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Artist Valeri Larko

Valeri Larko is best known for her densely painted landscapes of the urban fringe, all of which she paints on location. She is attracted to the decaying and abandoned buildings, aging infrastructure, industrial sites and urban waterways that populated the outskirts of America’s urban centers and the stories these places tell about contemporary life and culture. Larko started painted urban landscapes on site when she moved to Jersey City shortly after finishing art school. In 2004 she moved to New York, where she continues to explore and paint the ordinary and overlooked environs of the outer boroughs of New York City. A large painting can take the artist 2-3 months to complete on site. Due to the changing light, Larko works on one painting in the morning and a second one in the afternoon. In winter she paints small canvases from the relative comfort of her car. Larko has been painting in this manner for over three decades.

Valeri Larko’s paintings have been exhibited in museums and galleries in the US and Europe. Solo exhibitions include Sugarlift Gallery, NYC, Susquehanna Art Museum, Harrisburg, PA, Bronx Museum, NY, Lyons Wier Gallery, NY, WallWorks NY, Bronx, Hampden Gallery, University of Amherst, MA, Montserrat College of Art, Beverly, MA, The Morris Museum, Morristown, NJ, The Hunterdon Art Museum, Clinton, NJ, The New Jersey State Museum, Trenton, Safe-T-Gallery, Brooklyn, NY, Bronx River Art Center, NY, The College of New Rochelle, NY and the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, Summit.

Notable group exhibits include The Bronx Museum, NY, Fleming Museum, Burlington, VT, Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH, Lehman College Art Gallery, Bronx, NY, Addison Ripley Fine Art, Washington DC, Talon Gallery, Portland, OR, Barbara Frigerio Gallery, Milan, Italy, Stockton College Art Gallery, Galloway, NJ, The Katonah Museum of Art, NY, The Jersey City Museum, The National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC, Aljira, a center for contemporary Art, Newark NJ, Bruton Street Gallery in London, England and the American Embassy in Minsk, Belarus.

In the fall of 2000 Valeri Larko was awarded a major mural commission from New Jersey Transit and the New Jersey State Council on the arts for the Secaucus Transfer Station. She painted four murals for their north mezzanine. Completed in August of 2003, the Secaucus Transfer Station is the largest train station in the state of New Jersey. Additional honors include grants from Anonymous Was A Woman, The Joyce Dutka Art Foundation, the George Sugarman Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts Strategic Opportunity Grant, New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship and an Artist in Residence Fellowship from the Newark Museum. Ms. Larko’s work is in the collections of the Jersey City Museum, The Montclair Museum, The New Jersey State Museum, Johnson and Johnson, Rutgers University, Hudson County Community College and a number of other significant organizations.

Valeri Larko grew up in Lake Parsippany and lived in Northern NJ most of her life surrounded by endless miles of industrial parks, highways and shopping malls all of which have contributed to her fascination with the built environment. She was educated at the Du Cret School of the Arts, Plainfield, NJ and the Arts Students League, New York City, In 2004, Valeri moved from northern New Jersey to an artist loft building in New Rochelle, New York where she lives with her husband and their pit bull Tula. She continues to explore the fringes of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens.

"For most of my career I have been fascinated by the built world and in particular the jumble of rusting industrial sites, aging infrastructure and funky waterways that populated the outskirts of America’s urban centers and the stories these places tell about contemporary life and culture.

All of my urban landscaps are painted on location. I spend hours roaming around an area until I find something that resonates with me. Once I do, I set up my easel and return to a site many times. A large painting can take up to three months to complete. The process of painting on location over a long period of time is crucial to my working method because it allows me to form a deeper connection to a particular place through careful observation and personal interaction with the people I meet there. While talking to people in the area, I learn a lot about the sites that I am painting. I find that this interaction, both with people and the environment, makes the method by which I work as important as the final painting.

Although my paintings are very detailed, I am less concerned with reproducing an exact documentation of a scene and more interested in capturing the spirit of a place.

For the past 18 years I have been painting on location in the outer boroughs of New York City, primarily in the Bronx, but also in Brooklyn and Queens."

Tell us a little about yourself and your background in the arts.

I was born in Freeport, NY and moved to New Jersey when I was three years old. Like most kids, I loved art. I also loved history and although I didn’t realize it at the time, but these two interests would come to form the basis of my work. I went to a very small art school, DuCret School of the Arts in Plainfield, NJ and after graduating I continued my studies at the Art Students League in NYC. While in school, I preferred painting from life whether from a model, a still life or painting at some scenic location with my friends when classes weren’t in session. I moved to Jersey City after finishing my studies and I thought what am I going to paint now? Jersey City is surrounded by industrial parks. I began exploring them, set up my easel and started to paint. Moving to an urban environment right out of art school had a profound effect on my career. I doubt the built world would have grab my attention so forcefully otherwise. Regarding my love of history, one of the main reasons I paint on location is to learn more about the places I paint, being on site for an extended period, I meet people who live and work in these areas and I love hearing their stories. Learning the history of these sites makes my painting experience much richer. I’ll often do more research online. I consider myself a visual storyteller. Uncovering the history of these sites makes painting on location a deeply rewarding experience.

What kind of work are you currently making?

Right before the pandemic I was working on a series of paintings that I called “Sign of the Times”, lots of billboards and other scenes that were a cultural sign of the times. When the pandemic hit, many things were shut down, but painting in the city became easier than ever. There was also an explosion of graffiti, while the world sheltered in place, the graffiti writers took to the streets and were having a grand old time. Early on, I did smaller works with graffiti in them and then in 2021 I started painting in a weird area next to Bridge Park in the Bronx hardly anyone visits. One of the only benefits of pandemic, was that my husband starting working from home which allowed me to go further afield to paint without worrying about getting back in time to walk our dog, Tula.

Currently I’m continuing to paint along the Harlem River in the Bronx. I’m working on a large painting of the University Heights Bridge and a smaller one of an obsolete cement plant next to the river.

What is a day like in the studio for you?

On an average day, when the weather is co-operating, I’ll make lunch, pack up my paint mobile, aka my car, and head out to paint for the day. Because of the changing light, I work on one painting in the morning and a second on in the afternoon. A large landscape can take me up to three months to complete. On rainy days, I catch up on art business stuff and/or paint in the studio. I do 90-95% of my painting on location, but I will do small adjustments in the studio. Because there’s so much illumination outdoors, I have to make sure the paintings look as good indoors as they do outdoors; that requires adjusting values to make sure the paintings look good in exhibitions and collector’s homes. I also add color to the transition areas from light to shadow often with a complimentary color.

I’m active in the winter too, whether it’s driving around exploring new areas to paint, painting small works from the relative comfort of my car, or adding finishing touches to studies I did in the warmer months. For all my major paintings, I do a quick color study first. These help me decide on composition and what size canvas to stretch. In the winter, I go back to those loose studies and add more details, using the large completed painting as reference. This is why I call my studies “Finished Studies”.

What are you looking at right now and/or reading?

Over the past year I’ve been exploring sites along the Harlem River in the Bronx. There’s an area along the river next to Bridge Park hardly anyone visits except for a few locals and sanitation workers. From this underutilized area, there are beautiful views of the historic bridges; High Bridge, Washington Bridge, and Hamilton Bridge as well as, oddities like pilings the parks department stores next to the river. It’s also full of urban wildlife and I’ve always been interested in the way nature and the built world interact on the edges of the city. Currently, I’m continuing to paint along the Harlem River in areas that are often overlooked or ignored. I’ve painted in some very odd places, quirky has always caught my eye, so I continue to be intrigued by places most people wouldn’t look twice at. These fringe areas hold stories of the world around us, what we build, what we destroy, what we value, and what we try to ignore.

Currently I’m reading “Ninth Street Women” by Mary Gabriel. It’s a history of five ground breaking women artists and what they had to go through to make it in a male dominated art world in the 1930’s -1950’s. While there are more opportunities for woman artists now, there’s still a long way to go.

Where can we find more of your work?

The best way to see what I’m working on now is to check out my Instagram account. I regularly post my work in progress, along with funny anecdotes about painting on location. My IG is @valerilarko.

My website is an archive of my career, both recent work and past history.

My paintings are represented by Sugarlift Gallery, NYC. This past January I had solo exhibition called “Hidden in Plain Sight”

I also exhibit with Talon Gallery, Portland, Oregon.

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