Pablo Rivera Dinner with an Artist

I was born in the upper east side of Manhattan, New York City, known as Spanish Harlem.  I then left at age 4 to move to Queens, a more suburban area . My family had to take a bus then a train to get into Manhattan, the big city, so I didn’t visit it much until I was in college. I began my art interests,  like so many others, collecting comic books. Right off, my focus was on graphic style more than super heroes. I would spend hours mimicking one artist’s way of inking, very expressive, thick lines and dark shadows.

When I was around 8 years old I discovered an illustrated book in the library of the farm house my father shared with his brother in law. These were beautiful pen and ink drawings, all from turn of the century life styles.

I received the usual accolades from family about how nice I drew and painted, it meant a lot to me. I had no idea of the art world that laid only a few miles from my home.  The wonderful museums, galleries and schools  that made NYC a center of the art world.

I don’t remember who it was that suggested I try to get into The High school of Music and Art but I was all for it. My grades were good, my art was good, or so my aunt Josefita told me, so why not go for it.  Big awakening.  My father bought me a portfolio and I put  a lot of my drawings in it, drawings done on pieces of paper, some lined notebook paper, none in mats, no consistency of subject, but rendered at the best of my ability at that time.  Failure, rejected.  I saw how really well prepared other students were and how they presented their work.  It was disheartening but an awakening–I was not all that good.  In High school there were two teachers that introduced me to watercolor:  Dr. Steed and Joseph Almon.  They showed me books on Winslow Homer,  John Singer Sargent,  Andrew Wyeth and some minor names like Ted Kauztkey and Ogden Pleisner.  Wonderful stuff.

Before graduating from John Adams High school I applied to Cooper Union School of Art in Manhattan. My options were New York University or Pratt Institute, both of whom were costly tuition wise. I think I did apply for a scholarship to NYU.

I took the two weekends of tests and was accepted to Cooper Union.  Wow! This was very cool.  I knew this was going to be very hard, they traditionally lose a portion of the freshman class in the first few months. I inherited my father’s strength and work ethic and faced the challenge head on.  I was determined to get through this.

That first year was like someone dropped me on and alien planet, so much was new to me; I had so much catching up to do.  It was also wonderful.  I had architecture, drawing, lettering, sculpture, two and three dimensional design, not to mention art history.  I think I still hold on to all these possibilities of expression.  I find myself comfortably moving from one media to another to this day. I will go out with the intentions of taking photographs and find myself  shooting reference pictures for possible watercolors.  I’ll start sketches for a possible piece of stone or wood sculpture deciding the drawings are the full strength of what I want to say, and take it no further.  I think the variety of my art media comes from the schooling I had. I love to paint, draw, sculpt and photograph and don’t confine myself to only one expression.

I looked for a job in graphic design after graduating. Some of my buddies went to Yale Art School, a few won Fulbright scholarships to study abroad others did like I did and began working in agencies and studios. After three years at Fred Gardner Advertising I wanted to move on. I started freelancing as a designer and board man, doing comprehensives and some lettering. I lucked into an incredible freelance job with a very well known and giving designer, Paul Mayen, who also happened to teach at Cooper Union.  I started with doing comps but soon got involved in some of his three dimensional designs, mostly lighting. He developed a line of lighting fixtures with spheres and cylinders that were innovative at that time.  I did a mock up of one that hadn’t been produced, to show at an expo in Moscow.  He would spend his weekends at Falling Water, a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and bring in rolls of film he had taken there. He eventually designed an adjacent building to that house. I remember seeing so many known contemporary artist friends drop in for lunch with him.

Big change here–when I was drafted into the army for two years plus. The first eight weeks were really rough but I got sent to Army Security school in Massachusettes for six months then to a base near Nurenberg West Germany.  They had a small library but would get almost any books you requested.  I kept borrowing The Decisive Moment by Henri Cartier Bresson over and over.  Printed in gravure it was remarkable–great visual imagery.  He was able to capture that brief moment in time when things peaked, came together in a grand way.

The base had a really good darkroom available to us. Leitz enlargers and lenses and a manager, Kurt Schmoekle, that was very helpful.  I had photographs in a couple of shows in Germany during that time. My love for reportage photography almost got me arrested during a leave in Paris.  I heard what seemed to be a crowd chanting and marching down the Rue Des Ecoles late afternoon, grabbed my Leica and ran down the stairs of my hotel. It was an anti Degaul  demonstration that got violent. I followed the procession to Place De La Bastile where streets were filled with water from the fire hoses, there were some deaths there. My shooting was cut short by gendarmes grabbing me by the arms and taking me to a police van. I sat inside next to a man who insulted and spat on one of the gendarmes only to have his face punched by the cop.  I surely thought I was headed to jail.  The inspector, straight out of central casting complete with trench coat and hat, pulled me out of the van and asked for my film.  It was illegal to photograph such events apparently.  No problem.  I felt lucky to be asked to leave the area and to not come back.  No problem.  I still wonder what I might have had on that film.

I took advantage of cheap or free air flights to see Spain, Italy and some parts of Germany. I got to see great art up close.  I left the army in early ‘63, I believe.  My buddy, Carmelo asked me to drop in to see his family in the  Bronx New York when I got state side.  I met his sister, who I thought was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.  We dated, married,  had two sons and put up with all the craziness that comes with the passion of art.  I had a night time only darkroom set up in the Bronx where we started, this grew when we moved to New Jersey into a darkroom on one side and a stone carving shop on another side.

I attended classes in photography at the Educational Alliance in lower Manhattan Where I met a teacher, Michael DiBiase, who I feel was a mentor to me. The class was about darkroom procedures but he always took it further. He turned me on to sources of inspiration such as Jung and Joseph Campbell. His work was very spiritual, printed for the feeling and expression he was after.  He didn’t like the new snap shot aesthetic that was all the rage at that time.  He wanted us to use large format cameras and dueled on the velvety grays with details possible with this equipment.  Class ended at 10 pm but we reconnoitered across the street at the Sagamore cafeteria, sometimes til 1:00 A.M. in the morning. We talked about fine art photography and art. That school had visiting lecturers such as Jerry Uelsman and W. Eugene Smith and made a big difference in a lot of young photographer’s lives.

I had several shows in the NY area, one of which was very exciting for me. One of the few photographic galleries in New York had a Christmas show filled with some of the best contemporary photographers. I was asked to submit a piece.  I was also drawing from the figure most Monday evenings  at Cooper Union as an alumnus.  Drawing the figure has been a ongoing thing with me ever since school.

I seem to work at my sculpture in bursts.  There are times I have several pieces half way done and don’t return to them for a while.  It’s just my way.  I showed some pieces at MOCA several years ago, and I was involved in MOCA’s Artists studios at the beach project where tours came through to see how I worked.  Visitors got to see the drawing table where sketches were done, the outdoor workshop where I did the physical carving,  and I also had finished pieces on pedestals in the back yard.  It seemed to work well.

I worked for Superstock for some 40 years.  Again variety was the spice of my life.  I photographed just about everything for them, from people in lifestyle situations to food, to New York from a blimp.  In the later years I was asked to fill any downtime with “playing” in the studio to create graphic images that could be used for illustrations. You will see some of them here.  Great fun.


What am I after?

I don’t know if I will really find it, I think the search is the thing.  I can’t look at one of my finished pieces and not see at least one thing to change or improve.  I think local artist, Princess Raschid said it best when asked,  “When do you stop making adjustments to your paintings?”  She answered,  “When the check clears.”

I’m now heavily into watercolor, absolutely love the medium and love teaching it. I’ve grown interested in plein air painting and again some of these images are best made with oil paint so I am also painting in oil.  A friend has suggested trying etching, why not? It has a soft drawing look about it.

I owe a great deal of gratitude to several individuals who have had faith in me over the years.   They have given me the chance to advance my knowledge and skills in the different mediums I work in.


Pablo F. Rivera

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