This month’s “West Village Original” is artist Mary Vaccaro, who can regularly be seen painting on the streets of the neighborhood. Her meticulous, time-consuming paintings of the West Village contain both historical and religious aspects. A graduate of Cooper Union, Mary has lived for the past 25 years on Jane Street with her spouse, Christine. Her work can be seen at www.maryvaccaro.com.
For painter and sculptor Mary Vaccaro, drawing is something she has done since she was a child. “I always drew,” she admits. “Constantly drew, painted, and built things. I always carried a book and drew on the subways. In high school I painted on the ceiling in my art class. I used those things to get into Cooper Union and I got right in. It was the only school I applied to.”
Were her parents artists themselves? “No,” she replies. “My father, who is from Staten Island, had an electrical company. He wired a lot of Staten Island when it was being built up. He also restores antique cars, which can take years. That’s where I get my patience. My grandfather Vaccaro did paint for himself but for work he put marble in buildings, including the Chrysler Building.”
According to Vaccaro, Staten Island was still rural when she was growing up there and traveling into Manhattan was going into the “big city.” “When I was in high school,” she recalls, “I would come into New York almost every weekend; sometimes with friends, sometimes by myself. One weekend we’d go to the 57th Street galleries and another we’d spend in Soho. We’d go to the Met or the Whitney or the Guggenheim. That’s how I learned about art. I looked at everything and I liked everything: the Cloisters, Russian art, new art, old art.”So how did she come to paint street views? “It started when I had a job on Fifth Avenue and 30th Street,” she remembers. “My boss asked me to paint his view, which I did. Then my father said, ‘Why don’t you paint the view from your own window?’ So I painted my view of Jane Street, with the garage and a corner of the Guerin building. At that time the garage had broken windows and a lot of graffiti. It wasn’t as pretty as it is now. That was my first historical painting of the Village.” In doing so, Vaccaro’s intentions were twofold: to document what was truly there by not “prettying it up” and to add the kind of symbolism that painters of the past would. “Artists used to paint for either donors or churches and insert a story into the painting, such as a moral tale,” she explains. “I try to put those aspects in my paintings as well. You can walk through them, so to speak, and experience different things.”
Talking about how the neighborhood has changed since she moved here in 1984, Vacarro recalls, “It was a bit rougher; never dangerous or bad, but a whole different character. Three times our car window was broken into when we parked it on the street. At that time, I worked for Womenews on far West14th Street and that was a little dangerous coming home at night. Not only were the streets covered with gizzards and slimy leftovers from the meat market, but a lot of unsavory people hung around as well.”
“Everything changes so fast in the Village these days”, she continues. “I see people all day long on the corner when I paint. There’s still plenty of free spirits in the West Village but there’s also a lot of fancy people as well. They head to the meatpacking district. I can’t say it’s 100 percent a good thing but I also can’t say all progress is a bad thing either.” At the end of the day, though, Vaccaro wouldn’t live anywhere else. “I’m so lucky to be here,” she says. “For one thing, this neighborhood has great transportation and subway access. Granted, we’ve lost a lot of little shops, but I still love it.”
For Vaccaro, the vibrancy of the West Village lies not only in painting outdoors, but in the interactions with her neighbors as well. “It takes me a couple of years to do one painting,” she confesses. “Partly because I just keep going over and over the same things —which is how the details come out—and partly because I say hello to anybody who stops to chat. People have a lot to say and they become part of the whole process. It’s the people that really get me on the street. It’s great to be out, to be part of the Village, and to be part of the flow of things.”