We received an email from the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, advertising a Lower East Side tour featuring the Bialistoker Sinagogue. My husband and I decided to join the tour.The inside of the temple was magnificent and the outside was simple and well kept and obviously well attended.
But we also passed by two small tenement structures, now used by the organization as a visitor center. We went inside and were told that the two buildings were about to be demolished as well as the other buildings on that block.
I so badly wanted to record this block within a painting before it would be gone forever. To me this was one of the last remnants of a past vibrant culture.
A few years ago I had finished what I had decided would be my last street painting of the streets of N.Y The drive to and from the city was difficult and long, the sitting for hours on crowded sidewalks was exhausting, and instead of painting, for the last few years I had been drawing the homeless and trees which, like the homeless were trying to survive. Pencil was still my favorite medium and it had been so good to return to it.
My family saw how badly I did want to paint 400 Grand St and urged me to do so. My husband, Eric, clinched it by saying that he would do the driving and would sit with me. We planned to only go down on Sundays when the drive in would be easier and to leave no later than 2pm. We did so. We left at 7am, arrived around 8am and therefore were always able to park nearby and sometimes directly on Grand St itself.
It was so great to be back on the street to paint.. As usual people stopped by to watch and to tell us their stories about the area. Not only was Eric an interested listener, but he came up with a thought that changed the purpose of my work. When people asked if I could put them into the painting, he said that I would do that if they would give us the story of their connection to this area or to NYC in general. He said that we were trying to do a history of the people and places of this amazing multicultural city of NY.
And this is why this painting has become so important to us. We gave people our email number and the stories came. The first person whom I put into the painting was Felicia Carmona and her story traced her background and her life today. Suddenly we realized that we were documenting more than the history of Grand St. Charissa Ng brought her parents, sister, fiancé and grandparents to be painted in, and her college essay of how her great grandfather came to the U.S.A. Patti Chow wrote about her life and work on immigration. Paul Ratnofsky not only wrote us of his family history, but as an architect, he was always there to give me advice on perspective and structure. He also sent me photos which helped me to understand the building area itself. There is the mother of Alvin Broome whose story is of years within this area. The story of my friend of many years, Carol Hodkin and of Laura Silver who wrote a wonderful book about the history of Knishes, We met because she researched Yonah Shimmel and found out that I had painted it, that it was in the Museum of the City of N.Y
She contacted me and I felt that she belonged into this painting. The red haired manager of the Comfort Inn, Josh Deras, the Shnees family with their two children, and many stories of the other people which will still be sent to me.
I have always been wary of publicity. I don't want to be public property and also , if you are not careful, sitting on street corners exposes you to dangerous confrontations. Since the name with which I sign my art work is not the name by which I am known, I felt relatively safe. But when I was half way through my painting my son, Ken, presented me with a challenge..
"You said that this and the temple which you are finishing, will be the last paintings done on the streets of NYC. These paintings must become public. You have to let me expose you to the media."
I realized that he was right and I gave in.
Ken called the NEW YORK TIMES and my cover was blown. A wonderful writer, James Baron, and his excellent photographer came to meet us on Grand Street and his article appeared in The New York Times and my anonymity was gone. Suddenly I was interviewed by Matthew Nelson of BBC, Brian Lehrer, filmed by Shannon Ayala, and all asked such amazing questions that I saw NYC through wiser eyes. I would not have wanted to have missed that experience and am so grateful to have learned so much from their questions.
And then I received a call from Candace DeFeo and Sandra Coutinho from Globo which broadcasts programs from NY to Brazil. A friendship was formed which I hope will be life long. They filmed me at work on Grand St. and met the people who are in the painting and they came to my home and filmed my other works. We met again at The Comfort Inn on Grand St., and were joined by Candace's mother and the Coutinho's daughter. Anderson Coutinho is a brilliant photographer from Globo. I knew that they belonged into this painting, asked him to take their their photos, and during the next few weeks I was able to paint them into it. There is Arnie Sandler with his miracle dog, the neighborhood barber, his son and grandson, my family and friends who came down often when I painted, and when I receive all their stories I shall do a drawing listing everyone's name under their figures.
During the first few days of painting, a young man, Ed Litvak, asked if he could take a photo and place it into THE LO Down, a local newsletter which he published of this area. I told him that he could, but had no way of knowing how lucky that meeting would be for me. He is literally the historian of this area, and through him I received not only information of the future transformation of the block, but of two synagogues which I had painted on Norfolk St. Later on he gave me one of his News Letters which told of the people who once lived at 400 Grand St, the building which I had just painted and which was now demolished. I keep a file on every street painting of the people and places and history of that area, so his help has been an amazing gift.
The painting is finished today on October 21, 2015. But I will live with it , making or subtracting small areas when I notice them, and wait until I receive the rest of the stories.