Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Beauty Under Foot

Sharp-eyed walkers on the streets of New York are often rewarded with a glimpse of skyline, but the paintings of Mark Nilsen remind us that beauty is also found under foot. Since 2002 he has done relief paintings of New York City's manhole covers, which he sells weekends on Fifth Avenue just south of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Working on the sidewalks (with occasional forays into the street for larger pieces), Nilsen creates relief paintings that are first cousins of the rubbings made of headstones or medieval brasses. His method is fast and simple, and it doesn't even mess up the manhole.

Typically, he spots a worthy manhole during the day and returns to paint it at 1 or 2 in the morning.

He lays a 1 mil piece of plastic over a manhole, then places his canvas on top of that. He dips a roller into acrylic paint, then rolls it over the canvas. The paint picks up the raised pattern of the manhole, but glides over the recessions. Then, if he wants a two-color image (which is prettier and has more depth) he rolls on a second color.

His paintings, which average 3 feet by 3 feet, record the varieties of manhole covers, which are anything but uniform. Their patterns and inscriptions vary in ways that I never realized until I looked at one of Nilsen's paintings. His best sellers are from Brooklyn: "People have that Brooklyn pride," he says.

The idea to do manhole paintings came to Nilsen, a musician, in 2002. He was coming out of rehab, as he describes it, and opening up to new forms of art. He has since done a commission for the Department of Environmental Protection and is planning a project for John Jay College.

Police and security guards have hassled him while he is at work, but through it all he remains a strong supporter of freedom of expression and the First Amendment.

His works sell for $30 for a single color painting and $40-$50 for multiple colors. When he's not on Fifth Avenue selling paintings and chatting enthusiastically about his work, he can be found online at

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