Photo Credit: Luanne M. Ferris/TIMES UNION



Photo Caption: TOMMY WATKINS has spent long hours working on a mural in the entryway of the Daily Grind on Lark Street in Albany.



Section: Arts Events,  Page: H3

Date: Sunday, September 21, 2008

 Already one of Albany's most prominent young painters, Tommy Watkins now has a permanent presence in Center Square with a mural inside The Daily Grind, the popular coffee bar and cafe at 204 Lark St.

 Given free rein to refurbish the business' entryway, Watkins has been pulling all-nighters for about two weeks and says that he's about half-finished work on the two-story space. In contrast to the colorful abstractions that have been his signature style on canvases, Watkins has taken inspiration from the French art deco movement, in particular the posters of Leonetto Cappiello.

 He felt a new style of painting seemed appropriate for the space. "The cafe itself has a unique feel in the way Lark Street is unique -- a hangout for artists and musicians and hipsters. I've had a lot of fun working on it, being locked in at night, and turning up the music," he says.

 Watkins' piece is the latest in a series of commissions by Albany businesses for large-scale murals by local artists. Last year, three graffiti artists, distinctively known as Mr. Prvrt, Dwell and oneUnit, executed a 40-foot mural on the outside wall of the Spectrum 8 Theatres on Madison Avenue. And at Shalimar Indian Restaurant, on Central Avenue near Lark Street, artists Greg Dunn and Joe Hollander recently completed another wall piece, measuring approximately 8 feet by 20 feet.

 As an activist for the local art scene (he was a co-founder of the Albany Underground Artists and UAG), Wakins finds the trend heartening. "This is a flag that our efforts are starting to come to fruition. Art is overlapping on itself, it's becoming permanent."

 Artists guild expands

  More than 1,000 people poured in and out of the small Lark Street gallery run by the Upstate Artists Guild earlier this month, during the second anniversary celebrations of First Friday. That attendance figure is a new record, according to UAG Vice President Michael Weidrich, though the space regularly pulls in crowds of at least 500 or more.

 Drawing a stylish mix of college students and young professionals, neighborhood residents and art-goers from across the area, UAG is the anchor for First Fridays. Soon it may serve a similar function for the region's other monthly gallery nights.

 Starting this month, UAG will have a regular presence at Art Night Schenectady, which happens this Friday, and at Troy Night Out, which takes place on the last Friday of the month. The organizers of the respective gallery nights have set aside special storefront spaces for UAG artists to exhibit their works.

 "This lives up to our name as the Upstate Artists Guild. Someday I'd like to UAG Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester and this is the first step in that growth," says Weidrich, who is also executive director of the Lark Street BID. "Participating in these events in our sister cities strengthens the arts community as a whole across the Capital Region."

 In contrast to the practice at the UAG gallery in Albany, where each month there's a new thematic show with works by a dozen or more artists -- September features comics and illustrations and next month there's a show called "Buried City" -- the new spaces will present selected works from a handful of guild members. Schenectady audiences will see works by Matthew Roth and Rebecca Schoonmaker, while in Troy there will be pieces by Schoonmaker and Liz Maloney.

 Permanent satellite galleries with rotating thematic shows don't seem out of the realm of possibility, given UAG's steady growth since its founding three years ago. Currently, there are nearly 200 members, mostly artists, and the guild also offers classes and has an extensive presence on the Internet ( Weidrich also says that discussions are underway for strategic partnerships with the Albany Art Room, the teaching space on Madison Avenue in Albany and Proctors Theatre in Schenectady.

 For now, the expansion into Schenectady and Troy continues with UAG's primary work of offering more opportunities for artists to exhibit -- as well as more reasons for crowds to turn out.

 "It amazes me how many artists we have, and what they're producing," says Weidrich, "and more artists are always coming to the area and getting involved with these evenings, which keeps raising the bar (on quality)."

 Joseph Dalton is a local writer who contributes regularly to the Times Union.