Josette Urso: Unexpected

"I am more interested in chasing something down, discovering, working back and forth between observation and invention, representation and abstraction." - Josette Urso

  Beach Day,  2017, Oil on Canvas, Josette Urso

Beach Day, 2017, Oil on Canvas, Josette Urso

New York-based artist Josette Urso returns home to Tampa Bay, fall of 2017, with an assemblage of her newest works: dense, warm, romantic, evocative paintings that offer a view of a landscape that appears to fully unfold the more time spent with each painting. 

Well placed at the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg, Urso’s paintings showcase her self-stated approach to painting involving “ ‘moment-to-moment’ extrapolation where the contrasts and cross-fertilizations are cumulative, non-linear, free flowing and interpretive.”  Urso’s landscapes are not representative but contain recognizable forms and shapes. The paintings capture a state of in-between with the viewer and the artist’s physical environment. Her titles -Sky Walk, Beach Day, Amber Sea - allow the viewer to evoke their own connection with a favorite painting. 

Urso still considers Tampa home after being raised and educated there through graduate school, but resides in New York, and travels frequently creating new works. Her artwork is full of energy and movement, much like the artist herself. Urso is a full-time artist, and prepares her environment to maximize creativity. Her studio design allows her to bring the outside in for inspiration; she keeps a collage at the ready for work, on a day when interruptions are too frequent for painting. 

Urso is committed to her craft, presenting a full palette of color and rich artwork in each show I have had the privilege to view. St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts curator Robin O’Dell labeled the work unexpected when we were together in New York, and the term still fits for these new paintings. The Morean exhibition paintings are smaller in scale, allowing for easy shipping and a full gallery of artwork. I noticed lighter more whimsical elements than I observed in a more rushed viewing in NY - more of the unexpected. Just enjoy Boo, pictured below, and its light hearted imagery.

Urso has a demanding, one might say, enviable exhibition schedule. A hurricane - delayed opening featuring her paintings in St. Petersburg, Florida will be quickly followed by an opening of her watercolors in Germany, and another exhibition scheduled for January of 2018 in New York.

Here is an edited Q & A with Josette Urso as she answers questions about her artistic process, how location influences her work, her studio and more:

JC: I understand you have an amazing studio. Has it changed your work?

  Dragons Only , 2017, Oil on Canvas, Josette Urso

Dragons Only, 2017, Oil on Canvas, Josette Urso

JU: I live beyond Williamsburg on the L train, and have been out here for about ten years. I love everything about being here. The studio has had a huge impact on my work. I have walls of windows so the outside really comes in. Where I live is up on a hill, so the city swoops down; it is kind of big sky country. It is the experience of being out in the weather and in the city when I am inside. Being in here when things are happening outside is pretty amazing. 

Everything about the scale of the windows has really influenced the scale of my paintings.  When I was in my studio in Chelsea, I usually worked with my collages. I always work on several projects simultaneously and I did make some paintings based on invention. At the very tail end of my stay in Chelsea, I began to venture up to the roof and start some landscape paintings by responding to my immediate environment. 

Moving here, all of the sudden, everything about the thrust of what I was doing in the city changed. I was just very compelled to start working with my immediate surroundings. 

JC: I notice there are repetitive forms in this work, basketweave for example. Is there a particular impulse or meaning behind any forms?

  Heart Throb , 2017, Oil on Canvas, Josette Urso

Heart Throb, 2017, Oil on Canvas, Josette Urso

JU: I think it was just what came up in that moment, perhaps there were some wire sculptures hanging in my windows. These are very dense paintings, they are more textile in a way. 

JC: Is the work at the Morean Art Center a series, a full body of work? 

JU: A chunk of these (Morean) paintings were (painted) back to back to back. I don’t think in terms of series, more sort of an ongoing series.  I am working on paintings for a show in January. I am sure aspects of what I am thinking about now will feed into the next painting; I don’t let anything completely go. When I travel to the country and have been in the city, I always bring a little of the city with me and when I return I bring a little of the country, there is always a flow. 

I am constantly working. There is usually kind of thread in the pieces; often they are influenced by time of year. I am constantly absorbing the colors around me.

JC: You returned to Spain this year. Is this work the fruit from that time period? 

JU:  it wasn’t. I finished these paintings prior to going.  But Spain was really important; it was so interesting to go back this year. The first time I started working outside was in Spain. I arrived in ’93 or ’94 and my studio overlooked a wall. It was crazy to be inside when I was in this charming fishing village. I had been working on these small imaginary oil paintings at the time, and I thought the work would be a continuation of what I had been doing in the city but I was in a new place and working outside. I started to really absorb the place, the sounds in the harbor, the shapes of found cacti. Insects would walk across my paper and influence what I was doing. Everything about being outside started to work its way into my painting, just by chance, because I happened to be in that environment. 

My third trip there, in 2010, was when I reactivated my watercolor practice which is running parallel to my oil paintings. This summer in Spain, I worked on water color paintings outdoors. They are based very close to my oil paintings in terms of absorbing place, but not a picture of a place. I am more interested in the sensation of the overall place.  I am more interested in chasing something down, discovering, working back and forth between observation and invention, representation and abstraction. 

  Cascade Sea , 2017, Watercolor on Paper, Josette Urso

Cascade Sea, 2017, Watercolor on Paper, Josette Urso

JC: How does working outside differ from your studio? 

JU: In my studio I am looking out the window, but I am also painting indoors, so it is like indoor/outside. I am manipulating the near and the far. I hang things in the window, I make a lot of objects that I place around the studio, I have a lot of plants. So I am manipulating the space; I work very intuitively, my process is very exploratory and open ended. I can begin anywhere and end up anyplace. 

Even when I am painting outside. I am happy wherever I am plopped down; I am not one of these painters that agonize over what is the right place. Because I don’t know what I am going to find when I arrive, I guess I thrive on being as lost as possible during my process. I thrive on not knowing and looking for something. 

JC: I can’t take credit for stating your work as unexpected. Robin O’Dell, curator at the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg, characterized it when we were in New York. I do strongly agree with that element of your paintings. Particularly after having viewed two exhibitions this year. 

JU: I think that is why I paint a lot when I travel. It shakes me up a lot to be in a new place. Looking for that unexpected or finding a way to surprise myself. It is really good for my work to see the world for the first time. I like a location that is punctuated by human activity, not really as much about being just in the landscape, but something happening in the landscape. 

For instance if I am sitting by the river, I am painting and chasing, chasing, chasing something all day, and maybe a red kayak passes through, all the sudden I find something. It is that something happening, that something unexpected that comes and introduces itself in a very unexpected way. I like it when I am chasing something that is moving, not a still quiet. The surprise element that you can’t predict is what I thrive on. And you have to figure out how to use it, if it is useable. 

  Boo,  2010, Oil on Canvas, Josette Urso

Boo, 2010, Oil on Canvas, Josette Urso

JC: I really enjoyed the whimsical element in some of these paintings, the pumpkin and ghost? 

JU: Yes, that piece called Boo. It is all little objects that were in my studio. The little pumpkins; I like to put out little props. And that is humor, I am looking to surprise myself when I when working. I like to keep things wobbly and off kilter. I feel when the painting starts to make me laugh it is starting to become something. Looking for that surprise and wondering if I can get away with this has an energy and life to it. When that happened it was not something I would have ever predicted I would do, but it was just so right. It was something special. 

JC: When I was at your exhibition in New York earlier this year, the canvases were larger, perhaps a little more white space in the paintings. These are very dense, full of energy and exciting.

JU: I am always working in different sizes. Partially the reason we decided to show smaller paintings was because of the shipping. To pack a large painting is very risky, I am always working in multiple sizes. Usually for a show I mix them up a little more, so I have small and large, but the larger paintings are getting harder and harder to ship because they have thick paint. 

JC: I am curious about this show title, Josette Urso: More Than Before. A mutual friend, Marilyn Mars, suggested it means you feel you still have more to do. 

JU: It represents my ever expanding love of painting. But yes, definitely more to do, I like that. Painting becomes more demanding as you continue with it. The more you know, that you don’t know yet, the more you are discovering. 

JC: Again, in the New York exhibition I visited, your drawings were part of the show. I was really attracted to them. You said at that time, drawing played a big part in your painting process. 

  Daffodil Iris Tulip,  2017, Watercolor Shellac Brush Drawing, Josette Urso

Daffodil Iris Tulip, 2017, Watercolor Shellac Brush Drawing, Josette Urso

JU: I do make drawings along side the paintings. I don’t make drawings as preparatory sketches; but when I spend time drawing, I am much freer with painting. It gets me ready for the process of painting. Drawings require intense engagement with what I am looking at; it is pure engagement with the moment to moment experience. I especially love making them with ink, because ink cannot be erased. There is something important about spending time with that kind of intense time of engagement with the world. Drawing is seeing, seeing is knowing.

I am more disciplined with drawing when I travel; I do it every morning (sometimes I do collage) and switch to painting in the afternoon. Maybe because I know if I am in Spain for two months it is such a finite period and you want to get the most out of that experience;  the drawing helps me connect quickly to the place. 

JC: How does watercolor fit into your practice? Is it equally important? 

JU: Whenever I travel I work with watercolor. It is portable, I can take a lot of paper, it dries faster.  The paint is so luscious, I can layer and layer. They are easy to bring home; it has become my travel medium. The thrust of getting back into watercolor was an invitation for a show in 2010, titled Painting Paper

I had always worked in watercolor, but they felt different, more like my drawings. They didn’t have the exploratory quality of my paintings, but now it has become more important. I have a watercolor show opening in Germany.  I am toying with the idea of piecing papers together to make larger watercolors, somewhat similar to the way (Charles) Burchfield worked. But it has turned out for now, 12 x 13, was the perfect size. At some point I am going to start exploring larger watercolors. 

JC: I know you enjoy the dedicated time available for work in a residency. Have any residencies influenced your work in any particularly way? 

JU: This summer I had a residency in Steamboat Springs - a mono print residency with Oehme Graphics and a master printer. I made some watercolor mono prints that are larger in scale. That was very valuable. I feel like I had a very productive learning summer,  valuable experiences that are feeding my work. 

JC: You are a full time artist, and have always had the opportunity to be an artist full time?

JU: Yes, I do teach part time one night a week at Cooper Union. Occasionally I do a visiting artist job or a workshop, but the main thrust is being in my studio. I have a demanding exhibition schedule. As an artist you are very resourceful, there were many projects along the way, but always related to my work. It is like a gift, a wonderful gift. 

JC:  I like your  website design, very exploratory as is your art work. It gave me the sense you would prefer the viewer would discover your work for themselves.

  Zero to Eight , 2017, Oil on Canvas, Josette Urso

Zero to Eight, 2017, Oil on Canvas, Josette Urso

JU: Exactly! I hope the paintings unfold themselves. I find when I am making them, when I know less about them, and they really surprise me and when the painting is never quite settling, it is many different kinds of experiences. Then, it is the most interesting for me and I hope they do that for the viewer as well. 

Urso has shown widely in the United States and abroad in galleries, public institutions, and museums including the New York Public Library, the Drawing Center, and the Bronx Museum for the Arts. She has had numerous grants and residencies including those from the NEA, Basil H. Alkazzi and the Gottlieb and Pollock-Krasner Foundations as well as the Camargo Foundation, Ucross and Yaddo.

All images included are courtesy of Josette Urso studio. View her representation, contact information and upcoming exhibitions here: 


I try to give myself over to whatever it is.” - Josette Urso

Danny Lyon - Outlaw Photographer

"It is a very weird thing to be a photographer." - Danny Lyon

                                                                                   Three Young Men ,                                                                                              Danny Lyon

                                                                                 Three Young Men,                                                                                              Danny Lyon

The Tampa based Florida Museum of  Photographic Art (FMOPA) current exhibition: Danny Lyon: People presents an assortment of the artist’s photographs culled from The Ringling Museum of Art’s permanent collection. The collaborative exhibition showcases the Ringling Museum of Art photography collection and offers visitors to the FMOPA a body of photography work that represents the marginalized and outcast members of '50s and '60s American society. 

Lyon was "an examiner of American identity and community." He has been Identified as a "documentary photographer known for working in the style of New Journalism, an intensive immersion based approach to reporting, and is heralded as a vital contributor to 1960’s documentary photography and by extension 20th century cultural history."

 Danny Lyon   

Danny Lyon


As with all exhibitions, a curator or artist talk offers visitors a deeper understanding of the work beyond the viewers first impression. Chris Jones, Ringling Museum of Art Curator of Works on Paper, did not disappoint during a recent talk at FMOPA. Besides sharing perspective on Lyon as an artist; Jones detailed the societal impact of Lyon's photographs, which changed the flow of information and perspective on the civil rights movement. 

Lyon's was a student, then graduate, of the University of Chicago, when he became interested in the civil rights movement. Lyon's perspective on photography was as "tool to connect with people. You put a camera in my hand, I want to get close to people," he said. "Not just physically close, emotionally close, all of it. It is part of the process. It is a very weird thing to be a photographer."

He was the photographer of choice for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  Lyon followed the organization and was present at almost all of the major historical events during the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Once the movement's focus changed from forms of protest, to voting rights and voter registration, Lyon moved on to his next subject. 

Jones presentation elaborated the role Lyon's photography in magazines such as Life, along with other photographers of the era, illuminated the Civil Rights Movement and other causes. Jones explained, "Photography was used to present causes and issues like the Civil Rights Movement. Images had become as important as the written word; magazines like Life were designed to be read through quickly. The photographs were being presented as photo essays." (Photo essays are groups of photographs, of the same subject on a page, often with little text.) "These photographs gave visibility to issues people did not see in their everyday life."

  The Bikeriders , Danny Lyon   

The Bikeriders, Danny Lyon




Lyon's subject matter changed from Civil Rights to a new disenfranchised community during the mid '60s. Continuing with his New Journalism style of photography, Lyons became a member of the Chicago Outlaws motorcycle club; he traveled with them, shared their lifestyle and documented their activities. Lyon self- published his Outlaws motorcyclists photographs in The Bikeriders. According to Lyons, "the photographs were an attempt to record and glorify the life of the American bike rider." The photographs were very popular. 

Yet another interesting fact offered during the presentation by Jones, who displayed an in-depth knowledge of the era: the Outlaws moniker originally came, not because of society's label, but because they did not respect the rules and regulations of the motorcycle association.

Lyon's photographs were influential, he continued to use his camera to connect the public to subjects that interested him as an artist.  As the decades went on he continued to publish more books: documenting prison life in Conversations with the Dead; photographing and publishing the large scale demolition of lower Manhattan, and the aftermath, under the title The Destruction of Lower Manhattan. The FMOPA exhibition photographs include Lyon's photographs from Chicago. These images feature "deadpan" faces, similar to the straight on presentation seen in Farm Security Administration photographs. The Chicago portraits again document the plight of the improvised and disenfranchised: migrants from the south seeking employment in Chicago. 

He stated, "No one else is going to tell the story for them." 


Danny Lyon:

Perhaps like me, you were not aware the Ringling Museum of Art had a photography collection, let alone one large enough to warrant a Works on Paper Curator. Jones stated, "while the museum had photography works for a long period, during the last decade or so it has been bequeathed additional works including the Danny Lyon photographs." 

The exhibition will be on view through June 30, 2016 at the Florida Museum of Photographic Art in Tampa. 

Some photos courtesy of:  Edwynn Houk Gallery,, and Magnum Photos; Gift of Sally Strauss and Andrew Tomback, 2012, Collection of The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art


Please be careful when walking through this artwork...

We have much more in common than we think. Borders, flags, nationalities are more an invention than a real thing. Art has a tremendous capacity to build bridges between us. - Jaume Plensa
  Speak No Evil , Jaume Plensa

Speak No Evil, Jaume Plensa

Please be careful walking through this just might love it.  

This title phrase belongs to the Tampa Museum of Art artist label for Jaume Plensa's, Silent Rain, pictured near the end of this post. The "you might love it" is mine. Indeed, I am sure most visitors to the museum will enjoy this artwork. Gauging by social media posts, many visited the show over Valentine's Day weekend. I am excited this artwork is here.

The show is Jaume Plensa: Human Landscape. Jaume Plensa is a Spanish artist, born in Barcelona, internationally known and recognized. He has created artwork related to the human figure, immense in scale, that is and has been exhibited around the world in public spaces and museums.  His sculptures, some of those that are immense in scale, are positioned inside and outside the Tampa Museum. Plensa's artworks feature "multilingual text-based imagery and the simple human form — which he calls a funny kind of container — to create a universal visual language that hurdles cultural boundaries and unites people around the world."

Plensa believes his sculptures "act as respites within their surroundings;  conduits for meditation and reflection. I've always tried to generate silence in my work. We are in a noisy period of time, we hardly know if our words are our own or just an echo.  He dreams of someone standing in front his work and not necessarily seeing a sculpture, but seeing themselves reflected so that they must turn inward and begin to search for beauty there."

  The Soul of Words 1 , Jaume Plensa

The Soul of Words 1, Jaume Plensa

The artwork included in the Human Landscape titled exhibition may be exhibited indoors or outdoors depending on the venue environment and public spaces.  At the Tampa Museum, visitors can engage with some of the artwork whether the museum is open or closed.

I first saw this work last summer in Nashville's Frist Center for the Visual Arts, part of a cross-city exhibition of his work. Plensa's See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Speak No Evil  were on view and contained in a smaller space than allowed at the Tampa Museum. I wrote: "Jaume Plensa's figures stole most of my attention.  Large in scale, some pieces over seven feet high, his sculptures are transfixing. The three immense figures are illuminated and superimposed with representative words. The effect was alternatively distressing and transformative, certainly mesmerizing." At the Tampa Museum there is more room to explore these figures, even space for seating. Visitors are encouraged to consider how unwilling we are "to say the right words....How many times our mouth is not saying the word that we would have said, our eyes cannot express our real intentions, or our ears are sealed to listen..."

Here, where all of the works are together, the next room contains Awilda and Irma, a consideration of outer and inner beauty. These  immense stainless steel "mesh" sculptures were placed in a pond at the Cheekwood Botanical Gardens in Nashville.  At the Tampa Museum, visitors can touch the sculptures. Rub them and you will  feel the vibration of the metal.

  Awilda and Irma , Jaume Plensa

Awilda and Irma, Jaume Plensa

Rubbing the sculptures was a tip passed on by the guard on duty, who was enjoying the artwork as much as the visitors. He carefully dusted the nose of this artwork, and moved over to gently untangle the words of Silent  Rain.

He offered as much insight as a docent, sharing with us the viewing tips for Silent Rain, the first in a series of works in which Plensa combines poems into curtains of vertical lines of text. Before you explore the artwork, pictured below, note the text is not the horizontal, left to right format of Western tradition, but rearranged in vertical strands of letters "seemingly falling down like rain drops."

  Silent Rain, Jaume Plensa

Silent Rain, Jaume Plensa

The guard shared you must read from the top left, down and continue over to the right. The words are continuous and flow through multiple languages: English, French, German, Macbeth, Italian and Spanish. Visitors can walk through the strands of words, challenge their reading skills and see the reflection of words against the floors and walls.

As we walked on, I wished I had captured the name of the guard; he was a wonderful ambassador for the museum. The entire museum staff seemed engaged in this exhibition. The front desk noticed my camera and encouraged me to photograph the artwork.

I believe the new Tampa Museum director, Michael Tomor, has brought new energy,  new life to the museum. A recent acquisition,  Simply Beautiful,  a mixed media installation of flowers and bicycle wheels which engage by motion detector - produced by Mabel Poblet Pujols - has livened up the lobby and the gift shop was bustling. It feel alive in there. I renewed my membership.

The exhibition of Plensa's artwork is beautiful. It is touchable, engaging, understandable and conveys a wonderful message. Perhaps it is particularly germane for today's sometimes contentious times.

I leave you with the artists words:  "I don't feel you have to travel thousands of miles to understand human beings. I guess the most important thing is to try to understand yourself first, then you can probably understand others much better. We have much more in common than we think. Borders, flags, nationalities are more an invention than a real thing.  Art has a tremendous capacity to build bridges."

Nashville - It's Not Just Music...

 The Frist Center for the Arts

The Frist Center for the Arts

Nashville and music are nearly synonymous. During my last visit, I toured the amazing (I know it is overused, but it fits) Ryman Theater - Home of the Grand Old Opry  - also known as the Mother Church, where it all started.  I have great appreciation for supporters keeping open that historic site of music history, but I was ready to see what visual arts Nashville had to offer and I was not disappointed.

Staying on the preservation tour: The Frist Center for the Visual Arts. The Frist Center -  the former Downtown Nashville post office and a Nashville architectural treasure from the Art Deco period - showcases regular visual art exhibitions. For those interested in its architecture and the Art Deco period, it also offers a regular Saturday Architecture Tour or an audio tour.

But it was the art I was after. My visit coincided with a fashion exhibition: Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945. It chronicles the birth and growth of the Italian fashion industry from the post-World War II recovery years to the present day. 

The show did an excellent job of juxtaposing film with the fashions displayed on dress forms and bringing the exhibit to life. The actual dress, worn by Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, was paired with video from the film. Audrey Hepburn dancing in the film, showed the movement of the actual dress positioned in front of me.  I ended up walking the whole show; it was very good. Without the video, it could have been much less interesting.

But it was Human Landscape, an second exhibit of Jaume Plensa 's figures which stole most of my attention.  Large in scale, some pieces over seven feet high, often illuminated, his sculptures are transfixing.  Housed separately in a large room, three immense figures, internally illuminated, representing See no Evil, Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil were superimposed with representative words. The effect was alternatively distressing and transformative, certainly mesmerizing.

While not walking distance from The Frist, Nashville has it's own downtown 5th Avenue of the Arts. There are several galleries and an Art in the Arcade building, housing artists studios. The Art in the Arcade is only open fully for the First Saturday Art Crawls. Three galleries are close together across from Art in the Arcade, allowing a visitor to see a number of different artworks in a short period of time.

The Arts Company gallery space  is well staffed with engaging employees. I think for most visitors the artwork would appear the most accessible of the three galleries. It was full of interesting work. The featured artist was Charles Keiger, an important  artist based in Atlanta. John Petrey's sculptural dresses of found objects, including aluminum siding were particularly captivating.

Two other exhibits of artwork by Daryl Thetford and Jorge Yances filled the space. Thetford's photo collage's felt very Nashville, guitars and music scenes, though he hails from Chattanooga. I have since seen more of his pieces and they are very diverse, sometimes immense in scale. Very likable. The Arts Company is a visitor friendly gallery, full of work without being overcrowded,  and showcases artwork at competitive prices. 

A few doors down are the Rymer Gallery and Tinney Contemporary. Both, at the time I was there, featured artwork at higher price points. The Tinney Contemporary had a large exhibition of Lyle Cabajal works, a multimedia artist. The exhibit included a large installation piece which was very interesting. This is a very contemporary gallery space with good works.

The Rymer Gallery also had a number of contemporary pieces, including several wrapped and set aside for sale. Always good to see artwork going out of the gallery to new homes. The staff was very engaging and offered a lot of knowledge about the variety of artists represented. It also carries Herb Williams, a now nationally known Nashville - based artist, creating artwork using crayons as his medium. Excellent. Both of these galleries were very nice to discover.  

I wanted to come home and tell Tampa artists to raise their prices. All worth a visit.