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Street Smart

Photo of Doug Safranek

Odds are that Doug Safranek is the only master bagpiper among the painters whose works are exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Safranek, acclaimed for his detailed, evocative renderings of New York City street scenes, has just returned from the World Bagpipe Band Championships in Scotland, where the Cyril Scott Bagpipe Band, to which he belongs, placed second in one event.

Safranek defies the image of the tortured egocentric in the harsh New York art world. The 44-year-old painter has a boyish friendliness and modest manner that speaks of his upbringing in Spokane, Washington. A former competitive swimmer at BC, where he majored in French and political science, he keeps a pressed tuxedo hanging in his closet, "just in case I have to go back to waiting tables," he says.

From the lone window in his small studio in a former pencil factory, Safranek overlooks Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the type of industrial neighborhood often described as "gritty." It's a landscape that has inspired him since he moved here in 1985, after receiving an MFA from the University of Wisconsin. "This is such a vertical city, with so many different, stacked layers," he says. "It's like a huge stage set for human activity." Safranek began sketching the views--including fire escapes, water towers, streetlights--from his apartment window, and now he searches out the details of urban life "wherever the subway takes me."

Many of Safranek's paintings are miniatures. He works in a centuries-old medium, egg tempera. "A lot of people consider it a dinosaur from the early Renaissance. I like the idea of looking at these not obviously beautiful, rough landscapes and interpreting inner-city street scenes with a medium that generally was used for spiritual images."

The process of mixing pigment and egg yolk, then applying multiple layers of color to canvas, yields a unique "waxy luminescence," but it is labor-intensive and the medium is unforgiving. Safranek has just discovered several cracks in the painting that currently sits on his easel. "If there isn't a way to fix them, and I'm afraid there isn't, I'll have lost several months just on one corner of this painting. All the figures that cracked apart I've worked for hours on to make into individuals. I'm trying not to panic," he laughs, feigning wide-eyed terror.

Ann Cohen

Ann Cohen is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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