by Debbie Wells
The Long Island Rail Road is my choice mode of transportation when Manhattan is the destination of our Artful Circle gallery visits. My own personal travel experience begins at the popular Hicksville train station. Always bustling, it certainly would never be considered a place with particular visual appeal. However, there is one notable exception – a set of large mosaic murals flanking the seating area of the station’s lobby.
Whenever walking by, I make a point to gaze at the colorful tiles of the mosaic art. Although an abstract composition, its horizontal design alludes to a landscape. There are two murals, each with a different color scheme. Not knowing anything about them, I felt compelled to step close and imagine how they were created and the meaning behind the swirls of color and texture. It wasn’t until much later that I spotted the plaques identifying the artist and title of the works.
For me, its main value was the affirmation that beauty can be found anywhere, even in a gritty train station, and that good design can always have a profound positive effect on my psyche. At the time, that was enough for me. Later the artist himself described the visual impression of movement in the colors as, “a train rushing by a landscape.” Once I was aware of that, I realize that it is not just easy on the eyes, it is quite a clever concept for a train station!
Imagine my surprise and delight when I was introduced to the creator of these murals, artist Roy Nicholson this spring. Together with my Artful Circle partner, Franklin Hill Perrell, we gave a lecture at Gallery North, an art gallery located in Setauket, Long Island, in celebration of their 50th year. The lecture showcased artists that had exhibited in the gallery over the years and many of them were in attendance. Roy Nicholson and his wife Helen Harrison, director of the Pollock-Krasner House Museum in the Hamptons, sat in the audience.
Franklin knew that I commute via Hicksville and mentioned that Nicholson had created the murals for the train station. Connecting art to artist was exciting to me. After the lecture, I introduced myself and found him to be a charming man with a lovely British accent. We talked about his work at Gallery North and his career as an artist on Long Island. He graciously offered to have me tour his art studio in Sag Harbor for an Artful Observer interview.
About the Artist
Above all, Nicholson considers himself a colorist, no matter the material he uses in his art. Though he rates painting as his first love, mosaics are a close second. He enhances his techniques through the use of computer technology.
Born in Cambridge, England, he graduated from Hornsey College of Art in London in 1965. Nicholson studied with renowned op art artist Bridget Riley. He also studied Byzantine art (and acquired a love of mosaics) in Greece. In 1994, Nicholson received an MFA from Vermont College of Norwich University in Vermont.
In 1974, he immigrated to the United States and enjoyed continuing success teaching and exhibiting his work. For 24 years, he served on the faculty of Long Island University’s Southampton Campus. In 2000, Nicholson received the Trustee’s Award for Scholarly Achievement and is now Professor Emeritus.
Since the 1970’s, Nicholson has exhibited all over Europe, New York City, and here at home on Long Island. His work is also a part of prominent public and private collections, including Yale University Art Gallery and Guild Hall Museum in East Hampton. Best of all, not only did he study as a Max Beckmann Memorial Fellow at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1965-66, he also met his lovely wife Helen there!
A Studio with a View
I followed the road and palette-shaped sign to his studio and was instantly struck by the size of its sun-filled space. Featuring high ceilings and lots of light, he had carefully designed the studio with different work areas mapped out. One area was designated for painting, one for a computer station, with lots of shelving and cabinets for organizing and more. One wall was dedicated to his signature painting project, 52 Weeks II. A small alcove area featured a couch with a view of his garden (the inspiration for 52 Weeks) and a unique palette collection.
His combination of collecting typical art supplies from pencils and paintbrushes to unusual found objects is fascinating. It was fun to look around just to see how he arranged his tools. One wall showcased a variety
of personal mementos, including masks, found objects, farm tools and even a snake skin which he has used as a painting implement. In amongst his paintbrushes, he has plenty of turkey feathers in glass and containers. He especially likes to paint with the feathers of seagulls because, “they have a spring in them.”
The computer also plays a huge role in his creative process as he meticulously plans out his color compositions. He showed his willingness to experiment with different media, including computer graphics, sketching, printmaking, paintings, glass mosaics – anything that helps him express his passion for color.
On one wall in the corner of his studio is his unique palette collection. Filled with palettes he has gathered over the years, ranging from those given to him by famous artist friends such as Larry Rivers, to examples that attracted him throughout his travels, his palettes are similar to the famous collection of the New York’s Salmagundi Club. Palettes are not the only works of art by well known members of the art community.
A Passion for Painting
“The garden is almost an excuse for the paintings” states Nicholson, which aptly explains the symbiotic relationship between art and nature portrayed in his artwork.
On the largest open wall, Nicholson hangs his imposing large major work – 52 Weeks II. Consisting of 52 square linen canvases set in a grid- like pattern, each one of the paintings was created once a week for a year. He explains, “I did a painting a week from one summer solstice to the next. That’s 52 paintings.” In this personal visual diary, he documented his observations in the garden, as well as expressed his emotional response. Note that there are actually two versions of 52 Weeks. The first one was done in 1997 and exhibited at the Heckscher Museum of Art and is now in the collection of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.
Like Claude Monet, Nicholson has shaped his own personal world of beauty with the textures and colors of his plantings. To create this piece, he produced a painting a week that focused on different aspects of the garden. He mostly applied oil or acrylic paint to the support with occasional collage elements or found objects, such as dried orchids. The result is a dazzling array of abstract compositions that allude to the flowers and foliage as they change with the seasons.
He skillfully recorded pale tones and vibrant colors to make palettes indicative of a time of year or time of day. Often, he relied on his feelings to paint images that simply appealed to him regardless of the actual season. The images range from those that are graphic with shapes nearly crisp like linear silhouettes to those more gestural and painterly – all possessing its own personality. The eye jumps from one vignette to another soaking in the aura of each scene. His titles simply describe the subject – Week 3: Asparagus, Week 20: Prickly Pear, Week: 31: Brown-Eyed Susan and Week 51: Annual Foxglove, for example.
The subject matter of every painting derived from a view outside the studio window to his English garden that Nicholson designed to blossom here on his East End property and also to emulate gardens he had explored as a child with his sister in Britain. Not only did he plant flowers, herbs and vegetables with love, he also built his own gate, fences and a open-air wooden shed to create a charming retreat.
Why 24 inch square canvases? Nicholson prefers that shape because he feels that they lend themselves to versatility when grouped together. The canvases can easily be arranged and then rearranged to form different combinations of design, but he insists that the work is a singular extraordinary image and has decided to keep all 52 parts together. Now on prominent display in his studio, 52 Weeks (and 52 Weeks II) was on view at the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Now on prominent display in his studio, 52 Weeks II has hung in the Terrace Room at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City for over a year joining the ranks of past artist works displayed there, including Frank Stella, James Rosenquist and Jackson Pollock. It was also shown at Dowling College and the Stony Brook University Gallery.
The MTA Project in Hicksville
In 1999, Roy Nicholson was commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Arts for Transit program to create the two murals that initially prompted my interest in the downstairs waiting room to the LIRR’s Hicksville station in the heart of Nassau County. The two panels, Morning Transit, Hempstead Plain and Evening Transit, Hempstead Plain, (see beginning of article for photos) each 7×33 feet were designed by Nicholson with multi-colored glass mosaics fabricated and installed by Miotto Mosaics of Carmel New York in 2001. His desire to “allow a great range of rich, jewel-like color” is evident in the textural beauty of the glass.
Nicholson explained his concept for the mosaics: “Take viewers back to another time in this Long Island community. I wanted to recapture the feeling of the landscape before suburban development when the area around Hicksville, named for Valentine Hicks, 19th century president of the Long Island Rail Road, was an open prairie known as the Hempstead Plain. But rather than depict static vistas, I ask viewers to image them dynamically, as if seen by commuters as they travel west in the morning and east in the evening on the speeding train. The subtle blending of sunrise and sunset tonalities in the skies as the day progresses, and the streaking effect that echoes the train’s swift horizontal movement through landscape, convey the vicarious experience of motion.”
Valentine Hicks bought the area in 1834 and turned it into a railroad station stop in 1837. As the expansion of the railroad in the mid 1800’s continued to link New York City to Long Island, the landscape transformed from prairie to rural pasture to suburban sprawl. Nicholson depicts plant material of the area, including Maple, Cedar, Oak and Sumac.
In 2006, Nicholson did another public project, but this time at the Union Station in Los Angeles. There, he beautified the east and west walls of a narrow passageway to figuratively reveal sunrises and sunsets at different points in the solar cycle. As in New York, passengers moving through what was formerly a gloomy corridor could then enjoy impressions of vivid panoramic vistas of California mountains and the Pacific Ocean.
More Nicholson art to come…
Fast forward to the present…Nicholson has been asked to participate in the renovation of the Hicksville site by the MTA once again. In 2014, Senator Jack M. Martins (R-7th Senate District) announced that New York State released the final design for the rehabilitation of the Hicksville LIRR Station. The project is a major investment to revitalize the region’s busiest transit hub.
It was decided that Nicholson’s mosaic art should continue to be showcased, while maintaining continuity of design with the existing mosaics. Nicholson will be working on laminated glass panels for the four refurbished waiting rooms, as well as glass and mosaic for the escalator and stairs canopy. Needless to say, he was thrilled and honored to work on this new project and continue adorning the station with creations done in his unique artistic technique. Like before, he initially painted Long Island landscapes in his signature colorist style. Using his computer to perfect the colors and composition, he has numerous plans on paper that will be used by a German glass studio to fabricate the 72 laminated glass panels. The mosaics will be fabricated by Miotto Studio in New York. He eagerly anticipates the collaboration with these European artisans to capture the colors and imagery he imagines.
Now that the plans to renovate the train station are underway and there is an increasingly colorful atmosphere anticipated for its future, I am looking forward to the new space. What makes it even more appealing to me is that I now know more about the artist who created the bright spot at the station and what he wanted to express – the beauty of the Long Island landscape artfully united with the hustle and bustle of modern life for the surburban commuter.
Next time you rush past a piece of art, stop for a minute and take a look – you might learn more than you expected when you think about who created it and why. Having those questions answered always enriches the experience.
1.Nicholson in his Sag harbor studio. 2.The two murals at the Hicksville Train Station waiting room; 3. Art books fill the shelves in the artist’s home, including a photo of him as a young man in England (on right); 4. Palette-shaped sign on the artist's property; 5. Feathers and paintbrushes are part of the workspace; 6. found objects tacked up on the wall; 7. Nicholson and his palette collection; 8. The palette collection in the Salmagundi Club library in NYC; 9. 52 Weeks II by Roy Nicholson; all 24x24 inches, oil on linen 10. 52 Weeks II - Week 8, 52 Weeks II-Week 16;52 Weeks II-Week 28; 11. His window view when he looked at his garden each week; 12.Nicholson at the entrance to the garden; 13.Walking through the garden path among the flowers, 14. Working on his teepee inspired sculpture for an installation at Long House Reserve in East Hampton; 15.little wooden house he built himself is located next to the garden gate; 16. Nicholson uses computer printouts of his paintings to arrange the layout for the Hicksville space; 17 and 18. Nicholson’s studies are carefully measured and studied as he converts his paintings to working models for the glass panels.; 19. Always the colorist, Nicholson experiments with different color combinations. Photo Credits: Debbie Wells