art:. nina katan & helen quinn | espresso 77, jackson heights, queens

In a metropolis like New York, where 13 million people and counting live, one’s personal space is often compromised. It happens while riding the subways, walking the streets and even when seeking coffee shop reprieve.

Perhaps, a most welcomed compromise is when the confluence of art and space affects us citizens of New York, especially when in the interest of coffee culture.  Nina Katan and Helen Quinn are cohabiting, in the intimate quarters at Espresso 77, a coffee shop in Jackson Heights, Queens, known for exhibiting local artists, double doses at a time.

The two friends, teamed up for a close for-comfort collaboration,  a far from strange idea in New York, notwithstanding the exhibits name “Circus Strange.”  This is Nina and Helen, who separately are a holistic act.

I think it’s cool to see a partnership exhibit at a coffee shop, Espresso 77 does this often. Can you share how this came about?

N: My dear friend, Helen Quinn, invited me to exhibit with her; she came up with the wonderful title, Circus Strange. We showed our work years back at her salons and had since fantasized about collaborating. We had several months to prepare for this show and shared a couple of our works in progress via email prior to the show’s opening.  But really we just had trust that our prints and drawings would come together and harmonize.

H: We’ve been trying to have a place to have a show. I approached fancier galleries and with the recession in the world, it wasn’t happening. I asked Espresso 77 for a show – I exhibited there three years ago – it was such a good experience. They said yes, and Julie (one of Espresso 77’s owner) was very nice.

How did a series of circus portraits come to fruition?

N: I have been smitten by the magic, fearlessness and freedom of circus life since I was a little girl. In a way circus has always been close to home. My stepfather had a passion for juggling, and in his youth, his comrades included vaudeville performers and contortionists, and my husband is a former aerialist. These portraits are part of my ongoing series of circus artists; I chose the source images for their quiet power.

H: Nina, she’s the one really with the first-hand experience. Her husband used to work at Cirque Du Soleil; it’s such a neat thing. I was more interested in the surreal nature of side-shows, rides, circus performers and I did a lot of animals.

When approaching the series did a certain type of paper speak to you in order to create your art?

N: I worked from vintage photos circa 1880’s to 1950’s. I used pages from my daughter’s sketchbook, white acid free paper. This paper chose me as it was within arm’s reach when I first started the drawings. Some of my favorite drawings are ballpoint pen on loose-leaf.
After this series, I started on much larger paper, initially on postal craft paper, now on Chinese bamboo paper, for its fragility.

H: Silkscreen is new to me but I love it and it’s so fun. It’s a mixture of drawing and painting and color used in a flat way. You can make editions and do more than one there’s a certain freedom and immediacy to the medium.

Nina, you mentioned before in our initial exchange, about the idea of the coffee shop as a social and cultural space? What do you hope your role as an artist contributes to that?
Artists can hope to inspire, just as one might be turned on by a visit to a new place, a character on a subway and by art in the street.  Each of our contributions has the potential to open us up to new possibilities and ideas.

Lastly, what do you think is the importance of art itself to the ambiance of a coffee shop?

H: People can experience art in a slower pace, in a place that they can sit with it. They can come in and out, they can sit and look at it and experience it over some time. A coffee shop is a place to experience art as a slower experience in a more domestic setting. The neighbors know my work and I love sharing it with the neighborhood.

N: One’s surroundings are integral to one’s experience. And in a cafe, the fellow creatures and art can create a momentary and sometimes lasting alchemy.

You may view Ms. Quinn’s work at

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