Elizabeth Downer Riker is an American realist painter who lived in Oaxaca in southern Mexico for many years. About 10 years ago, she returned to New York City with her family where she began work on a series of paintings of the rooftop farms and vegetable gardens in the urban Metropolis.
Riker had a solo exhibit of some of her paintings back in 2017 at the Ceres Gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. This not-for-profit cultural center’s art gallery, dedicated to the promotion of contemporary women in the arts and the remediation of women’s under-representation in the larger art world, had planned an opening show in September for its 2020-2021 season featuring again Riker’s paintings.
Postponed last fall due to the corona virus pandemic, Re-Enchanting the City: Greening New York City, the current spring exhibition of Riker’s realist art at the Chelsea gallery (through May 22, 2021), has now brought a little magic to the urban metropolis.
Viewing Riker’s painting is a wonderful way to celebrate the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. This upstate New Yorker, with the easing of pandemic restrictions and thankfully vaccinated, decided to travel to the Big Apple to view the 20 or so paintings currently on display at the Ceres Gallery. The gallery maintains what it describes on its website as COVID protocols, and fortunately on a weekday visit, there was no waiting time due to social distancing to enter the gallery and enjoy Riker’s paintings in person.
For sale at prices ranging from $1,000 to $2,200, the not-for-profit gallery does not take a commission, but rather 100% of the proceeds from the sale of the artwork goes to the artist. Kudos to this Chelsea gallery which supports its nearly 60 artists in this way when their artwork is on exhibit.
The gallery’s website notes that if you are interested in becoming a gallery artist of Ceres, a membership application is available. There are four categories of membership with varying privileges and obligations of each membership category: Full Membership, National Full Membership, Affiliate Membership, and National Affiliate Membership.
Riker is an accomplished realist painter, and many of the 20 paintings are evidence of her artistic skill to capture the natural beauty of a rooftop farm or urban community garden. We recently spotlighted the American Community Garden Association and how growing food in a community garden offers hope, community and good food. And we explored some of the 55 community gardens in the Capital Region of upstate New York managed by the praiseworthy not-for-profit organization Capital Roots.
Painter Riker captures the beauty of some very urban community gardens in New York City. Two striking paintings are of the Eagle Slope Community Garden and the Garden of Happiness, respectively, both in the Bronx. Depicting more than a dozen hardworking gardeners of all shapes, sizes and ages, as a subway car passes overhead on an elevated track, Riker’s painting of the Eagle Slope Community Garden shows how nature can balance out the roar of city life and how city dwellers can build community spirit while working to grow their own food. A wall of graffiti art in the distance also reminds the viewer of gritty city life which is eased by the greenery of the bountiful community garden.
In contrast, the Garden of Happiness depicts a lone gardener hoeing weeds between rows of vegetables. This pleasing painting captures an individual’s contentment in working a garden alongside six-story apartment buildings. Hoeing weeds in a garden can actually produce happiness as well as a bountiful harvest.
Riker’s October Harvest captures her children harvesting red chili peppers with the Hudson River and an industrial New Jersey shoreline in the distance. What fortunate city children to be able to spend time in a vegetable garden during harvest time. The painter’s ability to stop time with her sunlit painting captures forever a very special urban childhood.
The artist has also painted a commercial hydroponic farm operation, Gotham Greens in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Queens, which touts its unique hydroponic greenhouse technology on its website. This business has built greenhouses in cities across America, beginning with its flagship greenhouse in Greenpoint. It now operates 500,000 square feet of hydroponic greenhouses across five U.S. states with nearly 400 “team members” according to its website.
We recently noted the controversy concerning the Organic Trade Association’s allowing hydroponics to fall under the organic certification label where there is no organic agriculture nor soil present. Riker’s skillful painting of Gotham Greens’ Greenpoint hydroponic farm doesn’t lessen our concern that plants grown in liquid fertilizers are in a very different category from plants grown in fertile organic soil.
In contrast, the Brooklyn Grange, another commercial farming operation in New York City, operates rooftop soil farms. According to its website, its farms located on three rooftops in New York City total 5.6 acres with 135,000 square feet of cultivated area producing over 100,000 pounds of organically-grown produce per year.
Ending on an uplifting note, Elizabeth Downer Riker’s painting that stopped me in my tracks was her magical transformation of her realistic Bird’s-eye View of Brooklyn Grange-Present into her Bird’s-eye View of Brooklyn Grange-Future. No surprise that this painting of a magical transformation was quick to sell and had multiple inquiries from potential buyers including a California museum.
Bird’s-eye View of Brooklyn Grange-Future is the perfect painting to view with an inquiring youngster: it’s like a Where’s Waldo? experience. The question, What else do you see?, can be asked over and over with great pleasure.
It is the only painting in the show where Riker has painted words. And what wonderful words they are: Compost; Save Water; Let Nature Back In; Farm Stand; and Corazon de Pueblo. With Windmills, kites flying, and people dining on a long table in the middle of the garden, this painting spells out joy and a better future.
(Frank W. Barrie, 5/18/21)