Stepping into Sonya Sklaroff’s studio on the upper floors of the historic Cable Building, I’m struck by the pieces of life that dot the space – the lived-in qualities that point to her more than thirty years creating, painting, and progressing through her career. As she shows me paintings and I take a look around, I’m struck by familiar glimpses of New York City – the corner of Bleecker and Broadway, views across the East River, familiar water towers, Brooklyn backyards, and more. The room is a kind of swirled-together, artistically beautiful visual cacophony, filled with her works and prints, reference books and long-dried paint. In this way, the studio itself isn’t so different from many of her own works that blend together all kinds of familiar scenes of life with new and fresh colorful perspectives that are uniquely their own.
It wasn’t always quite like this for Sklaroff though. It’s hard to pinpoint when she began to pursue the visual arts, because, as she puts it, “I’ve been making art all my life. It’s something I didn’t really have to think about, but it just came naturally to me. I feel like people ask if I always wanted to be an artist, and it wasn’t like I always wanted to be an artist, it was just something I did.” As a kid she had parents who were very supportive and never questioned her creativity and weird projects.” After attending the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design as an undergraduate, she moved right away to New York City and joined the vibrant arts community that was located in Tribeca in the 90s. Around the time she graduated from Parsons with her MFA in 2000, she found her studio space from a family friend in NoHo’s historic Cable Building and has been here ever since.
Throughout her career, Sklaroff has been most known for her landscape paintings from all over the world, though as a New Yorker herself, she’s especially regarded for her landscapes of New York City’s vivacious urban form. Whenever she’s out and about in the city, she always carries her sketchbook, always ready for a view to grab her artistic eye. “I was trained very traditionally, and was taught that you had to paint the scene exactly as it looked. Several years ago, I started to get kind of antsy and wanted to express myself in a more whimsical and experimental way. I started focusing more on fantasy, my thoughts and imagination, and started putting that into my work.” She’s also gravitated towards stories and her works from the past few years not only physically depict New York, but spiritually do as well – they capture the feeling of the City.
The central location of NoHo, historic architecture, and tight-knit local community have informed her work and kept her here in the neighborhood. As we talk about NoHo, she revels in the minute details that make this one of the most architecturally unique in all of NYC, the beautiful brick and stone work, lions looking over Broadway, Louis Sullivan’s angels, Broadway’s lost sombrero, and more. We fondly remember the unique vantage points and sight lines of Gasoline Alley’s now vanished service stations. As she puts it, “I’ve painted this neighborhood over and over again as it’s gone through its transitions. The businesses might change, but the architecture stays the same.” Of course, there are neighborhood stalwarts like bite., Astor Hair, and Cozy’s that she loves and appreciates.
Though she’s known for landscapes, her works are really anchored by a story of some kind – a couple stealing a kiss as fireworks bloom over the East River, a friend’s visit to a side street psychic, and many more. The kind of stories that give New York City its unique form of crowded intimacy that’s so rarely felt elsewhere. Her paintings offer incredible views, sublime snapshots and momentary looks into the lives of New Yorkers that collectively make up the unique urban fabric of not only NoHo, but all of New York City and beyond.
COVID marked a departure for her career in many ways. Around the time that New York City and the world shut down, she decided to begin promoting her work herself, through social media, rather than through an agent. In the midst of the pandemic, she recalls that she couldn’t “just depict a scene in front of me because we were locked up at home. So then I started really painting from my imagination and what I missed about New York.” From her newly created home studio – in the living room that also doubled up as a Zoom school for her children and a home office for her husband – she began creating. The way Sklaroff remembers having two choices, that “I could either stay home and cry and eat cookies, or I could make stuff.”
She never set out to create a Pandemic painting series, but “started painting stuff I remembered from pre-Pandemic life that I missed.” Her works at the time combined the day-to-day reality of COVID with what she was feeling and thinking. As she began posting these works to Instagram, “the response was so overwhelming, people really connected with what I was feeling,” Sklaroff remembers. In the midst of Pandemic isolation, she found herself with a new social media community. However, it was a painting based on a video that really took things to the next level. “There was this video of a guy dancing naked on a rooftop in the rain, and I knew that was my next painting.” Despite not knowing who it was, or who had originally shared the video, she posted her version titled What a Marvelous Day to Dance Naked in the Rain. It turns out New York Nico, an influencer who shares interesting NYC characters and culture, had posted the video, with then-mayoral candidate Paperboy the Prince being the dancer (she later created his official mayoral portrait). They both reposted her version, and within the span of a single Zoom yoga class, it went viral.
Now, she has an audience on Instagram that loves and appreciates her playful, magical depictions of New York City. Her newer works, which will be featured in an upcoming solo exhibition at The Algonquin Hotel’s Oak Room, feature the kind of intimate, interesting stories that make New York City feel special. The exhibit will debut on May 4th, make sure to follow Sonya on Instagram to stay up to date with more details about the show.
But people and their stories don’t just feature in her paintings, but in her daily life as well. The Cable Building where her studio has been located for over twenty years is a vibrant creative community, and she has been deeply connected to the hive of activity there. Sklaroff often keeps her door open to invite in chance visits and build connections in the building. She shares some of the unique tenants of the building she’s gotten to know over the years-turned-decades like the eyebrow expert who treats celebrities on one side and the architects on the other, the doorknob designers across the hall, and a photographer upstairs. “The thing I love about this neighborhood is all the connections I’ve made and people I’ve gotten to know.” As we talk, we share stories of missing the beloved Renato Vasconez, the now-passed super of 640 Broadway who relentlessly gave her life advice, and friendly mornings with Terell at Levain Bakery.
After more than an hour in her studio, I made my way through the Cable Building and emerged right onto the hustle and bustle of busy Broadway and began walking to my office. With Sklaroff’s paintings still fresh in mind as I traversed the energetic streets, I felt at once a greater appreciation for her work. The ephemeral moments, little details, the rhythm of the neighborhood, and architectural splendor all blended into a single scene before me, much the way her studio did when I first walked into it. So for the second time that day, I felt a bit like I was in one of her paintings – I suppose in many senses I was, it is Sonya Sklaroff’s New York after all.
Portrait of Sonya Sklaroff by Neil Kramer.
All other images painted by Sonya Sklaroff and digitized by John Berens.