We Tagged Along on Artist Jasmin Sian’s 15 Mile-Long Daily Bike Commute Through New York’s Urban Wilderness
The nature the Filipina American artist encounters while biking inspires her delicate cut-paper works, on view at the ADAA Art Show.
For most people, their daily commute is nothing more than a necessity, a means of getting from point A to point B. For artist Jasmin Sian, it’s a treasured part of not only her day, but of her practice, with the nature she encounters biking down the Hudson River Greenway and through other parts of New York City providing an endless fount of inspiration for her intricate cut-paper works.
“When you live in an urban environment, you can feel fragmented and disenfranchised. That loss of connection to the earth and other humans makes people feel very lonely,” Sian told me during a three-hour bike ride we took on a beautiful October afternoon. We rode down the greenway from Washington Heights, across to Strawberry Fields in Central Park, and then up to Randalls Island and back through the Bronx.
That 15-mile journey is only part of her daily rides up from her apartment in Midtown to the studio of Horwardena Pindell. Sian has worked there since 1999, biking in all but the worst of weather to either Inwood at the northern tip of Manhattan or to Mott Haven in the Bronx, depending on the day.
The artist, who has a solo booth with Mill Valley, California, dealer Anthony Meier opening today at the ADAA Art Show at New York’s Park Avenue Armory, was born in the Philippines and moved to Texas at age 13. But New York, where Sian earned her MFA at the Parsons School of Design in 1998, has been her home for decades.
“I have a very slow metabolism, so the city helps keep me balanced. And I love being near the water, because I’m an island girl,” Sian said.
Cycling keeps her connected to nature, reminding her of its constant presence, even in the city—she encounters woodchucks, squirrels, and even deer along her route, when she ventures across the George Washington Bridge to the Palisades in New Jersey.
As we biked down the Hudson, Sian pointed out specific trees that she’s depicted in her works, including one that during a recent winter had been home to a lone sparrow.
“Usually they are in a flock. I got worried because the weather was so bad during the blizzard, so I would go every day to give it some seeds,” Sian said as we pulled over, this time to feed a gaggle of Canada geese around West 100th Street. “It’s hard for sparrows to forage in the winter, but I do think the trees take care of them.”
She had a bag of organic bird food (mainly figs) and was concerned that one of the geese, who was favoring one leg, seemed to have been injured, perhaps in a bike crash.
“I think we have a very aggressive way of existing with nature. We have taken up most of their land,” Sian lamented.
Each of her works is a celebration of the beauty of the plant and animal world, but also an elegy for the destruction humans have wrought on these creatures’ environment.
When I met Sian, she was waiting for me on a bench near the entrance to Fort Washington Park at West 158th Street, with sweeping views of river and the GW to the north, set against the bright blue sky. But she was marveling at the grass beneath her feet, and the bees buzzing amid the verdant clover—pollinators at work.
That kind of close and careful observation of the natural world is at the heart of Sian’s practice. She works small and light, in part so she can bring her work with her on her rides should inspiration strike from any of the plants and wildlife she encounters. (Her other muse, her pet parrot, Pop, is at home.)
“I’m one of the last plein air artists out there. You would probably see me on the side of the road crawling around to get some chickweed or purslane—people will ask ‘are you okay?’” Sian said. “I like the springtime when the plants are tiny, and you see where they sprout from the ground. A small plant is a small map of what the big plant is going to be.”
The small scale of new growth allows her to capture her subjects in the minute detail necessary for her delicate, lace-like works. Each time-consuming piece is made on recycled materials like brown paper bags from the deli or bubblegum wrappers.
“I like things that are abject, and that transformative process,” Sian said, noting that even if her work does eventually get discarded, “at least they had a moment when they weren’t trash.”
But it’s hard to imagine anyone throwing out Sian’s gorgeous artworks, these finely detailed graphite, gouache, and ink drawings of animals amid dense vegetation, and their impossibly precise cut-out borders. The result is akin to a lace doily, the artist turning her humble materials into something undeniably exquisite and precious.
“I’ve always liked lace. My grandmother wore a mantilla when she went to church, and she made me wear one too,” Sian said. “There are all these religious traditions of using the decorative to show your devotion to things, so it seems fitting in order to honor these things in nature.”
Her presentation at the ADAA, titled “a forest for Fennel,” is the culmination of four years of work, with prices ranging from $7,500 to $15,000. Ahead of the fair’s opening, Sian was looking forward to seeing the fruits of her labor. But, she admitted, her tributes to the creatures of New York City are tinged with sadness and regret for what could be, were humans a little better at coexisting with the rest of creation.
“The works are a little bittersweet. A lot of animals have habitat loss,” Sian said. “When I see my work, it’s not joy that I see—it’s more melancholy.”
See some of Sian’s work available at the fair below.
The ADAA Art Show is on view at the Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Ave, New York, New York, November 1–5, 2023.
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