Ray Curran knows the Hudson River as few others do: Formerly senior planner for Scenic Hudson, he has studied many of the communities along its shores and extensively kayaked its waters. That knowledge gives an added depth to “Icons of the Hudson River: An Artistic Journey along Henry Hudson’s Route from New York Harbor to Albany,” an exhibition of Curran’s watercolor paintings in the lobby of the Mid-Hudson Valley Federal Credit Union building, located at 1099 Morton Boulevard in Kingston.
Since retiring from Scenic Hudson in 2009 (he now works as a consultant to the environmental organization and others), Curran has devoted himself full-time to watercolor painting, working out of a third-floor studio in Kingston’s Shirt Factory. He has shown his work numerous times, but the paintings in the current exhibition achieve a new mastery and maturity, in which his style, technique and subject matter fuse beautifully. The 20 large paintings, which portray a series of scenes from New York Harbor to Albany, each accompanied by a detailed text explaining the history of the various icons, will interest the historian and river aficionado as much as the art-lover.
From the replica of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon sailing in front of the lower Manhattan skyline, dominated by the Freedom Tower, in a spot near where the original explored the harbor, to depictions of the river’s lighthouses to a tug and barge traveling upriver in front of the Palisades to a cluster of iceboats at Tivoli Bay to the Rip van Winkle Bridge, the Dutch-style tollbooth and a distant glimpse of Olana, as seen from a car traveling from Catskill toward Hudson, Curran chooses his motifs with an eye to their aesthetic as well as historical resonance. In his riverscapes, often painted from the viewpoint of the kayaker, in which the waters look immense and lighthouses soar dramatically skyward, the natural and manmade features conjoin, harmonizing and playing off each other.
Curran, who grew up in Maine, earned a degree in Architecture from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC and a Master’s in Urban Design from the Pratt Institute, and worked as an urban planner and designer in London and Paris – in Europe the two disciplines were never separate, as they were in the US – spoke to Almanac Weekly’s Lynn Woods at the exhibit:
How do you balance kayaking the river with painting? What is the relationship between the two?
I’ve found it’s best if I don’t paint 12 months of the year in the studio, because I have an evolving need to renew and refresh and rethink. Starting in June through September, I’m outdoors. There’s nothing more inspiring than to be outside and feel the shadows, movement and light. I paint plein air at least three to four times a week. I’ve tried painting from my kayak, but it’s difficult, and mostly I paint from shore. I make large numbers of quick sketches and take photographs from the site. It’s a very important way of developing my understanding and real appreciation of the tremendous richness of the world I’m interested in painting. I also do a lot of traveling and look at other people’s work and get inspired.
From October through March, I paint in my studio. By the end of the summer I’ve identified what will be the major area or topic of my focus in the studio. The summer of 2013 was the Hudson, and this work comes from that. If I don’t break up the year into different types of experiences, I lose my inspiration and drive.
What is the relationship of photography to your painting?
I take several photographs and recompose them to work as a painting. Working en plein air also helps me create a painting, rather than copy a photograph. Painting has different parameters than photography. It’s about the structure, design, composition and light and dark.
Do any of the scenes have special significance to you?
I was involved [as a planner] in some, including the scene showing Philipse Manor Hall, with the restored Saw Mill River in the foreground, located in Yonkers. I was involved in the preliminary planning stages of the “daylighting” of the Saw Mill River. It’s pretty awesome, considering that the river ran through a culvert under a parking lot. Three years ago, it was restored.