Old Books Give An Artist A New Canvas

TeoMugShotKhristopher J. Brooks Teofilo Olivieri is an artist who uses discarded hardcover books as a canvas. Below: One of his pieces adorns a copy of James A. Michener’s “Chesapeake.”

As a child, Teofilo Olivieri practiced drawing by sketching comicbook superheroes. Today, Mr. Olivieri uses hardcover books as a distinctive canvas for his art.

Mr. Olivieri, 46, has no formal training in art, but his paintings are becoming popular in the East Village because of their unusual presentation.

“I’ve been very visible in New York City for the past 10 years, but the book covers have gotten the most response of any of the things I’ve worked on in my entire career,” Mr. Olivieri said.

He sells his work near an office building at University Place and East 11th Street but he can also be found at Union Square, along the Bowery and near Sixth Avenue and West Fourth Street.

Mr. Olivieri moved to New York City in 2001 after working as a commercial illustrator in Boston. The Hoboken native moved to Manhattan to focus on creating art from scraps and throw-aways found across the city. “When I was little, I used to sit by the river and look over and dream of me, one day, living in New York,” Mr. Olivieri said.

When he’s not painting, Mr. Olivieri spends time wandering the East Village looking for old hardcover books. When he finds one, he extracts the pages and keeps the cover.

“That’s another job itself, just finding the books,” Mr. Olivieri said, noting that his go-to spots are the dollar bookshelves outside many local bookstores. Mr. Olivieri also said he finds books on the street and people donate books to him.

IMG_0030Khristopher J. Brooks One of Mr. Olivieri’s pieces.

Recently, Mr. Olivieri was stationed near Sixth Avenue and West Fourth Street displaying about 50 of his paintings against the façade of HSBC. He sits in a chair painting new pieces as passersby browse and buy his work. His pieces range in price from $40 to $75 and he considers the East Village an ideal stage for displaying his work.

“I know the Village — this is where I used to hang out,” Mr. Olivieri said, noting that as a high schooler he would occasionally travel from New Jersey to Washington Square Park to draw portraits. “Back in the day, there used to be more artists here so I just felt comfortable selling here. It’s not like Midtown where it’s so tight and so many people, it’s mostly relaxed here for artists.”

Bonnie Morrison, an East Village resident, bought two of Mr. Olivieri’s paintings recently. She considered a painting of a bear and the one with the pig, but she settled on two pieces, one with a rhinoceros and one with a buffalo.

“I liked the precision, detail of the animals; they’re not crude at all, really true to what each animal is,” Ms. Morrison said.

Mr. Olivieri said that he doesn’t care too much if his hardcover work flops or becomes wildly popular. He said he’s at peace now because he’s living in a place that offers new art ideas every day.

“All art inspires me, man, the people inspire me,” he said. “New York is amazing.”