Holiday Greetings With a Purpose

| 15 Dec 2016 | 02:12

Each holiday season, Citymeals on Wheels partners with local artists who donate their designs to create holiday cards. The cost of just one card provides an elderly homebound New Yorker with a meal, according to the organization. Watercolorist Anne Watkins got involved with the program five years ago and calls Citymeals on Wheels “one of the stars in our group of charities.” “It's just so direct and has that very kind of hand-to-hand warmth that exemplifies the best of New York.”

Her contributions to the Citymeals' collection are wintry watercolors that use Manhattan landmarks, like Times Square, Wollman Rink and the Statue of Liberty, as their backdrops. This year, her image is of Bethesda Fountain, which she explained, “hit a note for the holiday that would be New York and peaceful and positive.”

The Upper West Side resident, who has painted all over New York, bringing her watercolor kit everywhere from the subway to Carnegie Hall to Madison Square Garden, works mainly on commissioned art for clients. Her projects include sitting in church at a wedding, painting the bride walking down the aisle to portraits of rescued pit bulls for a magazine spread. “This is really what I love about the work I do, is that it's personal and varied, to say the least,” she said.

Explain your work and how you got into that specific medium.I've always loved watercolors since I was a little girl; I don't know why. I love the luminosity of it. I love the portability of it because I like to work primarily from direct observation. Since I was little, I've had kind of a resistance to opaque mediums [Laughs]. And I started studying in earnest in the mid-nineties when I was in between window display jobs, which I used to do. I went to the Art Students League of New York and studied with this real master watercolor painter, Mario Cooper, and bore down on the medium. A lot of people disparage it; they call it the most difficult. It does have a lot of possibilities, but I don't feel like I ever get tired of exploring it. And I don't like the idea that it's difficult. Like anything, it just takes some patience and a lot of paper.

Most of your art is commissioned. Give us some examples of works you've created. Weddings are a pretty special part of my business because it's such an important day. It's also a little bit of pressure, because it's not like I can say, “Could you just walk down the aisle again for me, please?” It just happens and unfolds and I show up with my kit and record as many moments of the wedding. I also paint people's pets and their kids. I like situations where people aren't posing for me, where they're actually doing something. I paint a lot of musicians, performers-situations where people are just doing their thing. It's sort of like candid photography. It's the same kind of approach.

Where are some interesting places you've painted in? Do you ever paint on the subway?Oh sure, I've painted on the subway. I've painted in Carnegie Hall. I've painted on barstools. I painted in parks, on the floor of Madison Square Garden, next to the dog shows. And people with their weddings have flown me all over the place. I've painted in St. Barth's, Texas, California, Michigan. Not international yet…I think one of my favorite weekends ever, I painted a wedding down in Miami and it was so posh, opulent and beautiful. And the next day I flew back to New York and I was upstate in a barn in the freezing cold painting rescued pit bulls for an article for a magazine. And you know, both commissions were so satisfying and felt just right to balance each other.

Tell us about your connection to Citymeals and how the partnership came about where you would design cards for them.My relationship with Citymeals began with one of their board members, Janet Rodgers. Janet was one of my students when I had a private watercolor class at Picnic, which was a restaurant on 101st and Broadway run by friends of mine. When I was asking around for a place to teach, they said, “Come here on Saturday afternoons and we'll just set up a few tables together.” I had seven or eight students, some of whom had not really made art before. We just worked in watercolor and only worked from life. And it was really a blast. So I got to know Janet through that, and in her very let's-connect-everybody-to-everybody-who-can-help-anybody way, she said, “Would you ever consider donating an image to Citymeals for the holiday?” And I was like, “Of course.”

You also now have a familial connection to the program.Another benefit for me from getting involved in Citymeals, which I did not anticipate in the beginning, is that my first cousin, Watty Strouss, a longtime citizen of Hell's Kitchen, was a beneficiary of Encore, which is a Citymeals' breakfast and lunch program, right around the corner from where he lived. I was already involved with Citymeals when he began to use that program, and I can't even tell you how gratifying that was for me. To know, personally, someone that I loved so much, would be able to walk in. Watty was gay and an active political person. He died almost two years ago. He had a great community of people there that he could visit with and I know it richened his life. From that experience alone, I will ever be grateful to Citymeals and they have to tear my hands off this program.

How do you decide on the images you contribute?The reason it's difficult for me is because I have to think about it. Most of my work is just- I'm sitting somewhere and I'll pull up my kit and do something. In the very beginning, I actually said to Janet, “If you can find something out of my thousands of paintings that I've already done that would work, go for it.” There are parameters because Citymeals like to be inclusive and secular and include a little bit about New York. So once I get all these factors in my head, I'm like paralyzed. I've done Times Square with the chestnut cart, Wollman Rink. Last year, amazingly, I did the Statue of Liberty, which was hard because I had to pretend that it was snowy.

What's the design you created this year?My contribution this year is a blue watercolor of the Bethesda Fountain. And that is something I just did on my own, not thinking about the Citymeals cause. So many people liked it and wanted to buy it, that I knew it could be popular.

To purchase Citymeals' holiday cards, visit

To learn more about Anne, visit