Sag Harbor Artist Transforms Museum into Busy City Square

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A work-in-progress by Peter Solow featuring his mysterious muse, center, a re-working of a painting he did of his daughter many years ago.

By Mara Certic

As fall quickly approaches and crowds thin out across the East End, those craving the bustle of summer need only wander into the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum this weekend to find themselves transported to a busy Florentine piazza.

“City Square,” by artist Peter Solow, will be on display this month. Using cutting edge technology, Mr. Solow has reprinted his sketches, paintings and photographs to create a life-sized multimedia city square within the walls of the whaling museum.

Mr. Solow, a longtime art teacher in the Sag Harbor School District, has taken photographs and sketches that he took and made during trips to Florence over the years to create a wrap-around Little Italy on four walls.

Thanks to money from the Reutershan Trust, art students at Pierson Middle School and High School—and Mr. Solow—have had high-tech printers and scanners at their disposal. “Besides the “wow” effect of digital technology, how should one integrate it into traditional art-making,” Mr. Solow said. “That’s something I’ve been running around in my head for a while.”

He made his first proposal for the exhibition well over a year ago, but the idea for it has been around much longer than that. “It’s sort of an interesting exhibition in that there’s a whole bunch of different things going on at the same time,” Mr. Solow said in his art room at Pierson High School on Monday.

“When I was going to school in New York, one of the first pieces of art that really popped out at me, that really sort of resonated with me was a small piece by Giacometti of a city square,” he said. The figures in the Giacometti sculpture, he said, seemed to be there by fate.

“There have been a series of things since that time that built on that idea of that,” Mr. Solow said. When he first traveled to Italy he was fascinated by the piazzas, he said, which reminded him of a Walt Whitman poem he remembered really speaking to him in his youth. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Mr. Whitman addresses the reader directly, and refers to the shared past, present and future experiences of the Brooklyn ferry:

“Others will see the islands large and small;

Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,

A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,

Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide,” the poem reads in part.

On Mr. Solow’s first trip to Italy, he was particular struck by how old all of the open spaces, buildings and art were. “The fact that you walk on the same roads, it’s the past, the present, the future altogether,” he said, “It’s about the timelessness of what it means to be human.”

The other important theme of the show, Mr. Solow said, is the process of making art. “What this show is actually going to show is how, over a period of years, I make a painting,” he said. Mr. Solow has incorporated unfinished paintings, sketches, photographs and has revisited other works he has done into the final piece.

One panel has an unfinished painting he did of his daughter, Kathryn, when she was nine years old, overlaid with a sketch he did of a piazza in Florence during a recent trip. “What I started to do with the images was work back into them and create something else,” he said.

On another wall is a photograph of his daughter, now grown up, sitting in the Spanish Chapel in Florence, looking for a lunch spot on her cell phone. An abstract collage has been scanned onto the picture. His daughter, he explained, is a photographer herself, who introduced Mr. Solow to the art of incorporating painting and various forms of new technology into photography.

Mr. Solow tells all of his advanced photography students the same thing, he said: “Every picture you take is a self-portrait.” Another photograph included in “City Square” is a picture of Mr. Solow’s muse. He doesn’t know her name, who she is or have any idea what her face looks like, but the dark-haired woman in a black dress walking through a Florentine square has been his muse for the past 20 years, he said. “She has been the catalyst, since the early ’90s, for a whole series of paintings and drawings and all kind of stuff.”

The combinations of new and old images mirrors Mr. Solow’s feelings about the shared experiences of public places, he said. “I don’t want to say it’s autobiographic, because that’s not right. But it’s all about processes and experiences,” he said.

City Square opens at the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum at 200 Main Street on Saturday, September 20. For more information call the museum at 725-0770. 

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