Fresh off the boat that summer; I was a wide-eyed kid in New York for the first time. I gorged myself on galleries and museums. I was as fresh and raw as a nineteen-year-old can be.
One day I was in a Madison Avenue gallery when an elegantly dressed older woman entered. As I was the only other visitor, she approached me and said, “Young man, would you like some art supplies–some canvases?”
I arrived In New York with all the money I had; money I’d saved from a construction job that spring. I calculated that it was enough to last two months, but I was burning through the money at an alarming rate. I hadn’t found a job in New York yet. I ate pizza slices morning, noon, and night (which is why I don’t like pizza today). I’d already used the few canvases I’d brought with me. I was burning with fresh ideas but I didn’t have any canvas. The unexpected gift was a miracle.
We took a cab to her townhouse in Gramercy Park. Her maid greeted us at the door and my host led me to the elevator, which we took to her fifth-floor studio. I’d never been in a house with a private elevator. The high-ceilinged studio consumed the entire top floor of the townhouse. It was airy and filled with light. An easel stood in the middle of the room; nearby were glass jars with brushes and other equipment. The studio was neat–and dusty.
There were paintings on the walls and others stacked in neat rows. “Take as many as you can carry,” she said, pointing into the room. I didn’t see any blank canvases. “You don’t mind painting over old oils, do you,”
To my confusion, she explained, “I’m giving up painting. I’ve no talent and I’m too old to pretend any longer. I never come up here, indeed, I don’t like coming up here. Don’t be downcast! It’s alright–it’s fine. I’ve enjoyed my time painting, but it’s never been alive for me, so why do it? Take these canvases as a gift from an old artist to a young one. The only thing I ask is that you think about me when you use my canvases.”
I was struck dumb. What could I say? She was right: her semi-abstract paintings were earnest and diligent and lifeless.
She helped me pick out six or so canvases; as many as I could carry. I thanked her profusely and walked with my bundle to my East Village apartment. The canvases were top-quality linen and the stretchers expertly made. I used all of her canvases. In fact, I used one that night.