Retired Bridgeport dentist works to ‘convey feeling’ with paintings that won Rowayton art show

The week before the “In the City” exhibit opened at the Rowayton Arts Center on May 23, one of the entrants, Mark Schiff, was in lower Manhattan at the Affordable Art Fair, where he was delighted to learn his two paintings on display had sold so quickly his gallerist wanted more.

Both were large canvases done in acrylic from Schiff’s lily series. One was titled “Provence Lilies” and the other “Silvermine Lilies.” Schiff had toured Provence and studied at the Silvermine Art Center. But as an artist he doesn’t aspire to still life precision. His lily paintings border on pure abstraction, bursting with flowered vines.

So now, the excited Schiff rushed back to his paint-splattered studio at the Firing Circuits Artists building in Norwalk to gather more lily canvases for New York. He’d done dozens. Then, the next day, he got a call from Bruce Horan, the chairperson of the “In the City” exhibit, informing him he had won best in show for his painting titled “Shanghai.”

It was Schiff’s first-ever Rowayton show and “Shanghai” was from a different series of paintings. It is an abstracted landscape done in watercolor on paper — or so the label says. Hanging just inside the art center’s entrance, now with a blue ribbon attached, Schiff’s “Shanghai” is constructed mostly from thick and shiny watercolor pigment.

Up close, you can see tiny, curling waves of paint. The buildings, or the suggestion of buildings, blaze with intense yellows and oranges. In the very center, a teal blue river splits the skyline; forming a focal vortex pulling the viewer inward. There’s also movement below, as if Shanghai rests on an unsteady foundation.

“It just blew me away,” Schiff said of his back-to-back successes. “I came back to get some artwork for New York City and I get this call from Bruce. Remember how I said I believe things happen for you (not to you)? This was one of those moments where all your stars are lined up. I felt very fortunate and very grateful.”

Schiff is 75. Part of his gratitude, he said, he owes to instructors over the years and the fellowship of other Firing Circuits artists. Until the Covid pandemic prompted his retirement last year, he had a full-time dental practice in Bridgeport, specializing in family and restorative care.

Unlike many late-life artists, Schiff had no early formal art training. Growing up in Roslyn, on Long Island, he preferred music, playing the clarinet in school bands and orchestras. As a dentist, he kept up with his clarinet and sometimes made sculptures from plaster or metal. In a way, the fine manual skills of dentistry overlapped with those of art.

But he wasn’t prompted to pick up a paint brush until 1996, when a bicycle tour of California wine country delivered him to the studio of the watercolorist Barbara Nechis, who was known to welcome visitors.

“I knocked on her door. She was there and invited me in,” Schiff recalled. “I watched her paint. She was painting wet into wet (soaking the paper so the paint spread). I watched her for an hour. She was the first person who gave me the experience of painting. I said I want to do that. And when I came back I signed up for an adult class at a high school and then Silvermine.”

Schiff’s exhibition resume began around 2010, with a Silvermine student award for watercolor. In 2016, he had a solo show of 47 paintings, a combination of watercolors, acrylics and oils, at the Wilton Library. Few were figurative.

“I like vibrant colors. I like action, motion,” he said. “I want to convey a feeling. I have things that are changing, convoluting within a canvas … Sometimes I look at a painting and say, ‘I can’t believe I painted that.’ Where does that energy come from? Part of art is learned and part of art comes from a higher power.”

Describing “Shanghai,” Schiff mentioned he put a snake in the upper left hand corner because to him a snake represents energy and rejuvenation. Schiff has been to China twice, but never to Shanghai. The Shanghai snake is near featureless. It is a humped streak of shiny blue black that appears to be racing away from the viewer into the city.

Schiff said he got the idea of applying watercolor pigment directly onto paper from friends who cut off the bottom of toothpaste tubes or skin cream to squeeze out all the contents. So he began experimenting with amputated paint tubes, applying the pigment to paper like frosting, then working it with a palette knife or scraper.

He showed an example of the result by pointing to a landscape hanging in his studio of the world’s largest Iguazu waterfalls in South America, which he has visited. It is a horizontal composition, mostly yellow and red, with flashes of white. “I’m not sure you want to call this a water color. There’s not a lot of water in it,” he said.

For his lily series, Schiff also uses improvised tools. He buys ordinary house paint brushes, from one to four inches in width, by the set and cuts off the tips of the bristles. For a palette, he pours paint into waxed paper picnic bowls. His easel tilts so the canvas is flat when he’s working on it. “I twist, turn and schmear,” he said.

Schiff said his fixation on lilies goes back to encountering Claude Monet’s water lilies in a museum and then visiting his Giverny garden. He said he has come to see a combination of Monet’s classicism and Jackson Pollack’s wildness in his lily paintings. “There’s confusion and energy. It’s night and day coming together,” he said.

Schiff said he always felt creative and didn’t have to overcome inhibitions when he first started to paint. “I don’t mind letting people know who I am,” he said. “I think things happen in my life for me; in order to progress, in order to be better, in order to create beautiful objects that I love and that I hope other people love.”

Schiff painted “Shanghai” about a year ago, months before the city themed Rowayton show was announced and soon after his second trip to China. He returned in early January 2020, unaware of the virus about to spread all over the world.

The Rowayton show, which includes almost 60 artists, closes June 20. For more information, visit

Joel Lang is a freelance writer.