KINGSTON, New York — Walking on John Street in Kingston on a rainy Saturday night my eye was caught by the oddest storefront on the block. Sandwiched between a tattoo parlor and an old office building is the tiniest of stores, measuring five feet wide by 15 feet long, with a long history. Originally the alleyway between buildings, the space was roofed over around the 1920s to become a jewelry store, then a Christian bookstore, a barbershop, a florist, and now the storefront studio of illustrator Matthew Pleva. Pleva’s space and work are part of the resurgence of the Hudson River city of Kingston, which has seen an extraordinary renaissance in the past five years. The combination of affordable studio and living spaces, proximity to New York City, and a close-knit and supportive artistic community is turning Kingston into a vibrant hub for creative types working in all mediums.
The original jewelry store sign still hangs above the door. It is an appropriate emblem for Pleva who makes drawings and dioramas of the most intimate scale. At SUNY Purchase, Pleva studied sculpture and printmaking, and after graduation became an apprentice to a commercial jeweler, working in the trade for 10 years. Both this background and the fact that Pleva’s father and grandfather were engineers inform his extraordinarily detailed and complex constructions.
In this perfectly tiny workshop and showroom, Pleva works with technical drawing pencils, creating illustrated narratives comprised of thousands of cross-hatched marks. He then painstakingly cuts out the drawings and mounts them on brass armatures, so that the drawn narrative becomes dimensional.
“My whole life I have always built things,” said Pleva. “My job as a bench jeweler satisfied that itch for a long time. Eventually I went back to basics — drawing. As a kid I loved making dioramas and then it all came together. ‘Let’s put it in a box.’”
Like modern-day medieval reliquaries, many of these pieces illustrate scenes from literary fiction of which Pleva is fond or illustrate significant moments in history. One of the more amusing ones, “July 20 1969,” depicting man landing on the moon, is housed in a vintage portable television of the era.
“Butcher” and “Gangs of New York,” each measuring one inch in diameter, illustrate two scenes from the film Gangs of New York in minute three-dimensional detail. Designed to be carried by the owner like a magical talisman or worn like the dioramas of old-fashioned watches is the amulet endearingly entitled “Jack the Ripper,” depicting the murderer in-action. It’s hard to know if these will serve to protect the bearer, but they are a technical tour de force.
Pleva has also translated his sensibility into slightly larger formats, creating dioramas out of found wooden boxes and advertising tins. These works are most successful in cases where the box and the narrative are related. For example, inside of a vintage World War l medic kit he has recreated a tiny scene from the movie MASH, his typical palette of black and white here illuminated by dark red crosses. This piece is particularly satisfying: The scale is small (9 1/4 by 3 31/4 inches) but big enough so that one can read the somber instructions on the tin box indicating how a tourniquet should be applied and instructions for wound care. Not just a mere reference to a pop-culture hit movie, the work has a real message. The connection between three wars (World War l, Korea, and Vietnam) paced roughly 40 years apart is a reminder of the sadly enduring constant of war in our lives.
In 2014, Pleva was tapped by the organizers of O+, a Kingston-based national organization that unites visual art, music, and “wellness.” Hosting festivals in Kingston, Chicago, the Bronx, Petaluma, California, and Haverhill, Massachusetts, the organization seeks to empower communities to take control of their collective well-being. Someone with a sense of humor asked the miniature-making Pleva to design and paint his first mural for a large wall that overlooks Kingston’s Peace Park. At 28 by 50 feet this mural must have been an odd jump for the artist to make, from very tiny to very large, from decidedly intimate to demonstrably public. Drawing upon his literary interests and local folklore, Pleva depicts in signature black-and-white a Hudson Valley folktale that involves a hobgoblin and a church. Though I admire his ability to work in an enormously different in scale, I prefer the intimacy of the smaller pieces — the ability to hold them in your hand and their allusion to magical objects are the real appeal for me.
In 2015 Pleva was again asked to design and paint a mural for O+. This piece, entitled “Robots!” (8 by 20 feet), is located in Chicago and seems far more dynamic. Pleva, perhaps more comfortable with the scale, employed dramatic diagonal bands of pattern that unite the wall in a very powerful way. He has since produced an elegant limited-edition print version of the mural image, a major difference being that he has adorned it with gold leaf, which adds a perfect hint of color and sheen to his rigorous black and white palette. The bands of gold become something for the eye to latch onto when trying to decipher the densely drawn science-fiction narrative: robots taking over the city, dodging sailboats and grabbing cars.
Both Pleva’s work and his space prove the truism that “small is beautiful.” But what save the artist and his gallery from cliché are his originality, inventiveness, and whimsy — all big reasons to make the small trip up the Hudson to Kingston, New York.
Matthew Pleva‘s store is located at 40 John Street in Kingston, New York.