“Superlative City” Is a Radiant Watercolor Survey of Big Apple Life

A rousing and gorgeous collection of quirky fun facts paired up with fastidious paintings, Cynthia M. Pigott’s latest work is a testament to pandemic-quarantine inspiration and love of one’s city. Straus News spoke to her about the joys of giving readers cocktail party topics, why photographs work better for detail, and the importance of always getting a second source.

| 18 Aug 2023 | 12:58

Cynthia M. Pigott’s “Superlative City: The Most, the Biggest, the First, the Oldest and the Best of New York in 52 Pictures” is every die-hard New Yorker’s dream watercolor survey. A collection of painstakingly detailed and vibrant paintings that fit the aforementioned “superlatives” of the title, it’s as if an undiscovered Old Master used the COVID-19 pandemic to capture every urban quirk that makes New York unlike anywhere else. It’s a coffee-table book to show off to your relatives who proclaim loyalty to Boston or L.A., bowling them over with the visual grandeur of the Big Apple’s landmarks as rendered by delicate brushstroke.

Pigott’s book, organized around factoids and photographs she collected while strolling the streets in 2020, is not merely composed of marvelous artwork. Of course, she points out that New York City’s Grand Central Terminal is the “biggest railroad station in the world,” but every printed painting also comes accompanied with a pertinent history lesson. For example, “Grand Central covers 48 acres and serves about 125,000 commuters daily. The station’s lost and found collects 19,000 items annually.” Biggest means busy.

Pigott noted to Straus News that a reader “told me that he now has great cocktail party conversations,” likely because “Superlative City” doubles as a centralized fun facts repository. Scrabble, for example, was invented in a church basement in Jackson Heights, Queens. Pigott’s lovely painting of a street sign at the Queens corner of 35th & 81st Avenues commemorating said founding only sweetens the knowledge.

Pigott has been painting since the late 1980s, starting at a Y.W.C.A. branch that has since closed. As with every master, she was once a student, with Denis Ponsot serving as her steadfast tutor.

Elaborating on her painting process, she says her paintings “are not that impressionistic. It takes many hours to do them, so painting outside doesn’t really work for me.” Changes in lighting get in the way of a deliberate scene.

Pigott is methodical about fact-checking her superlatives, as well. “Mostly, I did my research online...but I made sure that the sources were legitimate, of course,” she emphasized. Crucially, she always used more than one source to double-verify, adding that “just because it’s reported in one place doesn’t necessarily mean it’s correct.” Take note, aspiring gumshoes!

(Author’s note: magazines such as TIME have disputed that the New York Post, founded in 1801 as the New York Evening Post by Alexander Hamilton, is the oldest continuing newspaper in the country. Pigott echoes that claim in her “Oldest” section. The Hartford Courant is actually recognized as the oldest newspaper still in business, but it started as a weekly called the Connecticut Courant in 1764 and did not transform into a daily until 1837. The Post is the oldest continuing daily, which it was from the get-go.)

In an earned twist, her “Best” category comes with the asterisk clarifying that it’s “an admittedly subjective category.” Pigott claims that New York has the best bagels and hot dogs; this is arguably true for the former, although some people (such as the writer of this piece) would give Chicago the latter award.

The “Worst” category is reserved for a somber depiction of the Tribute in Light marking the September 11, 2001 attacks.

This is Pigott’s second book, as she put out a memoir in 2021 about being a juror during a wrongful-death trial for a 2008 crane collapse that stretched to interminable lengths. Diary of a Mad Juror: An Inside Look at a Record-Breaking Wrongful Death-Trial that Fell Short of the Truth is available on Kindle or paperback.

Superlative City is available for purchase on Amazon for $20. Readers that want to purchase an original or a print of any of the book’s watercolors can reach out to Cynthia at cityofsuperlatives@gmail.com.