Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Serving Up Sullivan's Diner

Working artists are frequently drawn to working people. I think this is particularly true of self-taught artists, who seem to have an affinity for those who make their way in the world by virtue of initiative and ingenuity. We happen to have in the Fenimore Art Museum, many examples of this empathetic relationship. One of these works hits pretty close to home for me: Mary Shelley's 21" x 27 1/2" bas-relief carving, "Sullivan's Diner, Horseheads, N.Y."

I've known Mary for quite a number of years, and have always admired her work. She began carving in 1973, inspired by the relief carvings of the famed Key West folk artist Mario Sanchez, about whom I have blogged before. Mary's pieces are carved panels, like those of Sanchez, but executed in a very different style. Her figures are exaggerated and expressionistic, often humorous in her manipulations of scale as well as form.

And Mary has always loved diners. She did a whole series of them in the 1980s. We ar elucky to have one of the best of these. Here is what Mary wrote in a letter to us at the time of her donation of "Sullivan's Diner" to the museum:

     The Sullivan's Diner piece you have is the fourth (and currently last) in a series of pictures carved of Sullivan's Diner located in Horesheads, New York.  (Another piece in the series I donated to the National Museum of Women and the Arts.)  I originally started doing pictures of diners and restaurants because I was fascinated with them as places where people, isolated during the rest of their day, could come together just to "be" and feel a sense of instant belonging.  After all, I also found myself (the isolated artist) going to them for the same reasons.

Sullivans Diner has a storied history in the Southern Tier of New York State.It was built in the 1940s Patterson, New Jersey, as a Silk City diner car, and was brought to downtown Elmira, New York (my hometown) where it became well known as Vic's Diner. In 1974 the diner was purchased by Arthur and Fran Sullivan and relocated to Old Ithaca Road in Horseheads, just north of Elmira. The Sullivans sold the business in 2005, but it continues today under new ownership.

At the time of her retirement in 2005, Fran Sullivan estimated that she had cracked 12 million eggs in that diner. She actually sat down one day and figured this out. When I used to look at Mary's carving, I associated the plate of eggs and toast held by the waitress in the foreground as an iconic diner serving. Now, I can only think of a hard-working and hardy soul who held forth in that building for more than thirty years, serving up 12 million of those eggs to the people she knew and loved. I'm very glad that one of them was a hungry folk artist looking for inspiration and a good meal.


  1. Paul, I didn't realize that these carvings existed. Sullivan's Diner has been a part of my world for many years and I used to eat a lot of those 12 million eggs that Fran served up. It wasn't the food that made it a special place however. It was the intimacy of the samll space of the diner and the warmth of Fran's personality. It always felt like you were in her kitchen at home and, even if you weren't a regular, you felt instantly included in the diner's community.
    Thanks for posting this.

  2. I had a feeling you would have known this place, Gary. Thanks for the insightful comment, as usual!

  3. Paul, Thanks for writing about this piece. I really do identify with the working people part of what you said. Having carved and painted my pictures for 38 years, my personal version of twelve million eggs is twelve million woodchips.


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