An artist stuck on bridges, but in a good way

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The paintings all depict New York City bridges: shrouded in fog, glistening in sunlight, enveloped by murky dusk.

The images conjure stories in which a human drama unfolds just out of sight as the bridge takes its turn commanding a moment of attention—a brief moment to pause and wonder at the massive beams, the intricate steelwork and the engineering that allows vehicles large and small and people to pass above moving waters and cross to the other side.

These are some of the thoughts that pass through Antonio Masi’s mind when he gazes at the bridges of New York. Shortly after emigrating as a child from Italy to Manhattan in 1947, Mr. Masi said that he was staggered by the contrast between darkness pierced by the lights of skyscraper windows and moving cars and the glow emanating from the rudimentary rural farmhouse his family had just left.

His early experience of the U.S. was also shaped by the fact that his grandfather worked on building the 59th Street Bridge (the Queensboro), hauling the steel beams for its construction in the early 1900s—the same bridge that now stood before him. Riding high on the railways on trolleys infused bridge crossings with a sense of excitement and amazement.

The boy grew into a man and Mr. Masi’s fascination with New York City and its bridges never waned. When he retired in 2000 after selling his graphic arts business, he knew he wanted to spend all his time painting bridges. By doing so, he aimed to recapture the wonderment he felt as a child and explore the emotional connections bridges allow, by letting people travel from one community to another.

Working in the tradition of en plein air painters, Mr. Masi spends time observing the major bridges of the metropolitan area and walking across them, when possible. He sketches and paints quick studies and returns to his studio to paint and tries to channel how he felt while looking at the bridge. He has studios in Garden City and in Montauk, where he paints from May to October.

Mr. Masi focuses on the nine major New York City bridges: the Triborough, the Throgs Neck, the Verrazano Narrows, the Whitestone, the Williamsburg, the Brooklyn, the Manhattan, the Queensboro and the George Washington.

His art is currently the subject of a solo show, “NYC Bridgescapes,” at the Phyllis Lucas Gallery in Manhattan. The show continues through January 15. A book of his bridge images is being considered by publishers now.

There are several reasons why Mr. Masi’s bridge paintings seem more like portraits than landscapes. He makes a conscious effort to capture the individual characteristics of each bridge as opposed to creating iconic symbols. Going further, he consciously channels the emotional quality of the time he spends making his sketches, infusing each bridge portrait with a human touch.

“Bridges connect land masses but they link people together,” he said. “They allow for an emotional link. I fell in love with bridges. They can take people to the other side to where their loved ones are.”

Mr. Masi makes his paintings big—so big they feel as if you could walk onto the steel bridges—four feet by five feet or larger. To make them, he engages in the dance of the duelist, applying paint, stepping backward to take a look, and then plunging forward with the paintbrush to capture the perfect color and detail, he said. Making the painting feel life-size gives the viewer the same intimate perspective that Mr. Masi had while he was observing the bridge and its surroundings.

Mr. Masi prefers watercolors, an unusual choice because the paint dries quickly and the canvas size he is covering is large. The advantage is that mystery and intrigue can be infused by applying multiple layers of nearly transparent glaze and washes. The layers give the painting depth and soften the hard lines and angles of the bridges. The softness provides for interesting contrasts when he adds details that are highly refined.

His technique also gives a nod to the years he has spent painting en plein air in Montauk, Amagansett and East Hampton. His bridges are often cloaked in fog, just like the landscapes and waterways on the East End during the spring and fall. His observations on the quality of East End light and its interplay with the local landscape have also found their way into his bridge paintings.

Mr. Masi has been summering in Montauk since 1969. He has been a member of the Montauk Artists Association since 2001 and has taught en plein air painting and life drawing there for the last five years. His wife, Elizabeth, is a portrait painter.

“What I see is at the heart of the painting,” Mr. Masi said. “I’m painting from life and the richness of what I see. I study nature to learn from it. The lighting situation and how it affects mood. I take what I learn from painting out here and use it in my bridge paintings.”

Mr. Masi has exhibited at the Salmagundi Club, the Art Students League of New York, Guild Hall’s Members Show and others. He’s exhibited in group shows with the Audubon Artists, the American Watercolor Society, the Philadelphia Watercolor Society and others.

Antonio Masi’s solo exhibition, “NYC Bridgescapes,” remains on view at the Phyllis Lucas Gallery, 981 2nd Avenue, Manhattan, through January 15, 2009. For information, visit www.phyllislucasgallery.com. Mr. Masi’s work can also be viewed at www.antoniomasi.com.

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