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Sand Painter Uses Manhattan Sidewalks as His Canvas

By DNAinfo Staff on November 1, 2010 8:00am  | Updated on November 1, 2010 10:34am

By Olivia Scheck

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

UNION SQUARE — Joe Mangrum doesn't just do his art in Manhattan; he does it on Manhattan.

The 41-year-old artist has been using the city's streets as his canvas since 2008, creating more than 200 large scale "sand paintings" in parks and common areas like Union Square, Washington Square Park and Columbus Circle.

"It's about bringing art out to people that are intimidated by galleries, that aren't educated about art or feel like that can't afford a museum," explained Mangrum, whose preferred work uniform includes long hair, a denim shirt and jeans and a cowboy hat.

Mangrum creates the paintings, which range between 15 and 20 feet in diameter, over the course six to eight hours, collecting donations from passersby.

Joe Mangrum creates his sand paintings in public spaces throughout Manhattan.
Joe Mangrum creates his sand paintings in public spaces throughout Manhattan.
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A graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, Mangrum has showed his art around the globe and received numerous awards for his work, but the Park Slope resident says the donations are his primary source of income.

In Union Square on Thursday, dozens of people – a family from Switzerland, a class of special needs students, nurses from nearby Beth Israel Medical Center – stopped to watch Mangrum "paint," pouring colored sand from a clinched right fist. Some merely glanced over on their way to wherever they were going; others lingered for as long as 30 minutes, mesmerized by Mangrum's zen-like patience.

"I think it's gorgeous," Sandy Mechanic, 48, who was on her way home from the Mahayanna Buddist Temple in Chinatown. "I think it's an expression of his soul."

After engaging Mangrum in conversation for nearly 20 minutes, Mechanic offered Mangrum a can of Taiwanese Lychee juice.

"I couldn't give a donation," the Staten Island native explained. "But I had an extra [can of Lychee juice] and I thought he might like it."

Mangrum said his artwork is in keeping with cultural traditions from around the globe, including Tibetan Mandalas, African sand painting, Indian rangoli, and Native American sand painting from the Navajo and Hopi cultures.

Mangrum said his work draws people from all walks of life, including one man who stopped by to say hello who Mangrum identified as a local juggler and regular observer of his work.

"You do get a lot of characters," Mangrum said of some of his fans.

Mangrum says donations from passersby are his primary source of income.
Mangrum says donations from passersby are his primary source of income.
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In addition to the fans who stop by to admire his work in person, Mangrum has 2,526 Facebook friends and nearly 700 Twitter followers. As he paints, he takes periodic breaks to post photos and comments to more than a dozen social networking sites using his iPhone.

But on Thursday there was only time for one update — about two hours into creating his painting, it was destroyed by a strong gust of wind.

Mangrum reacted with predictable patience.

"It's just not a good day for sand painting," the artist said, laughing. "Outdoors anyway."

Mangrum took shelter inside on Saturday, creating one of his sand paintings at the Asia Society.