The outsider artist at home: A look inside

BY BOB KRASNER | Richard Shaoul lives in a tree house, in Downtown Manhattan. Figuratively speaking, that is, as his abode is tucked away in a commercial building on Broadway, owned by his parents.

His neighbors are mostly garment manufacturers during the day and nonexistent at night. The space was previously the home of his ex-girlfriend and an art gallery before that.

Richard Shaoul in his game room in The Treehouse. (Photos by Bob Krasner)

Shaoul took over the space after living in a 4-foot-square cube above a bathroom, a situation that ended as the result of an unfortunate fire. That story, which involves a piano teacher, an antiques dealer, a physical altercation a long time ago, a man who jogged from LA to New York and a candle, will have to be told another time.

As a result of the fire, Shaoul came close to being kicked out of the building, which is located south of Union Square.

“My parents were very kind,” he said. “They let me have this space.”

He then began a four-year process of literally carving out his place in the world. Though he has no formal training in any type of art or craft, he created the ornate cabinet doors, railings, doorframes and baseboards that decorate most of the apartment and inspired its name — The Treehouse.

“All the wood was salvaged,” he said. “The beams were thrown out by a nearby post office and there was a lot of dumpster diving.”

Richard Shaoul at work on his maps.

Shaoul paid his expenses by delivering art, working at his father’s antiques store and occasional construction work. When he needed a break, he would head Upstate to his uncle’s converted barn and immerse himself in mapmaking. Not maps of any known places, though.

Shaoul’s maps are of very detailed utopian worlds that exist in alternate universes and alien galaxies. Although he is descended from the well-known painter Albert Nemethy — his grandfather — Shaoul never studied how to make art. He just did it, making him a classic “outsider” artist.

The art gallery/dining room in Richard Shaoul’s apartment, with a view of the second floor.
Wooden beams in the ceiling were salvaged from a nearby post office. Planks were scavenged from dumpsters. The paintings in the gallery are by Hilary Mance. Shaoul can be seen at work at upper right.

His beautifully drawn worlds reflect both his disappointment in the real world and his optimism that other options exist.

“I don’t want to believe in the world that we are living in,” he explained. “Having this apartment, through the great generosity of my father, has made it possible for me to focus on alternative worlds.”

Musicians playing at the Hilary Mance opening at The Treehouse, from left, Ben Sutin on violin, Luca Soul Rosenfeld on bass, Yosuke on percussion, and Steven Frieder on saxophone.

Places with names like “Pirhan” and “Voirs” are painstakingly detailed on sheet after sheet, taking about two years per map to complete.

“These places are real,” Shaoul asserted. “I’ve seen them.”

Many men have a place of refuge in their home — frequently, a “man cave.” Richard Shaoul has a spaceship.

Assembled from outdated tech hardware originally salvaged from ships, submarines and elsewhere, the decor came from a movie set that he assembled years ago.

“When the movie was over, no one wanted any of it, so I brought it home,” he said.

Kitchen cabinets in Richard Shaoul’s Treehouse. Each cabinet took about two weeks to carve by hand.

None of those gadgets actually work, though, except for the TV screen, which is hooked up for DVD and Nintendo.

“It’s my way of associating with the universe,” he explained.

His way of associating with the world down here is to open his space to friends, who have put on concerts, hosted psychic readings and art shows there. Hilary Mance, who uses the space as her studio to create beautiful abstract paintings, loves working there.

“The experience of being in and painting at The Treehouse takes you off the planet, into pages of childhood storybooks where time doesn’t exist,” she said.

Mance recently hosted a two-night event there to showcase her new work, with her son Luca Soul Rosenfeld and friends supplying the music. Rosenfeld frequently plays and organizes events there.

“When I go through the door, I am transported out of New York City into a world of infinite possibility,” Rosenfeld said.

While others are out running through what the New York City night has to offer, Richard Shaoul stays up working on his maps — in his Treehouse.

“I’m not really participating in the modern world,” he said. “I don’t know how to.”

To be put on the mailing list for upcoming Treehouse events, e-mail [email protected] .

6 Responses to The outsider artist at home: A look inside

  1. Related to the notorious Ben Shaoul?

  2. Good job, Richie. Glad to see your talents recognized. -BC

  3. SO honored and delighted to be there when you saw the article about you on the cover!

  4. Your talent is amazing, and exceeded only by your imagination. Keep searching for that elusive real world!

  5. Thanks for this article. I attended the opening and met the artists, and would have never known about it if not for The Villager. And it was more than worth it. Such an interesting place and interesting artists.

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