By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — Looking at Harlem's ornate buildings sets Lynn Lieberman's imagination loose.
At James Van Der Zee's former photo studio on Lenox Avenue, Lieberman thinks about all the famous, and not so famous, people who had their portraits taken there. A few blocks away, a row of abandoned brownstones conjures thoughts of the lives lived there.
"I really love these old buildings and the things that I know happened there," said Lieberman, 61. "We have such wonderful history in Harlem."
So in 2004, after leaving the consulting business she and her husband founded, Lieberman, a Harlem resident, began painting some of the buildings that fascinated her. Formerly a glass mosaic artist, Lieberman had been longing to try her hand at being a full-time artist.
A few years later, friends and family saw a map of Harlem painted in her whimsical style using watercolors, and suggested she try selling it.
"I thought they were being ridiculous," Lieberman said. "This was just my version of what Harlem looks like."
It turns out they were right. The Studio Museum in Harlem loved the map.
Soon, Lieberman's depictions of Harlem landmarks, such as Sylvia's, Lenox Lounge and Abyssinian Baptist Church, were being carried as notecards and postcards in several boutiques and stores throughout Harlem.
"People who live here love the familiarity of looking at places we know and visitors want to take a piece of Harlem home with them," said Louis Gagliano, co-owner of Flor Boutique, describing why Lieberman's notecards sell so well. "I love the vibrancy of her work."
Lieberman painted Jacob's, a soul food buffet on Lenox Avenue, after she learned that the owners fed the homeless for free on Thanksgiving. And although Red Rooster is one of Harlem's hottest attractions today, when Lieberman's eye was drawn to the beautiful ornate style of buildings on the same block, she painted those instead.
Lieberman makes no bones about being a commercial artist. While she'd like to spend more time painting, she has to spend time choosing paper for her note cards and prepping marketing materials.
"I am a commercial artist and that is what pays the bills," said Lieberman. "I'm not just an artist who shows."
But she's being pushed in that direction more and more by fellow Harlem artists.
Her work is now on display at the Dwyer Cultural Center as a part of their "Spirit of Community" exhibition and Cafe One on Amsterdam Avenue also recently launched a display of Lieberman's work.
"I get a lot of support from other Harlem artists. We show up for each other's functions," Lieberman said of some on the Harlem art scene. "The artists here put competitiveness aside."
Sensing the popularity of her Harlem series, Lieberman has started a Greenwich Village series. The arch in Washington Square Park and the purple New York University buses are some of her first renderings.
But Lieberman says she's not done with Harlem yet. There are already 50 Harlem renderings in her portfolio and many others waiting to be fleshed out in her sketchbook. She has yet to make her way uptown through Sugar Hill.
"I can go up and down Seventh and Eighth avenues all day long looking at the peeling paint," Lieberman said. "Each layer represents a layer of lives."