfront saloon and 1930s speakeasy that claims three ghosts, including an Irish girl and a Confederate soldier.
The Bridge Café, just below the Brooklyn Bridge, has been around since the late 18th century. It is a onetime brothel that was frequented by river pirates and perhaps still is.
One bartender told us that it was late one night, and shed been working double, and she saw this guy with the old corset-type (waistecoat) thing, sitting down there smoking a cigar at the end of the bar, Bradshaw said, laughing. She wasnt really thinking, and then she looked again, and shes like, What am I seeing?
The phantoms dont actually make an appearance in Bradshaws paintings, though their spirit is present in her moody use of color. More important to Bradshaw was recreating history on canvas, and she spent a significant amount of time researching the downtown bars and restaurants she painted.
Though she thinks of her work as more emotional than cerebral, Bradshaw says an obvious influence is the work of the eight Ashcan painters, so nicknamed because of what they chose to paint: the alleys, tenements and slum dwellers of the early 20th century. Like many of these painters, Bradshaw also began her career in illustration, which she studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in the early 1980s.
Im attracted to the areas of Manhattan that dont really look like Manhattan, said Bradshaw, who now lives on Beekman Street near the South Street Seaport. I usually go for the dumpier parts, the side streets, the out-of-the-way places, more isolated, quirkier.
Bradshaw likes to document history as it is disappearing. She works by taking photographs of various locations and recreating them with some artistic license in her studio. She removes much detail to keep her paintings from appearing cluttered and sometimes rearranges, adds or subtracts objects.
More strikingly, Bradshaw also reinterprets color and light. In October Sky, a painting of the White Horse Tavern, warm yellow sky invades a streetscape in purples with the overall effect of a crisp autumn early morning.
In her painting of the Bridge Café, the building is a rich, bright red, but its a dark and snowy night, so the lights in the public houses windows twinkle invitingly. Its a warm winter scene that almost seems out of character with some of her darker, more solitary work.
And the Rochester-born artist sometimes plays with the brilliant colors of the Finger Lakes region on canvas, her only bow to rural landscapes.
Bradshaw said it is difficult for her to explain her use of color and why she would paint a sky yellow and she has been asked. Besides the obvious influence of the Ashcan painters, the artist also owes a debt to the impressionists from her early days as a student and young painter. While the Ashcan painters opted for strict representation, Bradshaw has allowed herself to become a bit more interpretive in her works.
Some of their color and their sense of mood is what I took from the impressionists, she said sitting in the bright light of her studios northern exposure. Some of my stuff, its moody in a gray kind of way, and some of its kind of colorful. There are people who really like the moodier pieces, others who like the color, and theres almost no in between.
Bradshaw said her work often appeals to first-time art buyers, and she is often commissioned to paint a neighborhood or location. The artist relishes that about her work.
My work appeals to people who dont often go to galleries, because they just wouldnt, Bradshaw said. Either theyd be intimidated by the gallery scene, or it just wouldnt even occur to them to go to a gallery.
For that reason, she often displays her art in spaces other than galleries, and patrons often spot it for the first time in their favorite neighborhood restaurant or bar.
In fact, her first paintings were first displayed in the Bridge Café in 1995 after her husband brought a couple down, unbeknownst to Bradshaw, who was working as an actress at the time.
They all sold that weekend, and I said, Hey, I could make a career of this, Bradshaw said.
A career she has made of it, with 13 solo exhibitions and about 50 group exhibitions since then. Bradshaw also serves as president of the gallery where her current show will hang, the Pleiades Gallery, an artist-run cooperative.