Painting by Ellen Brad Shaw depicting the last days of the Fulton Fish Market in the South Street Seaport.
Scenes from the old Seaport
By Chad Smith
In dozens of oil paintings, Seaport resident Ellen Bradshaw has documented Manhattans lonely street corners, old saloons, and the poetry of everyday life. In her new show, A Farewell Tribute to the Fulton Fish Market, she depicts the South Street Seaport during its last year Downtown in a series thats sometimes melancholy, though always intimate.
When I heard that it [the Fulton Fish Market] was leaving, I was just shocked, said Bradshaw as she readjusted a painting on the wall in her Chelsea gallery last Sunday. I needed to paint the Seaport as a way of recording history.
In late 2004, Bradshaw first heard the market was moving north to the Bronx; she then spent a year and a half photographing the workers and the market so she could recreate the scenes on canvas.
The paintings in her show, which opened on April 4th and runs at the Pleiades Gallery through the 22nd, reflect her signature style, a cross between realism and impressionism. Some resemble her older work, wherein Manhattans myriad pedestrians and taxi cabs melt away, helping the viewer better mediate the majesty of the city through its architecture. However, in a few paintings at this show, Bradshaw suggests a bustling human presence, a new approach that works well.
In M. Slavin and Sons, a painting named after the century-old, wholesale fish company, Bradshaw captures dockworkers unloading seafood and restaurant owners haggling with wholesalers, all of which occurs under a wash of bright lights. High-powered spotlights at the Fulton market were almost always on, because a workday there meant a midnight to 8 a.m. shift.
It was like being on a movie set, she said, speaking of her first, early morning visit to the market. Which is why Bradshaw, whose workspace is in the West Village, preferred taking photos first and painting later.
I dont think that the Fulton Fish Market, at its peak hours, is a conducive place for setting up an easel and getting to work. I mean, those guys are pretty rugged; they didnt even like being photographed.
The initial leers, however, didnt stop her from taking more photos, which led to paintings such as Closing Time, in which cleaning men push wagons after theyve mopped up the salty remains from the Seaports sodden floors. The painting is a private look into the daily industry of two men earning a living.
Raised in Rochester, N.Y., Bradshaw moved to Manhattan in 1982 to attend Pratt Institute where she studied illustration. After a stint in the acting and singing field, she realized her true calling after returning from a weekend visiting her parents in 1995. While away, her husband Joe, a stockbroker who works Downtown, brought some of her paintings to the Bridge Café with hopes of selling them.
When I got back from my parents house, he told me that all the paintings had been sold, she said smiling, as if the surprise were still fresh.
Often compared to Edward Hopper, who also drew inspiration from prosaic subjects, Bradshaw differentiates her work from his.
I do love him [Hopper]. His work is lonelier, but Ill take the compliment.
Ostensibly, Bradshaws cityscapes may suggest solitude, but they are really more of a celebration of New Yorks architecture and beauty. Im more influenced by the Ashcan painters, anyway, she said, in reference to the artists known for depicting New York City in all its grittiness at the turn of the 20th century.
For someone who loves Manhattan and its history, Bradshaw has found it difficult to see a place like the Fulton Market go.
Im going to miss the markets old New York heritage. It [wasnt] whitewashed. It [remained intact], save for some machinery, after a century and a half. I also loved the fact that something so historical stood side by side with such modernity.
So has she seen the new Fish Market in the Bronx?
No I havent, she says with a tone of someone spurned. I probably wont. Its supposed to be ultra-modern. It sounds just too antiseptic. Thats not for me.