An Artist's Lament for Air and Light
Published: February 27, 2005
o the Editor:
Twelve years ago, I gave up my sunny rent-stabilized apartment on East 88th Street, across the street from the Guggenheim Museum, to buy a one-bedroom co-op on 96th Street with a small pile of hard-earned shekels. It seemed like a wise thing to do at the time.
The new apartment, unique in the building, was the back half of a much larger subdivided one, consisting of the small maid's room and bathroom, the kitchen and the dining room. Unlike the other apartments, with views that faced north or south, all my windows looked east over the roofs of a small row of shops and onto trees on Madison Avenue.
With the help of an Abstract Expressionist/carpenter friend from Maine, I set about breaking down old closets and walls and transforming my space into a small galley kitchen, a sleeping loft, plenty of storage space, a comfortable living area and a painting studio.
Blissfully happy in my new home, I have done some of my best work here. My last picture book, "A Spree in Paree," was named one of the 10 best children's books of 2004 by Time magazine.
Last summer, the small row of stores in front of my windows was torn down.
Gone were the shiny pyramids of green, yellow and red peppers in front of the greengrocer; the bright bouquets of peonies and lilies in the flower shop; the piles of peeled pink shrimp in the Japanese sushi shop; the sparkling diamante earrings in the watchmaker's window; the glittery shawls and faux furs in the Chinese dress shop; and the noisy schoolkids clamoring for bagels in the corner bakery at midday.
I sat in my bright apartment gazing out over the open space at the trees, leaves trembling in the autumn wind.
Just before Christmas, the trees on Madison Avenue were hacked up and heaved into Dumpsters. As suddenly as the shops disappeared, a hideous concrete frame soared into the sky, a few feet from my windows. In a matter of weeks, I had lost not only the trees and my view, but all my natural light.
I see my reflection in the glass of my windows. Behind the glass is a dark square, like a school blackboard. "Can't you paint a cheery picture on it," my aunt suggests over the telephone from her beachfront home in South Carolina.
Some of my neighbors in the lobby rubbed their hands in glee, mentally calculating how much their own apartments will be enhanced by this fancy new interloper.
My lovely sunny studio has become a dungeon, my living room a bunker, unfit for human habitation let alone an artist's atelier. My board is unsympathetic. They shrug, amiably: how were they to know that our air rights had expired in 1948?
Prospective buyers stream in and out of my apartment, some without stopping or uttering a word.
So here I sit, like J. R. R. Tolkien's Gollum in his dank cavern, alternating between dark depression and bristling resentment, until I finally give up, pack up my brushes and follow the little storekeepers to the outer boroughs.
I would like to think that this Manhattan neighborhood will miss its children's book illustrator along with the Korean greengrocer, the Chinese dress shop ladies, the Japanese sushi chef, the Jewish watchmaker, the Afro-American flower seller and the yuppie bagel baker. But the people sitting in the bright new cookie cutter stores across the street, contentedly munching Dunkin' Donuts and sipping Starbucks coffee, probably won't even notice we've gone.