An exhibit at the Onondaga Historical Association features works that depict Syracuse in watercolor. The three artists featured are members of Urban Sketchers, a group that gathers on a regular basis to create art on site, either outside or inside. Credit: Courtesy of Onondaga Historical Association

“City Life: Syracuse in Watercolors,” at the Onondaga Historical Association, documents a slew of Syracuse landscapes, focusing on downtown, Little Italy and Franklin Square, among other locales. The show displays artworks by Dan Shanahan, Bill Elkins and Dudley Breed. All three are members of Urban Sketchers, a group that gathers on a regular basis to create art on site, either outside or inside. No one works in lockstep; these are artists with individual styles.

“City Life” presents 20 watercolors by Shanahan, with the works portraying Bank Alley downtown, scenes on North Salina Street, various churches and houses on Salt Springs Road on the way to Le Moyne College. 

In the paintings, it’s clear that he’s interpreting varied subjects. One artwork takes a narrow view of Bank Alley which runs from the White Memorial Building to the University Building, running parallel with South Salina Street.

On the other hand, his painting of the 500 block of North Salina Street is expansive, as it depicts an entire block, ultimately leading the viewer’s eye to the intersection of Butternut and North Salina streets. Downtown is in the background, and a cloudy sky hangs overhead. 

And he ventures just south of downtown, in watercolors portraying the Spanish Church of God, 108 Grace St., and a building at 523 W. Onondaga St. that’s experienced drastic changes. It was the home of Trinity Episcopal Church for many years, was vacant for a while, was occupied on a short-term basis by two entities and is now slated for a major renovation. 

Shanahan also depicts Grace Episcopal Church on Madison Street, not far from Syracuse University, and the exterior of Laci’s restaurant on Hawley Avenue. 

His best painting captures an entry point to Lincoln Park, near Sherwood Avenue. There he works in fine detail, looking at boulders at the bottom of the entrance, at a brick walkway, at near-by wires, at shadows falling on the street. 

Elkins, meanwhile, has seven paintings in the exhibit, several of which portray Hanover Square. One of them concentrates on the upper level of smaller buildings in the square and then moves on to the State Tower Building. A second operates closer to ground level, offering a partial view of Hanover Square. It’s an interesting painting that’s quite different from a panoramic work. 

Viewers will also encounter other artworks referencing downtown. One painting portrays St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, while a second heads down South Salina Street toward the Chimes Building. 

The third artist, Dudley Breed, takes part in the exhibition via a slightly different format. He’s represented by sketchbooks in glass cases.

They reveal his impressions of industrial settings such as tank cars on a railroad track and Hanes Supply Inc.’s buildings on Thompson Road, East Syracuse. 

In addition, he moves inside for artworks showing the Mello Vello bicycle shop on Canal Street and Salt City Coffee in the Salt City Market building. The latter work has a comfortable feel, as it portrays a scene at the counter. Staff and customers are seen as small figures, and the menu board is nicely depicted. 

The exhibit, staged on OHA’s first floor, is situated not far from works that are part of the permanent collection. Three of them link to “City Life.”

There are two paintings by Betty Munro who had a long artistic career spanning the late 1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s. She did many watercolors depicting local landscapes. 

In addition, a large color photo documents the 400 block of South Salina Street in 1959. It recalls an era when there were three movie theaters on that block. 

“City Life: Syracuse in Watercolors” is a small show that doesn’t seek to provide an extensive survey of Syracuse landscapes or to encompass every neighborhood in our city. However, it does encourage viewers to think about downtown, about local buildings, about the changes inevitable in an urban environment. 

Finally, the exhibition celebrates the notion of urban sketchers. This isn’t an activity limited to Central New York. It happens in Buffalo, New York City and Pittsburgh, as well as other cities in the United States. 

“City Life” is on display through September 10 at the Onondaga Historical Association, 321 Montgomery St. The venue is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is free, but donations are welcome. For more information, call 315-428-1864. 

Carl Mellor covered visual arts for the Syracuse New Times from 1994 through 2019. He continues to write about artists and exhibitions in Central New York. 

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