Daily Record, July 1, 2013 Written by Ralph J. Bellantoni for Asbury Park Press
Artist Valeri Larko grew up in Lake Parsippany, captures visual poetry of places
Artist Valeri Larko has constructed a career from rusty buttresses and crumbling structures. For more than two decades, her oil portraits of industrial and urban outskirts have steadily grown in critical and popular regard.
"The landscape that attracts me is that of the city," Larko said. "More specifically, the fringes of the city -- abandoned and decaying structures, urban waterways and graffiti-laced walls -- where I find grit and beauty in equal measure."
In May, Larko returned to where the foundations of her success were laid. The 1983 graduate of the duCret School of Art in Plainfield gave the keynote speech at her alma mater's 2013 commencement ceremony.
"We've followed Valeri's career closely here at duCret," school director Frank Falotico said. "We like bringing alumni back who've excelled in the field to speak with the outgoing graduates."
Prior to the commencement, Larko and her husband, Peter, enjoyed dinner with Falotico and iconic feminist artist Joan Arbeiter, who has taught at duCret since 1978. Larko took courses in color theory and art history with Arbeiter and considers her a formative influence.
"I'm really a colorist -- that was a gift Joan gave me," the New York-based Larko said. "It was eye-opening, life changing. I still use what she taught me to this day."
In her keynote speech, Larko emphasized the importance of mentors. DuCret teachers and fellow students become enduring friends and allies in the often daunting pursuit of an art career.
"I've kept in touch with Joan since I graduated," she said. "She has come to my exhibitions in the past and has always been very supportive. I consider her a friend."
Arbeiter attended duCret during her own formative years, graduating from the Plainfield institution in 1971. She takes pride in the firm foundation of invaluable artistic skills the school's curriculum instills, so evident in her own and Larko's work.
"Valeri's style is devoted to the effects of light and formal structure," Arbeiter said. "Her major interest is form, and mine is content, but we both use color expressively."
"I learned solid skills at duCret," Larko added. "Since the school is small, each student gets a lot of one-on-one instruction from the teachers. The hard work pays off."
Larko knows plenty about hard work. She maintains a rigorous work schedule and rarely takes days off.
"I love what I do, love being out there painting," she said.
Larko stressed the importance of this point in her address to duCret's graduating class.
"If you do what you love, you will be wealthy beyond measure," she said. "This is one of the keys to a successful life."
Larko's dedication paid off in 2000, when she won a major commission from New Jersey Transit and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts for a set of four murals at the Secaucus Transfer Station's North Mezzanine. Her dramatic panoramas of historic trains streaking across northern New Jersey bridges represent an impressive triumph of her skill and vision.
Larko grew up in Lake Parsippany and lived in Jersey City for many years. She developed a rapport with the industrial parks, factories, highways and shopping malls that surrounded her.
"Each site has its own story to tell," she noted. "Through patient observation acquired over months of painting on location, I work to bring that story to life and capture the visual poetry of these places."
Larko has completed copious studies of production plants and industrial structures and spent more than five years painting twisted jumbles of wreckage at an active Hackettstown salvage yard. Scenery that most people consider eyesores, Larko invests with a radiant dignity.
"These paintings took on a life of their own," she recalled. "They changed from fairly straightforward depictions of mountains of junk to large abstract close-ups of crushed debris."
From a preliminary ink sketch to careful compositional study to months spent painting the final piece, Larko immerses herself in a locale by working exclusively on site.
"Painting on location is a crucial part of my process," she said. "I find out a lot of information by talking to people who work or reside there, which gives a richness of experience to the painting."
Working outdoors sometimes comes with drawbacks like uncooperative weather, nuisance insects and the occasional boorish intrusion of strangers.
"Some guys came over one time -- I think they were stoned out of their minds -- and one got fixated on what I was doing and came way too close," Larko said. "I had to scream at him to back off. I may be just 5 feet 2 inches tall, but I'm tough."
Most locals who notice Larko painting express polite curiosity. Some are thrilled at seeing their neighborhood memorialized on canvas, particularly when graffiti features in the scene.
"One day in the Bronx, a few guys pulled up and said, 'Wow, you're painting the graffiti,'" Larko said. "They asked whether I'd include their tags if they added them in, and I did."
Graffiti-laden scenes became a key theme in Larko's work after her move to New Rochelle, N.Y. A few of her recent pieces even include occasional figures in them -- a departure from her prior practices.
"Some of the street scenes simply screamed for figures in them," Larko said. "But people don't stand still, so I have to take pictures to get the figures and cars in."
While scouting for subjects in the Bronx during February of 2012, Larko discovered the Ferris, Stahl-Meyer meat-processing plant, which supplied hot dogs to all the New York area ballparks during its heyday. For more than a decade, the sprawling factory has been a graffiti mecca, thanks to the benevolence of company president Guillermo Gonzalez.
"He saw their art as a positive force, not vandalism," Larko said.
Larko began a small gouache and watercolor study of "Pink Wall" at West Farms Road while sheltering from the winter freeze by painting inside her car. In early spring, she began work on a finished oil painting, and gradually grew intimate with the characters and ambiance of the locale.
"People come from all over to see this building," she said. "It's a bit of an undergound secret."
Gonzalez approached Larko at her easel and expressed admiration for her work. He told her he had sold the building, and it would inevitably be demolished. This revelation lent urgency to Larko's efforts.
"This building, which covers half a city block, is a living museum of graffiti legends, and it's coming down," she said. "It goes beyond the graffiti. I see folks at this building every day doing some kind of creative work -- filming music videos, doing fashion shoots, taking photographs."
Larko has continued her work at the now boarded-up factory for more than a year, creating a series titled "A Bronx Block." Her paintings preserve the legacy of graffiti superstars Cope2, Indie, Buff Monster, Shiro, Tilt and others whose bold blasts of visionary exuberance appear fated for the wrecking ball.
"My goal is by the end of the year to have completely documented this building," Larko said. "I"m playing 'Beat the Clock' at this point."
A half dozen paintings from "A Bronx Block" appear in the exhibit "Exit the Freeway" at J. Cacciola Gallery in Chelsea, N.Y., through July 13. The closing reception takes place from 6 to 8 p.m. July 11.
Larko has crammed the three decades since her duCret tutelage under Arbeiter full with accomplishments. Her storied career testifies to both her talent, and a relentless industry that impresses her longtime mentor.
"She's amazingly strong, dedicated and prolific," Arbeiter said. "Valeri's darned work ethic is absolutely incredible."
EXIT THE FREEWAY
WHO: Valeri Larko and Trevor Young
WHERE: J. Cacciola Gallery, 537 W. 23rd St., New York
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, through July 13; closing reception 6 to 8 p.m. July 11
INFO: 212-462-4646; www.jcacciolagallery.com;