For almost five months, one of the busiest intersections in New York City has been transformed — by the unlikely medium of 800 used paper coffee cups hung from fishing line — into an enchanted cleft in the canyons, a place of visual delight and surprising tranquillity.
How the city looks and feels — and why it got that way.
The cups, on which the artist Gwyneth Leech has drawn or painted vibrant graphic patterns and imagery, fill the glass-enclosed “prow” at the base of the Flatiron Building, on 23rd Street, between Broadway and Fifth Avenue. Suspended in space, they move gently, too, as heat currents rise from the floor registers. It’s a public art installation for which no invitation is needed. Passers-by simply stop — amused, astonished, perplexed, engaged. Or they come by, as Michael Munguia did the other day from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, because their friends have told them they must see the lady who draws on coffee cups.
That’s because the artist herself is there in the window, Tuesdays through Saturdays, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., making more of these little works of art. “I think I’ve drawn just about everything you can see from sitting here,” she said. If Ms. Leech spots you through the window, looking curious, she may wave you inside to join her; perhaps to paint a cup yourself.
Take her up on it. At the north end of the Sprint store is a glass door that lets you into the prow. Once you get adjusted to life in a fishbowl, with pedestrian traffic sluicing around you in six directions at once, a surpassing calm takes over. It is not at all unlike the splendid isolation at a ship’s bow as it splits the sea. (Cue Leonardo and Kate.)
But the time to see “Hypergraphia: Gwyneth Leech, the Cup Drawings — Studio in the Prow” is running out. This Saturday will be the final day of the installation. “How will I bear to leave?” Ms. Leech wondered last week. At least there is a logistical advantage to her chosen medium, she said.
“It packs up very small.”
The installation was made possible by the collaboration of Cheryl McGinnis, a dealer who strives to create projects in which artists and the public can interact, and Patrick Robichaud, the curator and manager of Sprint’s Flatiron Prow Artspace. This cow-catcher of a space, formerly used for advertising, has been made available by Sprint as an exhibition gallery. “I found that I like social drawing a lot,” Ms. Leech said of her turn in the space. “It conjures up quilting bees, coffee klatches and salons.”
Ms. Leech, 53, started using cups about four years ago at moments when sketch pads weren’t handy. “I elaborated my technique during jury duty,” she recalled. She didn’t give it much thought until other artists started pointing out that the compositions had a creative focus of their own. “I thought: ‘It can’t be. I’m drawing on used coffee cups.’ Then, I decided to embrace it.”
She liked the cups’ surface, which “has a little bit of tooth to it,” akin to oak tag board, and the fact that the plastic lining allowed for ample use of paint. She appreciated the serendipity involved in solving the problem of a composition whose one end always meets the other, only inches away. She was grateful for the chance to “upcycle,” that is, to reuse an object as something better than what it started to be. And of course, there’s a never-ending free supply.
“Bach had fugues,” Ms. Leech said. “Shakespeare had sonnets. I have used coffee cups.”