By Bascove

New York, NY, USA


Many years ago, a friend told me about another woman artist who trampled in the insect and detritus-ridden undergrowth of overpasses and deserted shorelines, painting trestles and steel I-beams. “You’re going to love her work” he said. Well, I do. And have been wanting to interview her for quite a while.


Valeri Larko finds beauty in the places most of us pass by, documenting gantries, roads, and piers from Jersey City to the Bronx. She’s a classical plein air painter in a time when most artists use those outside hours only to prepare for what they consider their real work in their studio. She sees the eloquence and grace in rusted metal, abandoned buildings, billboards, lonely motels, and graffiti-covered walls. The interactions with the people who live and work in those communities bring a vitality into her work, unimaginable if she were studio bound. 


This is an unprecedented time, to say the least. Most artists are in limbo, waiting for galleries and museums to reopen. Larko’s NYC exhibition: “Sign of the Times” is available to view online for now. But she is still going full speed, with YouTube videos and Zoom Studio talks. She also teaches Landscape Painting at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey.

BASCOVE: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?


VALERI LARKO: I took an art class in High School so I could hang out with my friends, and as fate would have it, I loved the class. When I graduated, I went to community college to try and figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and I took an oil painting class, it was love at first brushstroke. I was 19 and had found my medium, which made me realize that I needed more training. The following year I enrolled in duCret School of the Arts 3-year certificate program in Plainfield, NJ where I majored in fine art painting.

Valeri Larko in her studio

BASCOVE: When did you consider yourself a professional artist? When were you free to spend all of the time you needed on your art?


VALERI LARKO: I don’t remember when I considered myself a professional artist, I’m guessing it happened several years after I finished taking classes at the Art Students league. At this point I had moved to Jersey City, NJ and I was done with school and I was wondering what I was going to paint. Since I had enjoyed painting landscapes outdoors when school was on break, I decided to paint what was around me in Jersey City and that’s how I got interested in urban landscapes. After a few years of painting urban scenes, I started exhibiting my paintings in various nonprofit venues and that launched my career. As far as having all the free time I want to paint, I still don’t have that! Between my teaching schedule and the other obligations, I have regarding my art career, it’s always a juggling act to find as much time as possible to paint.



BASCOVE: What drew you to urban landscapes and how did you make the decision to be an artist who works on site? It takes a certain toughness and tenacity to spend weeks in those environments.


VALERI LARKO: My decision to paint on location comes out of my training as an artist. One of the things I liked in art school was painting from a live model, or still life. I preferred that to working from photographs. After I graduated from duCret School of the Arts, I took additional painting classes at the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design so that I could paint from a live model. When I was done with school it was hard to get people to pose for me and I didn’t have enough money to pay models. Jersey City is surrounded by industrial parks, so I started exploring them. I love exploring the fringes of the city, places that aren’t too busy and have so many visually interesting contrasts. I’m fascinated by the way the built world and nature collide in the fringes of the city.

"15 Minute Parking" (Bronx 2018)

BASCOVE: When driving or walking around to find a new site to paint, what are you looking for?      


VALERI LARKO: Some days I go out wandering looking for paintings sites and quite frankly I have no idea what I’m looking for. I like to keep an open mind and see what grabs my attention. I like sites that have interesting juxtapositions, such as signage with other urban elements like train trestles and urban waterways, also places that look like they’re on their way out. I like to capture places before they are lost and gone forever, especially if they have an interesting story or some local history. Occasionally I find a place that lends itself to doing a series of paintings such as the abandoned Bronx Golf Center. I wound up doing thirteen paintings of the site over a two-year period. 



BASCOVE: After you do your original sketching outdoors, what is the process from there to the finished painting? 


VALERI LARKO: When I find something I want to paint I usually start off with quick uniball ink drawings in a sketchpad. That helps me figure out my composition and what elements I want to include in my final painting. For most of my major paintings the next step is to do a quick color study, which helps me further figure out composition and gives me a good idea of what direction the painting will take. After I rough in the color study, I order custom made stretcher bars. Once the large canvas is stretched, I go back on site to complete the painting on location. A large painting can take me 2-3 months to complete. In the winter when it’s too cold to paint outdoors, I’ll paint smaller images in my car. I also revisit my rough color studies and go back into them using the large completed version of the painting as reference. This is why I call my studies “finished studies.”



BASCOVE: The light must change while you are working, I understand that you often work on more than one painting at a time.


VALERI LARKO: Due to the changing light, I work on one painting in the morning and a second one in the afternoon. For some scenes overcast light works best, so sometimes I have a cloudy day painting going as well.



BASCOVE: How did the Sign of the Times series begin?


VALERI LARKO: The very beginning of this series was after the great recession when I noticed a lot of billboards going blank in the Bronx and surrounding areas. I found these stately structures with no message fascinating. In the winter of 2012, I painted a small gouache and watercolor of blank billboards called “Sign of the Times” while sitting in my car in Brooklyn. Fast forward to the winter of 2018/2019 when I started painting more of these blank billboards, this time around on wood panels. After doing a few of these, I liked the way they looked together when displayed in a grid, so I kept going with other billboards that had inspirational sayings, religious messages and personal injury lawyer advertisements. This series has continued, and I recently did two billboard paintings with COVID-19 themes, which certainly is a sign of the times. One billboard says: “Staying Home Saves Lives.” Who would have ever thought we’d see a billboard that says that!     

"Sign of the Times" Billboards (2018-2020)

BASCOVE: You have become friends with many of the local graffiti arts in the Bronx. Have the people you’ve gotten to know while you are working had any influence on what you paint?              


VALERI LARKO: I’ve been painting urban landscapes on location since the mid 80’s, back then I started painting in the industrial parks that surround Jersey City and there was hardly any graffiti at those sites. The graffiti came later when I moved to New Rochelle, NY and I started to paint in the Bronx. However, in many of my earlier industrial scenes, I often included commercial signage, so I see the graffiti as a natural extension of the text that always interested me.


None of the graffiti writers I’ve met have had any influence on what I choose to paint with one exception, a writer friend has borrowed my tag Ruby87. I use that tag only in my paintings, never on walls. I admire what writers can do with spray paint, but that’s not where my talent lies. A friend decided he liked my tag and has been creating some gorgeous walls in New Rochelle and beyond, some with COVID-19 messages which I’m sure were meant for me! This makes these Ruby87 paintings a bit of a collaborative endeavor. Ruby was my sweet Shepherd-mix pup who went over the rainbow bridge years ago and 87 is the house where we lived in NJ when I adopted her. I still miss her. 


"Ruby87" (New Rochelle 2020)

BASCOVE: Are there past or current artists who have been influential on how you approach your work?


VALERI LARKO: There are so many terrific artists that I admire both past and present and the one thing that contemporary artists like Chakaia Booker and Anslem Kiefer have in common is their interest in detritus and how it can be transformed to tell a bigger narrative. Edward Kienholz also embodies this aesthetic in his largescale installations.


While I share an attraction to art that has a gritty feel, I don’t think these artists had much influence on what I personally paint. I was formed more by my classical training as a painter and my move to an urban environment just after I finished art school, these two things had the biggest influence on how and what I paint.


I’m also a big fan of Johannes Vermeer, his attention to detail is something I admire and is important in my own work. The details help tell the story of a specific place and time. I also love his use of color.



BASCOVE: How are you getting through this period of the pandemic? Has it impacted your work?


VALERI LARKO: The only good thing I can say about the pandemic, it’s allowed me to continue to paint in the streets and has opened up new sites to me that I couldn’t paint when many urban streets were too crowded, and parking was an issue. One painting in particular, “Welcome to the Bronx”, was a scene that I had been eyeing for years, but when all the businesses were open, I could never find a place to park, never mind set up for an extended period of time. When everything shut down, parking was no longer an issue. I was able to set up on a busy commercial street that normally had lots of truck traffic. Six weeks later, as I was finishing up the painting, all of the businesses in that area started to reopen. Another thing I noticed since the pandemic hit, is the streets are awash with graffiti. While we all sheltered in place, the writers have taken back the streets and are having a grand old time. The green warehouse in “Welcome to the Bronx” had no graffiti on it last year.

"Welcome to the Bronx" (2020)


BASCOVE: What gives you the most pleasure about the work you do?


VALERI LARKO: Painting on site gives me immense pleasure because of the people I meet who work or live in the places I paint. I love hearing their stories and finding out the history behind the sites that I’m exploring. I’m always learning something new when I’m out painting the world around me.



BASCOVE: What would you like to do that you haven’t had the time or opportunity to explore?


VALERI LARKO: At some point, I’d like to do more painting while traveling. A good friend, the photographer John Wyatt, has been taking terrific photos of Bombay Beach, CA. I would love to have the opportunity to paint there however with Covid raging I don’t think I’ll be traveling anytime soon.



Valeri Larko has had solo exhibitions at the Susquehanna Art Museum, Harrisburg, PA, Bronx Museum, NY, University of Amherst, MA, Montserrat College of Art, Beverly, MA, The Morris Museum, Morristown, NJ, The Hunterdon Art Museum, Clinton, NJ, The New Jersey State Museum, Bronx River Art Center, NY, The College of New Rochelle, NY, and the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey.

Group exhibitions include Fleming Museum, Burlington, VT, Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH, Lehman College Art Gallery, Bronx, NY, The Katonah Museum of Art, NY, The Jersey City Museum, The National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC, Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art, Newark NJ, and the American Embassy in Minsk, Belarus.


Larko’s work will be included in 33 Contemporary Gallery’s, online exhibition, “NYC”, October 15 – December 31, 2020. She is represented by Kasper Contemporary.


(Photographs of all paintings courtesy of Valeri Larko)


Valeri Larko  

Valeri Larko on Instagram 

Kasper Contemporary      



Bascove is an artist, culture writer and author. Her works of the bridges of New York City have been the subject of solo and group shows for over thirty years, including public installations, and are in numerous public and private collections.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.