Rise of the Riverkeeper
Categories: 9/11, art, landscape, living, nature

The Rise of the Riverkeeper, A Calling: The Work of John Mendelsohn

By: Michelina Docimo

John Mendelsohn, Rise 1, 2008, 30"x60, Acrylic on Canvas

Meditation 17’s famous line, ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” by 17th century metaphysical poet, John Donne, still rings true for 21st century abstract artist, John Mendelsohn.  Even Manhattan, an island surrounded by a trinity of rivers, could not pulse like the heart of the world without its veins bleeding out into a global body.  Having lived in New York City, by the banks of the Hudson River, for thirty years, Mendelsohn has unconsciously absorbed the ever changing cadence of the water and pace of life, which is reflected in his work.  Two of his paintings entitled Rise 1 and Rise 2, from a collection of eight, were recently on exhibit at The Shore Institute for Contemporary Art’s show, Nature Calls.

Channeling twenty-three artists’ personal perspectives of Nature, the show examines how this omni-present force impacts individual reflections of the self, as well as a collective whole.  Strands of diversity, playfulness, poetics, pessimism, realism, surrealism, fantasy, modernity – all braided together to fabricate a multifaceted vision of nature that has no preconceptions of what nature should be.  Rather, it is an acceptance of its existence in all its forms and its influential role in how these artists sculpt their work, their lives, in its perpetual presence.

John Mendelsohn, Rise 2, 2008, Acrylic on Canvas, 30"x36"

Some of the work in Nature Calls demonstrates the biophilia hypothesis, a concept that explains the innate tendency and need for humans to exist in a harmonious relationship with nature; it reminds us that we too are part of the living system.  In fact, when we remove ourselves from the natural equation and deny this intimate instinct, life becomes lifeless.  Because the majority of our time is spent indoors, in cube shaped spaces, surrounded by inanimate objects, our moods change and we begin to feel entrapped.  Mendelsohn’s pieces, Rise 1 and Rise 2, have become oracles about the present state of the world by capturing these subtle vibrations of invisible energy that have been emitted by other people, cast into the natural environment, collected in air and water, soaked in and then released by the artist, himself.

“I have been painting series of abstract paintings for decades now, often with no preconceived idea of what will develop.  It is only after I’ve completed the work that I see an emerging message of things that I didn’t even think I was asking.  It can be the brokenness, the beauty, the infiniteness of many things,” assesses Mendelsohn.  These “things” he is feeling at the moment is turbulence, melancholy, disillusion – a feeling of social and economic collapse, ironic for the Rise series.

John Mendelsohn, Shuttle I, 2001, Latex Enamel and Acrylic on Canvas, 42"x30"

The Rise paintings seem to have emerged from the same place as Mendelsohn’s earlier Shuttle series, in terms of color schemes and tonality.  According to the artist, Rise is more turbulent.  The colors are more somber.  Shuttle’s waves of color seem to fold into one another with ease and grace, portions of the lines swallowed into another existence.  Rise, however, is blurred, edgy, panicky, and isolated.  Both collections seem to disperse light through water, creating prism-like refractions and deflections of sound, in repetitive and meditative motion.  Quickly to the eye, the paintings are the same but are never alike – the movement underneath the surface becomes lost in time, space, and atmosphere.

Mendelsohn’s Tribeca studio, a brick converted candy factory, then confectioner’s supply warehouse, then cheese storehouse, runs parallel to the Hudson River, but offers no waterviews, allowing him to feel the river’s presence on a deeper level.  Over the past few years, undergoing an urban renewal, the neighborhood has new life with Belgium block streets and connecting greenways.  He recalls how his street was the last before people had to be evacuated during 9/11, but Mendelsohn decided to stay.  When asked where he was that morning, he replied that he was taking a shower when he heard a concussion jolt through his body.  Literally, underwater, the sound of shock rippled his mind.  “Everything seemed close and real.  My response was to keep life going, to return to normal activity, while the fires were still burning,” he reflects.

Fascinated by “things” moving from one state to another, and all of these sequences melting into each other, Mendelsohn’s work becomes a point of entry where one begins to think about the fundamental nature of the world and existence.  Resonating colors, shapes, lines, patterns become a world beyond themselves.  “There is a sense of liberation when I complete a painting.  I become emotionally more expressive.  This is the nature of change.  We are the same person but at different stages, just as a river rises and flows,” he meditates.

Michelina Docimo, CSBA, is a certified sustainable building advisor and writer.  Her focus is on sustainable or “green” architecture, landscape, design, and the representation of nature in art.  Her writings have appeared in ARTES Magazine, CT Green Scene, and other industry publications.

Visit her blog

This article was first published in the Fall 2010 issue of  D’Art International Magazine.  For additional information or to request publication copies, contact:

Mr. Steve Rockwell

750A St. Clair Avenue West

Toronto, ON. M6C 1B5

phone/fax 416.651.5778

To see more of John Mendelsohn’s work, visit his online gallery at:

For inquiries, John may be reached via email at:


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