Before SoHo Became SoHo-hum

th

At about the same time that Rosanna Arquette’s character was “Desperately Seeking Susan,” deep in SoHo, I was in the same neighborhood desperately seeking a new frontier. It was the mid-1980s, and for nearly nine years I bore witness to the once desolate streets paving way to packs of traipsing tourists elbowing me off my own sidewalks. SoHo was no longer my backyard, but becoming a brand.

I moved to Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, a mostly West Indian neighborhood that had taken root during “white flight” in the 1960s. On the corner of Washington Avenue, my once grand prewar building loomed with others along the Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux-designed thoroughfare, in dogged determination. They were up against the invading crack epidemic and race tensions between Lubavitcher Hasidic Jews (who also had a stake in the area known as Crown Heights), and the struggling black community. The exhilaration of uncertainty laced with creative potential zapped me almost the way it had fifteen years previous, when I first moved from the suburbs of Pennsylvania to a down, but not quite out, New York City.

(Ford to City: Drop Dead!)

Across the street I faced the splendor of the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, behind me were doberman pinschers on brownstone rooftops patrolling the drug dens below. I was sandwiched in between, and continued working in my sprawling apartment on my commercial illustration, delivering it to Manhattan clients in person via the IRT.

While SoHo was busy morphing from an art mecca to a shopping mall, there were some genuinely exciting moments, as street art and graffiti blurred with fashion, fame, music, and action. Inevitably, innocence soured into irony that girded the cast iron district, and Art and Commerce clamped together, squeezing out anyone and anything that could no longer survive or no longer wanted to.

images

But before the tipping point, living in SoHo was fun and thrilling. I was creating fashion art churned up by street energy and the music on my MTV.

(Beep Beep!)

black T, white jacket

1980 – Steven Meisel’s adult class

Ilsa - fabric collage - 72

Early 1980s – mixed media (fabric, paper, pastel)

Angst - 72

1980 – Steven Meisel adult class

 cut paper-pyramid.jpg

Miami Vice/Bowie influence (mixed media). And who didn’t have Wayfarer Ray Bans?

Ms. Skein - 72

Ms. Skein ~ Promo for Wool Council (mixed media)

Cut paper

Cut Paper

Hello - cut paper

Cosmopolitan Magazine job – mixed media (Cello-tak & paper)

 

All street photography snatched from the internet.

All art Copyright Sharon Watts

More links to SoHo street art:

The SoHo Memory Project

Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York

I AM THE BEST ARTIST

Advertisements

A Blair Affair

1980 - Blair in leather copy

In the late 1970s and early 80s, the punk scene in New York City was settling into a creative humus for artists of every ilk. Even if you didn’t frequent the Mudd Club, its vibe permeated the air and you absorbed it by osmosis. The era’s music dictated the creative arts: Patti Smith was high priestess in her white tattered T-shirts and skinny black jeans. Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine, she snarled in a plaintive three-note mantra. The very notion of “fashion” was tossed in a shredder and literally pinned back together. I was taking an evening fashion drawing class at Parsons School of Design, taught by Steven Meisel, my contemporary, an illustrator for Women’s Wear Daily (just before he went on to achieve superstardom as a photographer). In our very first class he cracked the whip and commanded: FUCK IT UP!  Which meant carving into the drawing pad with our pen as scalpel and excising whatever in our artist-psyches was pretty and polite and safe. Play up the dark, the extreme, the anti-fashion. That was all this “good girl” needed to hear.

Years later I am rediscovering my drawings from that class and remembering that time, along with my friends Michele and Robin. We agree on one thing: Blair was our favorite model. She was petite with short-cropped white-blonde hair and bee-stung red lips, and wore the best fashion retro-mix of anyone I’ve ever known. It was impossible to get a bad drawing of her, she was that good. We didn’t know at the time that she too was a talented artist. Thirty-three years later, Blair Thornley is a successful illustrator and animator whose art looks exactly how I would imagine it to. Wonderful, magical, uniquely Blair-like. Take a peek into her world HERE.

What I found in my attic:

Blair in overcoat 1

copyright sharon watts

Blair on Red - 72

copyright sharon watts

Blair - KPB style

copyright sharon watts

Blair in shorts - top

Blair in shorts - bottom copyright sharon watts

We drew on 18 X 24 pads, often still not getting the whole figure on. My drawings from this time don’t fit on the scanner, and despite Robin’s patient tutorial in splicing, I am still fumbling in Photoshop, lost in layers.

Blair on magenta

copyright sharon watts

Blair on blue

copyright sharon watts

Blair gesture 2&3

copyright sharon watts

Blair gesture 4

copyright sharon watts

Blair gesture 5

copyright sharon watts

blair contour

copyright sharon watts

***********************************************

Michele Wesen Bryant and I have almost identical drawings, since we were in the same classroom. She has gone on to teach and write, still at the cutting edge as she inspires and guides her fashion design students.  Her archival masterwork of Women’s Wear Daily art is collected in WWD Illustrated: 1960s — 1990s

MBryantBlair

copyright Michele Wesen Bryant

CLICK HERE for a post from Michele’s blog MORE FASHION DRAWING, where she shares more art and Steven Meisel stories.

****************************

Robin drew Blair in Richard Rosenfeld’s class at Parsons School of Design in the early 80s, just after Meisel got his first photography break. He never looked back. She and I hired models together in the 90s, but not Blair. By then she was on her own brightly-lit path. Robin is now a successful designer at Robin Read Art & Design.

robin_blair1

copyright robin read

robin_blair2

copyright robin read

robin_blair3

copyright robin read

The lean and mean street looks of the late 70s and early 80s billowed into the era of MTV, opening the doors for video to become the premier enabler of fashion extremism and celebrity-worship, with the Material Girl muscling her way onto the scene. Ironically, it was Meisel who took some of her earliest photos. Meanwhile, some of our classmates and models and other artist contemporaries were dying of AIDS.

CALLING ALL ANGELS.

all images copyrighted

Hopping The Pond @1984

This gallery contains 11 photos.

 In 1984, girls just wanted to have fun. And I just wanted to draw, dress up, and watch MTV. Lately I’ve been waxing nostalgic for an era that seems like just a few years ago, surely not the quarter century … Continue reading