LIC painter helps people commemorate events, loved ones with handmade pillows

Artist Sharon Florin creating quilts and commemorative pillows at her Long Island City studio.
Photos by Orestes Gonzalez

Long Island City-based artist Sharon Florin wears many hats – artist, painter, quilter and, some may argue, historian.

Florin is best known for her realistic paintings of urban landscapes. She has captured buildings through brushstrokes in her Long Island City studio since 1980. The Woodhaven native has always been drawn to painting older buildings and storefronts and for this reason has preserved the past, since many of these structures no longer exist.

“In a way, my paintings are a way of capturing what is here today and might be gone tomorrow,” Florin said. “And especially with the gentrification and rapid change of the city in I would say the last 15, 20 years, more and more of these places are disappearing.”

Florin, with camera in hand, treks throughout Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn to scope out subjects for her work. She has witnessed drastic changes in many neighborhoods, including the place where she has created her works for 35 years.

Long Island City was a “quiet” place with a very “industrial feel,” Florin said. The side streets held homes of families who lived in Long Island City for several generations.

“It was a nice mix between residential and manufacturing,” Florin said.

There were three hardware stores near her studio that she would frequent, but they have all disappeared. The “wonderful views” of the waterfront and city skyline from the roof of Florin’s studio are gone. Instead, she peers out at the shiny, new developments dotting the East River.

Florin, who graduated from Adelphi University and also studied at the Arts Student League, will always use paint to document New York City. But recently, the artist has added another medium to her tool belt.

Four years ago, Florin attended a quilt show with a friend and became fascinated by a New York City-themed quilt displayed at the show.

“It had New York City-themed fabric and it was embellished with all kinds of beadings and tokens and buttons. It was just fabulous and it blew me away,” Florin said.

She approached the quilter to commission a smaller version of the quilt, but was turned down. After the show, she was persuaded by her friend to begin quilting herself. Florin was hesitant at first. She had no sewing background and “had barely been able to sew on a button,” so she took classes at City Quilter in Manhattan.

Her instructor, Judy Doenias, who is also a quilter from Queens, got Florin hooked. She took a second class and learned about machine quilting. Her studio partner, Toby Kahn, shared his grandmother’s Singer sewing machine from 1938 until Florin was able to purchase a machine of her own.

“I started small and I was painting with fabric. It was wonderful finding different fabrics and different patterns, making my own patterns, “ Florin said.

She began making pillows for her friends and also created an entire series of Long Island City-themed pillows. Florin also incorporates her paintings into her creations, scanning photographs of her paintings into a computer and then printing them on a fabric sheet.

Two years ago, after his father’s death, a friend of Florin’s commissioned her to make a series of pillows from his father’s old ties as a gift for his grandchildren. Though she had never made pillows from necktie fabric, Florin used a quilting book to learn the new skill.

“Some of these [necktie pillows] are quilted, some are just pieced together, but I love it,” Florin said. “It’s a way of using my artistic and creative background in a new medium.”

Florin has also created pillows to celebrate an engagement. In a way, the commemorative pillows mirror her paintings. They preserve a piece of history, whether she creates a piece to remember a grandfather or to celebrate the beginning of a union.

As a member of the Empire Quilt Guild, her pieces are displayed at quilt shows at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She has sold several quilts, pillows and wall-hangings at the show and at the LIC Flea, an outdoor market in Long Island City.

If people are interested in having Florin produce quilted works, she encourages them to reach out to her at sjfstudio@aol.com.

“I’m in my 60s and I learned it’s never too late to learn something new.”