People are amazing when you sit on a street corner.
When I first moved to Long Beach, I was certain that the ocean was our single greatest treasure. But writing this blog has shown me what an abundance of treasures we have in this town. My latest discovery is Hedy Pagremanski, who is quite simply a bundle of love. That is, a very talented bundle of love!
Hedy is a master painter. And her life story is as layered as the canvases she creates. At age 87, she’s currently at work on her 88th painting – with #89 in a preliminary stage. Both scenes are of Long Beach, but her body of work encompasses five decades of vibrant New York City landscapes.
For Hedy, it’s the people – much more than the places – that have made her artistic journey so worthwhile. They bring her paintings to life. Literally the size of a fingernail, not one face is drawn from imagination, and she can tell you a story about each and every one. She keeps a file on every canvas she creates, filled with personal notes, stories and photographs. As she takes me on an inch-by-inch tour of her paintings, she happily sighs, “All these people made my life perfect.”
As it is for me, storytelling is a big part of Hedy’s life. Before anyone is painted into one of her scenes, she says,”they have to tell me a story.” It was an idea devised by her devoted and supportive husband, Eric.
But of all the stories she’s heard over the years, it’s hard to imagine one that could compare to her own. Born in Vienna, Austria in 1929, Hedy was only eight years old when Hitler’s forces arrived. For six months she and her family hid in their apartment building. All the other tenants knew they were there – but not a single one outed them.
Her father, an Austrian soldier, spoke out when the Nazi’s starting gathering up the local men. He yelled from his window leave his countrymen alone or come get him too. They did. They broke down the door and took him away. Her mother begged a neighbor in the military to go find him and bring him back. Mercifully, he was located and returned home. From that day forward, he went out everyday, going from embassy to embassy, pleading for visas to get his family out of Austria. Throughout this frightening time, Hedy kept thinking, “but they wouldn’t hurt us if they knew us.” It was a thought that would become a defining theme in her work to come.
People often asked why I only painted real people and I could not explain my obsession. But one day my son… a psychotherapist, asked me at the right moment, and the answer came to me clearly for the first time. Hitler came to Vienna, my birth city, when I was 8 years old. We Jews knew of the danger and yet I always believed in childlike innocence, that if people knew us, they would not hurt us. Perhaps a part of me still believes that. Perhaps by painting only real people I establish that they have a right to exist. Art has the power to speak in many ways and we use it as such.
On her ninth birthday, August 4, 1938, she received quite possibly the best gift one could ever get. Visas for her family to take refuge in Panama. There, she attended an American high school and was educated by Swiss nuns who she says, “taught her kindness.” The heat and humidity in Panama took some getting used to. “You would lift your arm and It was stuck to the table,” she chuckles. It was a long way from Austria.
At age eighteen Hedy went to Chicago to study art. First at the American Academy of Art and then the Art Institute. But she left after only one year. She wasn’t interested in the Abstract techniques being taught at the time. She wanted to paint real people. She decided instead to “learn by doing.”
Her next move was to upstate New York, where she lived at a camp that was training people to live on a kubbutz. Israel was in its infancy, and she thought she might relocate there. Instead, she met Eric, a concentration camp survivor. Together, they “realized the great freedoms of this country was not something they could give up.” They got married, lived upstate for a while, moved to Oceanside, and finally settled in Long Beach in the late 1970’s.
For almost thirty years, they owned a framing business on East Park Avenue called Follow Your Art. They raised two children, Joannie and Ken. Of Long Beach Hedy says, “I love that I can walk to the boardwalk everyday. And beach towns have the friendliest people.” Eric passed away last April. They were married for 68 years.
Hedy never had any ambition to be famous, nor does she today. She simply loves to paint. She was always particularly drawn to scenes of daily life – parks, waiting rooms, city streets, storefronts and tenements.
When she was 44, her daughter asked if there was anything she wanted to draw which she hadn’t done before.
She said yes, she “would love to sit openly on a sidewalk with a large canvas, and paint the city and its people without hiding.”
“Why don’t you do it?” asked her daughter.
“Because middle-aged, European-born women don’t sit on street corners!” Hedy answered.
Her daughter turned to her father and said, “Dad, would you mind if Mom did a painting in that way?”
“Of course not,” he said. “It’s a great idea.”
And so she did.
In 1973, she planted herself in front of a blank canvas on Orchard and Delancey – with her husband at her side. She knew that in order to understand the neighborhood well enough to paint it, she had to be immersed in it. It didn’t matter to her that it would take between 30-40 visits to complete each painting. Hedy grins, “I got hooked.”
She sold her first painting to a man who approached her on the street. He was the owner of the Moscot chain of eyeglass stores. He said to her, “If you put me in it, I’ll buy it.” She did – and he did. More sales followed, as did commissions from the likes of Goldman Sachs and the Plaza Hotel.
The more urban landscapes she painted, the more people she encountered. Hedy became a welcoming, familiar presence in the neighborhood. She wasn’t just preserving old New York, she was capturing real life. Passers by stopped, watched her work, and told their stories. “That made the neighborhoods come to life for me. New York is the friendliest city if you admire their world,” she smiles brightly.
In her scene of Times Square, she points out the figure of a man with TKTS on his shirt. She tells me he allowed her to store her canvas and paints while she took lunch breaks. Another scene depicts a couple who set up a cot in the back of their neighborhood store for whenever she needed a rest.
Today, Hedy’s art is displayed in both private and public collections including: the Museum of the City of New York, The New York Stock Exchange, The Museum of American Finance, and the Fraunces Tavern Museum. She prefers not to spend time exhibiting her art, “I just want to paint, and there’s less time for that if I exhibit.” But at the urging of her son Ken, she has done a little bit of press. In 2014 she did an interview with the New York Times and was later featured in the LO-DOWN, a Lower East Side newspaper.
Her talent hasn’t dwindled one bit, but her ability to sit on a sidewalk hour after hour has. “The major challenge is my strength,” Hedy explains. Today, she’s concentrating on local landscapes that she can return to easily, and she paints more often in the comfort of her home.
Her grand ode to Long Beach was completed in 2000. Titled, Long Beach Marches into the Millennium, she captured the likeness of nearly 600 locals. Odds are, you know at least one person in this painting! If you’re interested in obtaining one of her limited edition prints, please email me and I’ll put you in touch.
As I give a lingering look out at the sea of faces Hedy has depicted over the decades, she leans in and softly says, “We are not what we look like to other people. Everyone is a survivor.”
I couldn’t agree with her more.
Coming up next on Short Stories from Long Beach: Stepping through the doors of The Theresa Academy of Performing Arts – a chat with founder Susan Russo.