Artist eyes Holyoke
Posted on October 4, 2017 at 7:08 AM Updated on October 4, 2017 at 7:13 AM
Ray Larrow looked out of his wall-sized studio window. Down below, one of Holyoke's canals flowed slowly beside Race Street. Across the canal, a brick mill was covered in ivy, and on a slither of grass, red, blue and white chairs edged the black water. It was beautiful, the stuff of paintings.
"But it's an illusion," said Larrow, a painter who was born and raised in the Paper City. "There's no one living there."
So instead of focusing on this stunning scene, Larrow waited for the city to drain the canal, and, in his painting, he drained the color, the reds of the bricks and greens of the grass and ivy. He fixated on the mucky canal bed, where a stone passage, black and empty, passed under the mill, once rushing with water that turned massive turbines and charged the now empty factory.
"I try to envision hundreds of workers in these windows," he said. "These were active mills. People coming and going, trucks unloading. ... It's still so beautiful, but it's empty."
This ambivalence - the beauty and the loss - comes through in Larrow's paintings.
In the showroom of his studio, you see the beauty and the history of the city - the pristine nature of Ashley Reservoir, the power of the Holyoke Dam, the New England folksiness of the Yankee Pedlar - while being confronted with its barrenness, like a city baseball field covered over in weeds. "Kids don't play there anymore," he said of that painting.
Another painting shows a more personal loss, although you wouldn't know it. It shows a parking lot with a hill of white snow saturated with gray where it touches the pavement. In the background stands a vacant one-story building.
"This was a ShopRite," he said of the building that stands next to the Kmart on Route 5.
"These were the two doors that the lot attendant would push all the carriages through," he remembered. "And as a child I was enamored of them. It was like a magical portal that all these carriages would come through."
In the painting, that childhood portal is covered with plywood.
Larrow, who's 40, recently moved back to Holyoke after spending years away in Chicago, Boston and Dallas. "Having moved back three years ago," he said, "things haven't exactly gotten better."
Sometimes, Larrow tries to remove himself - his history, experiences and opinions - from selecting his subjects. To do this, he uses a website called random.org to randomly select a coordinate that he then searches out, and paints.
"Randomness and chance is a remedy for me gravitating to the usual suspects in the city," he said.
He also uses an alarm on his phone that rings at random times, and he photographs whatever's in front of him, painting it later in his studio.
In his day job, he works at Amherst College, painting rental properties for faculty. One of his random paintings depicts him and a co worker in a bathroom. You can see Larrow in the mirror snapping the photo with his cell phone.
"He has no idea what I'm doing," he said of his coworker who stands with his arms crossed. "I told him, 'Oh, you might be in a painting.'"
These random paintings surprise the viewer with their un-artsiness.
"It isn't something you'd give to your grandmother on her 90th birthday to hang in her dining room," he said.
Other paintings also focus on atypical subjects, like one of the facade of the Sears store at the Holyoke Mall at Ingleside. Larrow painted it after Sears announced the closing of some 200 stores, not including the Ingleside store. "I started thinking about the Sears' catalogue and how that was the Internet," he said.
Every time they say they are closing more stores, he immediately checks Holyoke's. "Because I love Sears," he said. "And I'm waiting for them to close this one."
The painting is a sort of tribute, in mourning. In crude brush strokes, the bare facade is broken by dark passages leading into the department store. The name, "Sears," is smeared over the entrance and seems to be washing away.
You see this cynicism in much (but not all) of his work, a tone that challenges more hopeful pictures of the city. He said people often talk about the arts taking off in Holyoke, "but I don't see artists coming here," he said. "At the moment, that's a little inaccurate."
Yet, his skepticism is not fatalistic, and bleakness is often tempered by beauty. "It's gorgeous here," he said, continuing to look out his window. "If this was in Providence, Rhode Island, you'd be paying 10 times what I'm paying."
He pointed above the mills to the Gothic steeple of City Hall, which rose above the rooftop, and beyond that to the Catholic spires of Mater Dolorosa Church. The canals run between it all.
"There's something about these canals that are hypnotizing," he said. "If you looked up and down the East Coast, you'd be hard-pressed to find any industrial city with this unique design."
He said he could see shops and cafes filling in the empty places along those canals. "It could happen," he said. "It doesn't have to be like this. It's so beautiful."
That love and hope and frustration exist together in Larrow's work, leaving any easy understanding of the city obscured in a haze.
"It makes me think a lot about what it means to be a Holyoker," he said.