A touch of Catskill in the city


Michael Mendel has had an affair with his barn house in Catskill since 1948. 

There the Riverdale resident wanders through the pastures, searching for the perfect scene to capture with his camera before reimagining those photos on canvas through watercolors. 

Even at 84, Mendel’s involvement in the art world has been steady for the past decade, yet painting always has been part of his life. This year Mendel brings his collection “Barns” to the Vintage Artists Gallery, a part of Riverdale Senior Services at 2600 Netherland Ave.

“When you look at my art, I don’t expect you to have an out-of-body experience,” Mendel said. “I am called a representational artist, and I want people to look at my paintings and enjoy the scene.”

Although classic dairy farms are not as popular as they used to be — even the ones Mendel paints are typically deserted — he still finds value in recreating them on canvas. 

But before Mendel started exploring rural scenery artistically, he was part of the music scene. He worked for Columbia Records, which later became Sony Music Entertainment. He designed a number of record album covers for musical icons like Tony Bennett, Gladys Knight, The Beach Boys and more. It all taught him a lot about himself as an artist. 

“Sometimes the (music) artists were tough to please,” Mendel said. “As an artist with no one to answer to, do your thing, but don’t be close-minded because you never know who you’re going to meet who can change your life.”

Mendel lived a very different life before that. His family fled Germany during the Nazi uprising when he was 4. After a few years in Cuba, the Mendel clan was finally allowed to come into America. 

Here, Mendel attended City College of New York with plans to enter meteorology. Instead, he graduated with an art degree after a fellow classmate inspired him. Yet before he embarked on his creative career, Mendel first served time in the military as an officer.

His career as a graphic designer at Columbia Records was creative and stimulating, but it wasn’t until 2009 Mendel began to take art seriously. Now when Mendel creates, each painting is motivated by the same questions: “Will this painting stand the test of time? Will someone enjoy this for years to come?” 

Today Mendel has nearly 400 paintings to his name.

He also uses special tools throughout his process like templates for efficient shapes, a math compass, and sometimes even a toothbrush to create a gravel look in his art. Although there is structure to his process, the self-taught artist is not afraid to break the rules of waterpainting, especially cardinal rules like never using white paint.

“The color I use the most is white paint because I make mistakes and it works,” Mendel said. 

He’ll also wet the canvas sometimes, or let the paint run as he guides it along with his tools if he is not happy with the initial design. The entire process can take between three days and a week.

Mendel has had exhibitions all over the state, including another one locally at The Riverdale Y’s Gallery 18. In addition to future exhibits, Mendel also plans to create a children’s biography based on the photos he took of his son near the Hudson River when he was a child called “Jamie Visits the Harbor.” 

But whenever Mendel isn’t scouting for painting subjects in Catskill, making trips to the Hudson River, or unveiling yet a new exhibit, he can be found working at his desk.

“At my home in Catskill, I like to wander around and ride the roads, but I am usually home painting,” Mendel said. 

“I paint every day.”