By Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
Sara Pincus, “Pinky” to many of us, owned the only art studio in Far Rockaway. At eleven, when I first walked up the long staircase to her studio, my wooden case of art supplies bumping against my thigh, I had no idea that something indelible would happen inside me that would shape my life the way my sable brushes would shape each of my brushstrokes….
Her studio doorway was usually open to diffuse the heady scent of turpentine and benzene. Inside, you saw rows of easels with their stools and small tables where you set out your palette. The big windows at your left framed the Mott Avenue El. There were shelves of vases, seashells, and baskets of artificial fruit that you might want to use for a still life grouping. Beneath that were canvasses of work in progress. Plaster casts of heads and hands were hung on the walls. On the right wall, were the sinks for washing your brushes in yellow soap. A Bakelite radio played opera. And if you didn’t find anything you wanted to use for a still life, you could choose photos from the alphabetized portfolios. Best of all, you’d find Sara, her waist-length red hair up in a knot, her pale blue eyes, long skirts and peasant blouses. You’d see her slowly going from easel to easel. You’d sense her quiet concentration when she stood beside to look at what you were working on. Those moments were, for me, the most loving attention I had in my childhood.
From across the hall, even with the door closed, you can hear the rumble of her husband, Toto Tamburino’s, cough coming from his private studio. Toto, always in a blue smock, black jabot and beret, a painter of nude women and scenes from his native Italy, had emphysema. Pinky, a nineteen year old girl from upstate NY (Elmira, I think) had come to New York City to live among artists and fell recklessly in love with him. He was twenty years older than she. Pinky’s brother, a lawyer, had been so against the match that he offered Sara full tuition to college if she would just leave him.
Instead she lived in Greenwich Village with Toto. She told me that during the Depression, they had no heat and had to prime pieces of cardboard and old crates because they couldn’t afford canvas. “He took me to see Martha Graham dance in the Greenwich Village Follies,” she told me. “We made sketches of her dancing, and sent them to her. She sent us a handwritten thank you note. I’d show it to you if only I could find it.”
Everything about Pinky fascinated me. She was the first person I knew who ate yogurt. She was the first married woman I knew who hadn’t given up her maiden name. And she was the first person I knew who had summered in Europe instead of escaping from it. She owned signed Max Bodenheim poems that he used to clothes pin on a line like laundry in Greenwich Village coffee houses and sell for a buck each. She had tiny ivory Buddhas from an Asian scientist who had fallen in love with her. She showed me art books and began taking me to museums. I’d get chills watching her look at a painting. She didn’t blabber like a docent, but her intensity of observation showed me that there was something there for me, a world beyond my own that reached into the past and would reach into my future. When I became a teenager, she loaned me books by Tolstoy, Baudelaire, and the poetry of Rimbaud and Whitman.
I couldn’t believe my fortune to have her within walking distance of my house. When I asked her how she happened to come to Far Rockaway she said, “Toto and I accepted a grant from the W.P.A. to bring culture to the suburbs. Then we settled here. Sure, I’m not in museums,” she added with a shrug, “but there’s always an article about me in The Wave and interior decorators commission me to do paintings, and I’ve got the studio.”
Sometimes we’d go to Arverne to sketch on the docks, me with a pencil so that I could erase, her with a brush dipped in India ink. In quick strokes, she managed to achieve drawings that got at an essence, and in some ways were more real than the shacks, pilings, and boats that were are subjects.
Sara was in her late fifties when Toto’s lungs finally gave out. She was shocked that after his funeral so many of the married men she’d known through the studio over the years, father’s of students, students themselves presented themselves at her door at night with greedy hands. I’d never seen her angry before and was taken aback by her scowl. “Did they think I was waiting around all the years for Toto to die so that they could have me?” she said. Single men came courting too, but her heart slammed like a door against them. For her, there was only Toto.
Around this time, the early seventies, town, which had always been vibrant, began to be a scene of boarded-up stores and crime. Sara’s students were too afraid to come to her studio, but I was too worried about her and loved her too much to stay away. I kept going even after the addicts yanked out all the plumbing and Sara and I, locked in her studio, had to pee in a pot. She stayed in the studio even after it was robbed of petty cash and anything made of metal. The painting I was working on must now be hanging in a crack den somewhere, but Sara stayed at that studio and I kept coming back. The only reason she finally walked away from it was because someone set fire to it and there was nothing left to go back to.
Still she didn’t give up. She took one of her rooms in the old house she lived in on McBride Street and turned it into a studio and adopted a stray cat, “Golden Boy” as her companion. I shouldn’t have gone to see her there either. The block had become seedy. I should never have brought my infant daughter there, but I did. Pinky had never had children of her own and my mother was already ravaged by years of diet pills and alcohol. My mother-in-law adored my daughter, but Pinky was like a grandmother who was related to me. Pinky bathed my daughter in her bathroom sink, both of them laughing.
When my daughter was three, she began painting in Pinky’s bedroom studio. I did a portrait of her at an easel and only as I looked at it recently did I realize that I had made the background Pinky’s studio on Mott Avenue.
Quickly the neighborhood got too bad for me to risk bringing my daughter. Golden Boy was torn apart by a pack of wild dogs. Pinky was getting frail and forgetful. I wanted to do everything I could to remember her, have something of her. I painted her portrait reading in her living room and even painted Golden Boy curled up in a chair as if he were still alive. Whenever I came back, something about the painting looked different to me. The paint would be wet. Pinky confessed that she didn’t like her scrawny arms and secretly added more heft to them. We compromised. I painted her with three quarter sleeves.
When her memory got worse, her sister hired aides to care for her. Most of them didn’t show up. One beat her up. Another forced her to take out a large cash withdrawal from the bank and made off with it.
Her sister had no choice but to put Sara in a nursing home. They lopped off her long hair and because she had osteoporosis, they tied her to a wheelchair so that she wouldn’t break any of her bones.
The last time I saw her, she was sitting up in bed, her back to me, her torso twisted like the crippled woman in Andrew Wyeth’s iconic Christina’s World. I went around to face her and looked into her eyes. For a moment, her fog lifted.
“Rochelle, don’t worry about me,” she said. “I’m not here. I’m in my studio.” Then the fog came back into her eyes. She blinked hard at me. “Who are you?” she asked.
Your apricot flesh, raspberry hair,
all devoured in flame. No grave to cool you.
Only an urn of ashes.
No one told me where they were scattered.
Were they strewn off the dock
where we sketched rocking skiffs,
stilted shacks, your straw hat casting
a shadowy veil over half your face
while I, your pupil, sat beside you, learning
your quick brushstrokes?
Are your ashes at the house in Provincetown
where you painted pink-toned bathers
dappled in lavender and green?
Are they scattered in Washington Square Park
as a remembrance of your years in Greenwich Village
when you sold your paintings in cafes while subsisting
on a gruel of cornstarch and water or sometimes noodles
and spoonfuls of cheese until you got that grant from the WPA?
Or were they scattered in your studio
in Far Rockaway that one night crackled
and sizzled with fire, taking most of your paintings,
with their shifting, planes and simultaneous points of view?
You are everywhere now, still dressed in your long skirts
and peasant blouses, composed of edgeless wind-stirred notes.
When I stand before a work of art, I sense your silent concentration
like a tide coming from your high forehead, rippling into mine.
Your black and white photo hangs in my front hallway.
People ask, “Is that your mother?”
I say yes