Friday, March 2, 2018


An artist I know called me up a while ago complaining that nobody wanted to show or buy her work, or even adopt it temporarily. Her basement was filling up with huge rolls of painted canvas that had no place else to go. She announced that she was discouraged and thinking of going back to her high-paid but not very exciting life as a computer programmer. I’m afraid I wasn’t very helpful and didn’t give her the answer she wanted to hear. I quoted an anecdote my Russian friend Elena was fond of telling about a young poet who, in despair, goes to see a friend, an old poet. The young poet is terribly unhappy; he complains to the old poet that nobody wants to hear his poems or buy his books. He is thinking of giving up being a poet and doing something else. The old poet shakes his head sadly and says: “If you CAN give it up – you should.” 

And that’s how I feel about being an artist of any kind. If you CAN give it up – you should. The world certainly needs plumbers and dentists and accountants far more than it needs more poets, writers or painters.

Well, this is not what my (now ex) friend wanted to hear and she hasn’t spoken to me since. She wanted me to tell her it was only a question of time till she became rich and famous and everybody wanted to fete her and buy her work. But, that’s just not how the real world works. If you want to be an artist, (of any kind) it has to be because you have no choice and that if didn’t live a creative life, you might just as well shrivel up and die. The truth is that there is no job with fewer external rewards than being an artist. For every one who succeeds in making even a modest living from their art, there are dozens who live below the poverty level or are supported by indulgent parents or spouse.

Art is a calling, not a career any more than going into the priesthood or becoming a teacher in a poverty stricken neighborhood. Now that I’m more or less retired and free to paint full time, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been and I look forward to getting into my studio every morning. Not that I had such a terrible life before – I had an interesting career teaching art history and writing about preservation. I had a loving marriage and three wonderful children. I’ve had lots of ups and downs in my 87 years and the bad times (I never told anyone about them) were horror stories, but, as long as I was able to go into my studio, I felt I could survive anything. Aside from the sheer pleasure of moving up and down the canvas with a brush in my hand, I now look forward to seeing what I am capable of when I give it my undivided attention. When someone asked my friend, the esteemed sculptor Reuben Nakian, what it took to be a good artist, his answer was simple: “You just need to live long enough.” That’s my goal.

Saturday, February 10, 2018


My friends all know that I’ve had a long and fruitful relationship with the overhead projector. I began using it around 30 years ago to enlarge my sketches onto canvas, much easier than the old-fashioned grid method I never quite mastered. I got the idea from watching fellow instructors at the University of Connecticut type their notes onto sheets of clear acetate and project them onto the blackboard for the class to copy, saving them from having to tediously write everything on the board. I borrowed a projector from the school’s AV Room and never looked back!

Over the years, I’ve found dozens of innovative ways to turn my low-tech, now obsolete projector into high art. Not only can I enlarge my drawings to any size that suits me, I can incorporate real people onto and into my projections, taking photographs to preserve the experience. By overlapping photos or drawings, I can create totally new composite images. I can enlarge them to fill entire gallery walls. I can photocopy them onto sheets of acetate and by overlapping, create entirely new compositions which can then be transferred to canvas or video. I can move images around and make them dance to music, then videotape the results. I can cut small figures or buildings etc out of paper and make them fill a room. While images from the projector are by their very nature ephemeral, vanish the second you turn off the machine, you can make a permanent record with your camera. I‘ve even discovered how to turn my experiments into prints which, when matted and framed, can pass for etchings or drypoints. No press - no ink – no mess.

Here are just a few of the projects created with the projector:

·        The Seven Deadly Sins:  I projected the names of the Sins onto my body and photographed the results. (the names, not the sins)

·        Dance to the Music:  A “performance piece” with projected drawings of tacky ‘real-live’ couples dancing to even tackier music. In the Finale the audience gets up and dances along with the figures on the screen. 

·        The Lower East Side. Many years ago, I took black and white photos of the area with my low-tech Brownie camera. I recently enlarged them to larger than life size with the projector, animated them with the help of my video artist friend, Cici, and found the perfect musical score. I’ve got extra copies of the video we made if you want one. One night, a few years ago, I took over the Franklin Street Works building in Downtown Stamford, mounted overhead projectors near the ceiling and turned the entire gallery into the Lower East Side c. 1960. The crowd attending the opening became part of the street. I think it was the most interesting exhibit they ever had.

So what’s next for the projector and me?

Have you ever heard of Moire patterns? It’s the French word for “watered silk” and a visual phenomenon studied obsessively a couple of hundred years ago (Google was vague) by a Professor Moire (M/wah’/ray – with an accent a/gue’.)  It turns out that my images on acetate, when placed on top of one another, often produce fascinating moirĂ© patterns. I have no idea why or how; the explanations are way over my head.

Meanwhile, I have accumulated a lifetime supply - around fifteen - overhead projectors that I currently store in my attic. They were given to me, free of charge, by schools tired of having them take up space in the A.V. Room. I took them all, just to make sure there is always one in working condition when I need it. 

Saturday, January 27, 2018


As I mentioned in my last post (#152), I have a great workspace purchased a half century ago from an Art Deco mural painter. The only reason we could afford it was because it was (and still is) a ‘handyman’s special’ and we were willing to be the handymen.

This brings me to a favorite theory: “no artists’ space is ever big enough.” It’s like we can’t help hungering for more room. Even though I love the studio in my house, the workspace of my dreams is an abandoned early 20th century factory, an entire floor with giant windows on either side, a large track down the middle that would hold huge canvases and a performance space at the far end. I’d put a sofa bed and a kitchenette near the door so I could live with my work, painting in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, space like that doesn’t exist any more – unless you are willing to move to Norwich, CT or an abandoned textile mill in Rhode Island or the wilds of New Hampshire. 

A few years ago, some friends and I looked at a vacant c1920s hotel in Stamford that had been converted to Class D office space nobody seemed to want. We thought we could pool our money, buy it, remove the partitions and use it for loft living. It was a great idea; I’d have Curley’s next door and could buy a meal plan. However, when we looked at the spaces, we realized that most of the windows were blocked – or were going to be blocked - by new fifteen story buildings. The one permanent view was of Columbus Park – good – but not good enough. Pass.

Areas like Fairfield County are particularly hard on artists. You only have to look at the tiny cubbies the Loft Artists have settled for (and they’re not cheap): boxes, the size of a guest room. This is especially galling when you remember that they started out in a poor artists’ paradise, the ruins of the old Yale & Towne Lock Factory in the South End of Stamford, Thirty unused buildings: low rent, no amenities, unsafe after dark, unclean communal toilets down the hall, BUT with 15’ ceilings and huge industrial windows with great views on all sides. A three-bedroom apartment in the now “restored” complex along Henry Street rents for around $4,000 a month and is the size of my former $250 a month loft! You can barely fit a bed and a dresser in the bedrooms. There’s still some reasonably priced space to be had in Bridgeport or Port Chester or Norwalk but you can’t legally live there and what are you going to do if you feel like working in the middle of the night? Come down in your pajamas? Would you dare even step out of your car?

A corollary to my “no artists space is ever big enough” theory is my observation that “the size of artwork expands to fill all available space.” Small studio = Small work. BIG studio: the sky’s the limit. It’s not just the size of the walls, but you need room to step back to look at what you are doing.
What set me off on this topic is my current situation. You won’t believe me, but I feel as if I’m outgrowing my present studio! I now crave a space where I can paint 20’ canvases or do theatrical performances with my cutouts on the overhead projector. Plus, given the current political scene, I’d like to take my “Developer” series out of the attic: a dozen giant cardboard cutouts based on the gross moguls I dealt with over the years (surrounded by wives, ex-wives, offspring, lawyers, land use consultants, accountants, politicians and thugs.) Wait ‘til you see how prescient I was! They are begging to tell their story!

 I’m currently reading a book called “INVENTING DOWNTOWN: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City 1952-1965”. It’s the catalogue for a show held last year at the Grey Gallery at NYU. I even broke down and bought it ($60), something I rarely do since I have hundreds of art books I haven’t gotten around to yet. It’s about a period in New York, the fifties and sixties, when groups of struggling artists working in places like the Lower East Side banded together to open co-op galleries in tenement apartments and empty storefronts. Many of them later became rich and famous but got their start there. I was busy changing diapers at the time and missed the scene (no regrets, however.) On several occasions though, I did manage to get to visit shows where artists I knew from student days exhibited. When the book describes where and how they lived and worked, you will better understand how critical Cheap Space is to creative growth.

Friday, January 12, 2018


The summer before I got married, I took a course in woodblock printing at Pratt Graphic Center in Manhattan. The class was taught by a print maker I greatly admired, Antonio Frasconi. He and I had similar ‘sensibilities,’ favoring expressiveness over abstraction and during the two months I was in his class I produced several fairly successful small woodblocks. The problem for me with woodcuts was that carving large-sized blocks required physical strength I simply did not have. When I did go back to printmaking a decade or so later after my children were born, I worked with something called Battleship Linoleum, easier to handle on a large scale. I have no idea where it got its name; maybe one of my readers can tell me. It came in three-foot rolls that I cut into blocks, the size of my kitchen table. Even better, I discovered that if I ran my electric iron on Low over the surface while I worked, the material softened to a butter-like consistency that allowed me to carve large, expressive prints with a minimum of physical effort.  Since I didn’t have a press, I learned how to print
Japanese style, inking the block with a rubber brayer and then pressing a wood spoon or a baren over the paper to transfer the ink. It was a ‘hit or miss’ proposition but somehow it worked most of the time. Over a few years, I created a half dozen prints I was really proud of and then, without warning, the magic was gone. Nothing worked. No matter how much I warmed the block, cutting became a struggle and the blocks looked clumsy and lacked “flow.” After several failed attempts, I gave up printmaking and went back to painting where at least I could control my material. It wasn’t until years later when I told a fellow printmaker my story that I learned that the problem was in the material, not my skill. According to him, there was an ingredient in the original linoleum called Kaori gum came from an ‘endangered’ specie of tree and was no longer available. How could I have known?

Around two years ago, I finally went back to printmaking, only this time on the computer. I accidentally discovered that if I printed photos of my collages or drawings onto sheets of overhead projector acetate and mounted them on toned paper, they looked like etchings or engravings. Once you matted and framed them, they appeared to be “the real thing.” My friend Priscilla who taught printmaking at SUNY Purchase for twenty years, told me I had invented a new printing  technique. I’m now frantically producing prints, putting them in mats and thrift shop frames and giving them to friends. My big fear is not that someone will copy my technique, but that my printer will break down and the new model will no longer get the same results. Happens to me all the time. Technology giveth and technology taketh away.   

Happy New Year    

Renee Kahn

Friday, December 8, 2017


I know very few people who are comfortable speaking in public. They might be articulate in private conversation, but freeze up when faced with an audience. It’s usually from lack of experience but over the years, I have known dozens of people who speak in public all the time and yet are terrible at it.  Without bragging, just being honest, speaking in public is one of the few things in life I’m really good at. Even when I don’t know what I am talking about, I manage to give a convincing performance and people are always telling me “how much they learned.”

7'x7' Vision Created by the Overhead Projector
I honed my craft in the gulag of the South Bronx when I was in my early twenties, teaching art to fidgety, inner-city twelve year olds at Junior High School #98.  I never quite recovered from the experience. They were worse than any Comedy Club audience; you held their attention or you died (figuratively speaking). Out of necessity, I became a performer, a mesmerizer of the highest order. The quality of the artwork produced by my thirty classes per week (yes, I taught thirty classes with thirty five or more students every week) was awesome.  Once you unleashed the creative potential of my semi-literate subjects, there was no telling what would emerge. The main problem was that I had to first establish “order” in the class, not so easy since I was not much older than my students and far less worldly. I accomplished this by bluffing them into thinking I actually had some power. In the end, I loved them; they loved me and the work they turned out was remarkably good. I taught them they could succeed at something and they taught me how to hold the attention of an audience, no matter how rowdy or disinterested. When I returned to teaching a couple of decades later, it was on the college level and I couldn’t get over how the class sat quietly and wrote down my every word. But the techniques I had learned teaching Junior High School served me well; I was, as they often put it, “the most interesting teacher they had.” Little did they know what had gone into acquiring that skill.

7'x7' Vision Created by the Overhead Projector
About fifteen years ago, my daughter who lives in New York City found herself on a city-wide preservation council that put together an annual forum at the New York Historical Society. The council had decided that the theme of that year’s meeting would be  “Preservation in the Suburbs” and they were looking for speakers. “How about my mom?” my daughter asked. All heads turned in disbelief. “Your MOM???” Eve proceeded to explain my role in preservation in Fairfield County and, based on her assurances, I was invited to participate. It turned out that there were about 300 in the audience, not a familiar face (except for my anxious daughter), but having once faced down students from Junior High School 98 in the South Bronx, I was confident I could handle the situation. I knew my subject well and threw in lots of laughs. My opening line was: “Preservation in the suburbs is an oxymoron.” The speaker who came after me muttered in my ear something about my being a tough act to follow.

The subject of public speaking came up recently when a friend’s husband parked his Porsche convertible in my garage for the winter. “I have a great Porsche story for you,” I offered, and it went as follows:

One year I was asked to give a talk to the Greenwich Garden Club about a book I had written entitled “Preserving Porches.” I had given the same slide talk to clubs all along the east coast. This was their annual dinner meeting, held at a posh country club. Husbands were invited. At the pre dinner cocktail party, I got into conversation with a stray husband and told him I was the guest speaker. “What’s your topic?” he asked. “Preserving Porches” I replied. He looked puzzled. ”Why is the Garden Club interested in cars?” he asked, assuming the topic was “Preserving Porsches.” I thanked him for giving me my opening line; it broke the ice, made everybody laugh and I have used it ever since.

Friday, November 10, 2017


My late husband (he died ten years ago) was a Clinical Child Psychologist. He would walk into my studio, take a look at the cast of characters I was working on and declare: “Only an only child would do this!” And he was right. Growing up, I longed for brothers and sisters, not realizing until much later that all my friends who had brothers and sisters considered them pains in the neck and would have gladly been ‘only’ children. I think about his comment a lot now that I live and work alone.

"Celestial Figure"
2017 oil on canvas 68"x44"
For many years, I used artwork to create “company,” people to talk to. Because of that, the figures I paint, while not realistic in a photographic sense are very “alive”; that’s my goal. They have to “talk to me,” make eye contact.  It’s a magical process and I honestly don’t know how I do it: at some point I’m looking at the figure I have just drawn on the canvas and that figure is LOOKING RIGHT BACK AT ME! It’s weird! We make eye contact and TALK to one another. (No, I am not going mad from being alone) I used to fill my studio with paintings of people to make up for the siblings I never had and now it’s for the friends and family I have lost.

"Street People"
oil on canvas 55"x24" each
For the past year or two, I’ve largely abandoned figurative work for architectural fantasies, imaginary urban landscapes built on years of teaching art history and living in New York. When people do appear, they are shadowy, mysterious figures that haunt the rooftops, often astride imaginary pre-historic beasts, as if the city were a giant painted cave. Every once in a while I long to come back to the real world and do some ‘people painting’. The figures I am working on now are a warm up for a series of paintings of 125th Street in Harlem that I plan to work on this winter.  I started exploring Harlem over a half century ago when I attended the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan on 135th St. At the time, it wasn’t the best neighborhood in New York, but it was definitely among the most visually interesting. Then came the drug plague and Harlem was out of bounds - especially after dark. Fortunately, it’s once again a safe and colorful place. I can walk around with my unobtrusive IPhoto camera and nobody notices they’re being preserved for posterity. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

POST # 149: Starters and Finishers

I once had a friend who owned a highly successful, state-of-the-art engineering firm in Greenwich. He employed about 40 people, mostly brilliant eccentrics conventional companies would never hire. He once told me that they could go for a year or two without producing anything, but then, all of a suddenly come up with an idea that more than justified putting up with them. He also understood that his employees fitted into two categories he referred to as “starters and finishers.” The creative types (like me) lost interest once the idea was worked out. In order to get something done you needed to pair them with “finishers,” who were patient and detail oriented but incapable of originality

I am definitely a “starter.” I’m filled with creative ideas.  I am capable of making new and original connections. The problem is that once the creative part is over, I’m ready to move on. This leaves me with lots of brilliant beginnings (if I have to say so myself,) However, the past year or two, I have been lucky enough to latch on to a couple of wonderful “finishers,” assistants who are perfectly happy to develop my ideas. They do not consider themselves artists but are good at what they do and I wish I could afford to hire them full time.

But meanwhile, what do I do with my attic full of starts that never went anywhere. I’m like a novelist with unfinished novels in a desk drawer. If you like, I’ll give you a tour of the attic. There’s a men’s bathhouse series consisting of 4’ paper cut-outs of unsavory naked men with removable towels around their genitalia. There’s a Seven Deadly Sins series of paintings (incomplete, a few sins are missing.) There’s a wall of cardboard boxes, assemblages of local street scenes and people.  There’s a stack of giant cardboard figures of the developer types I deal in my non-art life along with their thuggish  “entourages.” They are waiting for me to come up with a Brechtian play for them to perform. Plus, I have a box of cardboard masks (perfect for Halloween), and a rack of marked-down paper clothing from a thrift shop. And, I forgot to mention the giant Xeroxed photo enlargements of metal detritus from Vulcan’s Scrap Metal yard along with the small assemblage collages I did from pieces of metal left behind on the ground. And, while I’m thinking about it, what will become of all my theatrical pieces for the overhead projector? There’s the Lower East Side one, and one I call “Dance to the Music” where the audience gets up and dances with the projections. Plus, I’ve got 200 paper plates and cups with faces on them stored in the studio cupboard,