THE SHOPSIN PORTRAITS
I had a final commission to work on
before I took off. Kenny and Evie
Shopsin were the proprietors of a rather well known delicatessen in the West
Village, just around the corner from the SouthWest Gallery. I used to pop in there for food while I
hung my batik show, the sandwiches were huge as were the Shopsins for they
obviously loved the food that they served.
The Deli itself was picturesque to say the least. It was full of interesting old slot
machines, ancient bottles, strange antiques and advertisements from bygone eras
and the walls were festooned with flashing neon signs and old period toys. Kenny and Evie had three children and all
the family spent their time eating their products. Kenny would half-heartedly pull a wriggling child out of the
cold meat case while cats slept amongst the sausages. Evie would have another boy squirming under one arm as she
sampled her own egg mayonnaise sandwiches.
It was a happy, careless sort of shop and I liked them all a lot. I invited them to see my show when it was
up; they loved my work and asked me if I'd make a batik portrait of the whole
family. With great difficulty, I
managed to assembly the whole family together in the street in front of the
deli early one December morning when the sun shone straight down onto the shop
windows and took some photos to use in doing the portrait.
Then I left New York for Coconut Grove
to stay with my friend Kay whom I'd known slightly in Ibiza and who had a little
bungalow, which she shared with her boyfriend and her aged father. From there I went onto new adventures in
California and didn't get to work on my Shopsin portrait commission until
sometime in the New Year when I was back in Florida again and living in the
Grove. I remember that I had a lot of
technical problems with the portrait. When I finished my final pencil drawing
on the cloth, I stepped back to admire my work and saw my drawing board blow
over in the draught from an open window and my cloth tear apart at the edges as
it hit the floor. Nothing daunted, I
drew it again but by this time I was housesitting for my friend Jeffrey G. He lived in a strange dark bungalow which
he wanted closed up at all times to keep out thieves and marauding junkies, he
said. The air conditioners roared
night and day and the only way he could afford this situation was to control
his electricity meter so that his bills usually came to $5 or $10 per month. Current with my stay at Jeffrey's, were
the race riots that occurred early in 1980 and the whole of the Grove was
placed under a nine o'clock curfew. A
white man was killed a block away and soldiers were stationed on the corner of
my street. A heavy pall of black smoke
hung over the North West of Miami where the main trouble occurred and the local
radio station was advising us to stay at home at all times.
So there I was, struggling with my
Shopsin commission against this frightening backdrop of racial violence, living
in a paranoid's hide-out but trying hard to make the best of a bad
situation. Actually the bungalow was
pretty interesting, I remember, because Jeffrey was an artist who worked in
mirror glass. He cut it and mounted it
into large semi-realistic reflecting pictures so that I was constantly living
with these splintered, distorted images of myself which probably reinforced the
sensation that my world was coming apart.
Finally I got a drawing completed that I was happy with and set up my studio
on Jeffrey's front porch. I continued
to have problems with the piece and the colours came out pale and
lifeless. It wasn't until I was well
into the dyeing process that I realized what I should have spotted earlier,
that the fabric contained some percentage of an artificial fiber which my cold
water dyes wouldn't take on. I put it
all down to the peculiar vibe of the house and I started yet again on some new
cotton and finally finished the piece successfully, though at my next housesit
which I shall talk about later.
The piece came back from the dry
cleaners and looked beautiful. I sent
it off to Kenny and Evie in New York.
They loved it, paid me and I thought no more about it until I got back to
New York in November of 1980. I went
round to see the Shopsins to ask them if I could borrow the batik to hang in my
next show. Kenny had sent the piece to
a framer's in Brooklyn to be stretched and mounted and called them up to see if
his portrait was ready. It was but
when the carrier arrived from Brooklyn to bring him his batik, it transpired
that it had somehow been lost en route.
The Shopsins were crushed and then
angry and finally took the owner of the frame shop in Brooklyn to court and
sued him for gross negligence. They won
their case and immediately commissioned another batik from me. Which I somewhat
reluctantly agreed to do. There were
now four children in the Shopsin family.
There were a set of twins, a new six month old baby and the four year
old boy who had had to be physically restrained by Kenny the year before but
who held one dazzling pose after another this year when we took new photos
outside the deli. Rather painfully, I
completed the second portrait early in 1981.
It came out quite differently the second time and I personally preferred
version # 1. The colours in the
original batik were stronger and clearer, I felt. But I am definitely not planning a third or a fourth version.