Night Paintings: Barges, Tugs and Tankers

Ellen Kozak

My studio in New Baltimore, New York sits directly on the west bank of the Hudson River. During the Covid lockdown I moved from my studio in New York City to New Baltimore. I had never experienced living upstate year-round. Throughout the twenty-five years I have painted beside the Hudson, I have observed many activities and phenomena at the river’s edge. In recent years this has included the escalation of commercial river traffic as the Hudson is becoming re-industrialized. The passage of barges, tugs and tankers is particularly stunning at night when the reflected lights from these vessels illuminate the river. The drama of these nighttime scenes combined with moonlight and atmospheric conditions inspired me to begin a series of night paintings that I have been working on since March of 2020. In addition to the constant presence of the barges, tugs and tankers, a dredging ship docs beside a cluster of barges opposite my studio throughout the early winter months to disgorge its dredging spoils onto the manmade island directly across the river. The shipping channel depth has to be maintained. This rig so brightly lit up at night resembles images I’ve seen of oil rigs or fracking sites. Light pours into my studio, the scene is mesmerizing. Phantasm-like, the otherworldly illumination also inspires my ongoing series of night paintings. My paintings focus on visual contrasts, illumination and the rhythm of motion, pattern, and color. They are abstract and without horizon. I use the water’s surface as a giant aquatic lens that assimilates reflection, color, and pattern. Many of its intrinsic properties such as: stillness/turbulence; luminous/dark; transparent/opaque suggest painterly equivalences. Water and oil paint share properties of viscosity. I explore paint as a mimetic medium; it has an honest relationship with my subject. The reflections from the river’s surface allows one to see activity from above, the movements of clouds; fog; celestial events; and on the Hudson, tankers transporting crude oil and barges carrying contaminants to be deposited in the upper river estuary. The Covid lockdown thrust me into a continuous and extended quarantine on the bank of the Hudson from which my new paintings continue to develop. My paintings are based on the perception of natural and manmade phenomena. The physical presence of the river in my daily life and work over the last year and a half has inspired an identification with the river as a living organism, not only as an artist but as a steward. I was a founding member of Riverkeeper’s Leadership Council, and now serve on Riverkeeper’s Board of Directors.

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