By JON CRONIN
Long Island City artist Eileen Coyne—a former dancer who is now a painter—looks for the empathy in each of her subject’s eyes.
Whether her painting is of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a self-portrait of tortured frustration or a man wearing nothing but a gun belt, Coyne said that it’s all in the eyes.
“I always find that if I can conquer the eyes as truthfully as possible, then I have a pretty good shot at making the rest of the painting work,” Coyne said.
Coyne said that she has endless empathy for humanity and her heart has always been touched by the working poor. Coyne grew up outside Pittsburgh in Homestead, Pennsylvania, a steel town that was affected by the shutdown of the local plant.
“I like to paint people and their stories,” she said.
Coyne grew up in a working-class, single-mother household. Her family came from Ireland to work in Andrew Carnegie’s steel industry in the late 1800s. They were later involved in the Homestead Steel strike in 1892, an epic story of loss for a working class that tried to rise up against intolerable work conditions.
Her grandfather was the mayor of Homestead and her family was filled with progressive Democrats whom, she said, were at the time considered conservative Democrats.
“It was a good working-class Irish family,” Coyne said.
Tales of the proletariat uprising and her family legacy are factors that stir the sense of social activism in her own work.
“I feel like my work is my activism. I’m using it as a voice,” she said.
She points to that painting of a man wearing nothing but a holster with the gun covering his genitalia. His arms are crossed stubbornly and he looks disgruntled.
“That says it all, right?” Coyne asked.
Growing up in western Pennsylvania, she said that she knew a number of people who owned guns.
“Not any of my family,” she added.
The man depicted in the painting is based on her husband, a former actor and now producer who modeled for the painting. The couple lives in Long Island City, a couple of blocks away from the waterfront-based Long Island City Artists’ Plaxall Gallery, where she is a resident artist.
Coyne said that her husband was fortunate enough to purchase a building there long before the development boom. After being a single mom for 10 years, she remarried. She and her husband raised Coyne’s daughter, who is now 21, attending college and an aspiring artist.
Coyne spent her 20s dancing in musical theater productions. She later studied massage therapy to pay the bills. It was a trade that she credits with her deep understanding of the human musculature. She noted that the profession made her brush movements much more instinctual.
Her daughter suffers from Crohn’s disease, although it is now under control. But the frustrating marathon of hours that Coyne spent in the hospital with her daughter while her daughter was receiving IV treatment is reflected in her self-referential work.
In one self-portrait, she stares out of the canvas with bright-blue eyes while sitting in a waiting room, her slight-framed young daughter sleeping beside her with an IV bag in her arm.
“Every line that she draws seems to carry some level of emotion, and then when you meet her and get to know her, she is an exceptionally intuitive and sensitive person,” said Edjo Wheeler, the artistic director at Long Island City Artists, of Coyne’s emotive work.
He called her a prolific painter with the talent to back it up.
While discussing her oeuvre, Coyne cannot help but talk about her portrait of Bull Harris, a doorman she met while on vacation in New Orleans. She said that they immediately hit it off and, in between exploring the city with her husband, she enjoyed her chats with Harris. She said that before she took her solo jaunts through the city in the mornings, she talked with him. During the first talk, she offered to buy him coffee.
“Yes, I will take 14 sugars,” he told Coyne, who added that there was something about him that was “beautiful, kind and playful. Some people just touch you.”
Coyne said that eight years ago she began to find time for herself to spend on her artwork.
“I became very disciplined and focused,” she said, adding that she had possessed the talent since childhood, but had not had time to invest in it. “You need to give yourself permission to be wrong. You don’t realize how freeing it is in other areas of your life.”
During that time, she met Polina Osnachuk, an artistic mentor who changed her life. Coyne said that since that time, she has adopted Osnachuk’s immigrant Ukrainian family.
“Her voice is in my head all the time,” she said. “After meeting Polina, everything just took off. It was like we spoke the same language. She did help expedite things for me. It took some of the guesswork out of figuring out drawing.”
Coyne’s career is beginning to take off. She still works with clients as a massage therapist, but also takes commissions as a portrait artist. She paints both people and animals, which are another of her passions.
Wheeler noted that an observer can easily see the empathy in Coyne’s work.
Regarding her burgeoning success and prolific pace, she said, “It’s such a surreal time. I don’t seem to allow myself to think beyond the ‘now.’”
”The headlines enrage and yet inspire me artistically,” she said. “I will continue on this path. As I’ve said, my art is a huge part of my activism. I hope to continue doing creative work that enlightens a broader audience; creates a sense of solidarity; provides comfort and empathy for those who may feel forgotten or marginalized.”