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gallery & outlaw art museum

JERRY PAGANE: A Retrospective 1983 - 2004
October 20, 2004 | opening reception 7 - 10 pm
161 Essex Street btwn Houston & Stanton | New York, NY 10002
Open by appointment only after the opening | Call 929-530-2142

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INFORMATION: Jerry is probably best known for his wonderful hand painted commercial signs. One of the last gold leaf artists, he is a well respected craftsman, his work is in high demand, but hidden behind the gold leaf brush is also a gifted fine artist.

Through this retrospective exhibition we will explore a cross-section of Jerry's art work: woodblock prints, paintings, gold leaf art pieces and drawings. Jerry's work is done with social conscience. His art tells stories and gives the feeling of everyday life in NYC, an important insight into a sense of community that is being lost through gentrification.

On an inside window at the Gallery, Jerry created a permanent gold leaf art installation, an eight foot letter “J” for Jerry that is probably the largest gold leaf hand painted letter on record. - Andrew Rossi, an accomplished documentary film maker, who is directing a film on the times and life of Jerry Pagane will attend opening night to add footage to the on-going film.

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Published in: The Villager, New York, Volume 75, Number 19 | Sep. 28 - Oct. 04, 2005

Sketches of melting red, blue and pink circles illuminate a pensive face, tacked onto artist Jerry Pagane’s wall — a self-portrait study for his newest painting.

Though not many New Yorkers would recognize Pagane by his wiry hair or pointed nose, a very different side of his work has become a staple of the city’s landscape. In dozens of storefront windows, the gold lettering that adds a touch of antique elegance, like at Balthazar on Spring St. in Soho or the Trump Building on Wall St., is his trademark. One of only a handful of gold-leaf artists in New York City, Pagane has decorated hundreds signs in his lifetime and is working on a 7-foot white-gold logo for the new Abercrombie & Fitch store at 720 Fifth Ave. this week.

When asked if it’s difficult to get work, Pagane, in his mid-50s, shook his head and said that he’s constantly being solicited for projects. “Everybody knows me,” he chuckled in his unique drawl, a result of growing up deaf. “Everybody knows I’m a gold-leafing guy.”

But littering the walls of his cramped Seventh St. apartment, the colorful self-portrait and prints of harsh city scenes, like tenement fires, reveal that sign painting is only half of this craftsman’s passion. Embodied in his other work is an intense drive toward self-expression and portrayal of more intense and painful New York landscapes.

Such a dual sense of the beauty and the grotesque in the city might also be a reflection of Pagane’s own personal history. Born on Christmas Eve with a physical defect that left him deaf, Pagane was abandoned by his mother on the steps of a Pittsburgh church on Christmas Day. At the age of 14 he was adopted by a large family and went on to pursue art through a scholarship at Carnegie Mellon University. When he arrived in New York in 1983, he learned the painstaking art of gold leaf as a way to earn a living, but also devoted his talent to portray the cityscapes around him. In the 1980s he was invited to Gracie Mansion to showcase his chaotic depictions of fires that plagued the Lower East Side.

Born without ears, after many surgeries and by means of a device that picks up sound vibrations and through lip reading, he is able to decipher what people are saying. He lives on E. Seventh St.

Inspired that Pagane overcame such daunting hurdles to carve out a niche for himself in the New York City art world, filmmaker Andrew Rossi is completing a short documentary about him called “Sign Man.” Rossi hopes to enter the film in various festivals this winter as it follows Jerry through creating his largest gold-leaf project yet — an 8-foot-high “J” (for Jerry).

“I wanted to do a film that was less commercial, more personal,” said Rossi, who met Pagane while shooting his debut documentary, “Eat This New York” (2004). Pagane painted the window of Moto, the restaurant in Williamsburg that was the subject of the movie. “I found that [Pagane’s] back story being a foster child is very moving to me and going into the making of the film I didn’t realize it would be part of the movie, but it became clear that though his work isn’t directly connected always to that, it’s clearly a way to express himself.”

Painted on glass at the Clayton Gallery & Outlaw Art Museum on Essex St., Pagane’s initial is like a modern version of medieval illuminated capital letters, mixing ornate designs and colors. In one of “Sign Man”’s most touching moments, the painter travels to Wisconsin for a family reunion where he gives each of his five siblings a stained-glass window with their initial leafed on it.

“We’re a very close family,” Pagane said. His father, Robert Simonds, recalled the moment he and his wife heard, while attending church services, about Pagane as a boy with a physical disability who needed a family. The couple had always wanted a big family and already had five children when they took him in.

“It was difficult at first to adjust to the situation,” Simonds said. “My wife and I were writers and our kids grew up with crossword puzzles, etc. and suddenly this very nonverbal type had dropped into our midst.” The family had a wonderful caseworker, Simonds said; when Simonds asked how to know if he and his new son’s relationship would be as good as it could be, the caseworker answered that one day Jerry would lash out at him, trusting that the Simonds family wouldn’t throw him out.

After a year of living under their roof, Pagane and his father had a screaming fight over dinner. Afterwards, the young man said it bothered him that whenever Simonds introduced him to someone it was always as his “new son” and not just his “son.”

“I’m proud of all my kids,” Simonds said. “But I have a special pride in Jerry because he’s had so many obstacles to overcome.” He added that growing up in a group home during his early years likely made Pagane more streetwise. “He’s got a very special kind of radar. When one sense is lacking, other senses can compensate for that, he knows who he can trust.”

Pagane graduated with honors from Carnegie Mellon and has had over 50 shows across the United States. Black-and-white prints that portray dark cityscapes contrast with newer colorful but wrenching depictions of scenes remembered from 9/11.

In his newest series of paintings, Pagane is experimenting with bright, competing colors. “No white or black” even to mix in, he said. “Just pure color.”

In “Sign Man” Rossi attends a retrospective show of Pagane’s work held at the Clayton Gallery. One observer, who had previously contracted Pagane to paint the window of her Downtown vintage shop, stood before one of his paintings, fascinated.

“It’s noisy, this art,” she says. “Jerry lives in such a silent world and these images scream out at you.”

“I don’t know where I’m going. I just explore and follow. Mark after mark, color after color,” Pagane said. In his cluttered studio, he withdrew from a box a sheet of gold leaf to show how delicate it is and part of it blew from his brush across his face.

Nimbly swiping it back, he said, “You can eat gold. It’s edible,” and laughed.

Juxtaposing the letters he is known for, so precise and aloof in the Balthazar window — “specialtés de vins” — with the emotionally charged, loud, weighty street scenes scattered across his studio, it might seem that Pagane’s deft hands are telling two separate stories. With one he makes the city streets more beautiful, but the other knows the same streets have a dark side too.

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Review by
Published in: The New York Times on Jan 31, 2005

Flakes of gold leaf snowed through the air, twirling upward and falling, and grabbing at any surface as they fell. A few airborne specks found the forehead of the small man who brushed the leaf on to a window to make a sign for a NoLIta boutique called Sissy. The gold leaf that didn't break away reached toward the dampened pane and expanded on the glass as if in deep exhale.

"Gold leaf jump on this, from this spot to this area," said the man, Jerry Pagane, who was seemingly unaware of the gold on his brow. "It jump. That's the nature."

Mr. Pagane is so small and fine-boned that it appeared he could fit comfortably in one of the larger leather bags the boutique had for sale.

As he spoke (he is deaf, and speaks in something of a drawl), bits of gold from the leaf of almost pure gold continued to tear and float away. Gold, what artists and kings through history have considered the noblest of metals, is indestructible, even when beaten into a 3-inch-by-3-inch leaf that is five one-thousandths of a millimeter thick. The bits that tore away from Mr. Pagane's brush would always remain gold, somewhere.

Mr. Pagane, 56, has produced a vast output of work over nearly three decades that has helped keep alive the dwindling legacy of gold leaf signs in the city's windows. Only a handful of sign artists in the city practice the traditional brush method of applying gold leaf to glass. There are other methods, such as silk screening the gold leaf on glass, but Mr. Pagane calls himself too much a purist to do that. Plus, it means carrying more supplies.

Gold leaf can also be applied to wood or concrete, but "glass is really the perfect surface for gold leaf," said Jennifer Longworth, a gilder and spokeswoman for Sepp Leaf Products, a Manhattan-based supplier of leafing materials. Its transparency allows the true color of the gold to shine through, she said.

"When you look at a gilded sign and see your reflection in it, that's a quality you could never see with gold paint," she added.

In the 1920's and 1930's, the windows of department stores and banks were gilded, using fundamentally the same gold-on-glass brush technique developed by the Turks in the 1200's, according to Kent Smith, a nationally recognized gilder from Greeley, Colo.

After World War II, the rise of plastic signs diminished the popularity of gold leaf in the country, Mr. Smith said. The craft hung on in historic districts and in cities like New York, where a number of stores, from the antique shops on East 10th Street to restaurants in lower Manhattan, have opted for the look of real gold on their windows.

Many of those signs were made by Mr. Pagane, an unlikely savior. Mr. Pagane, who has lived in the same rent-stabilized studio apartment on the Lower East Side since 1983, was born deaf. As a boy, drawing and painting gave him a badly needed outlet for self-expression. As an adult, an elderly neighbor introduced him to gilding, and the rest he cobbled together through trial and error, more or less like his language.

"You don't want to do it very windy," he said at Sissy, tapping a leaf onto a window that had been dampened with a substance called sizing. "You don't want any wind -- do it windy. Like I say, gold leaf is lighter than a feather."

He finished applying the leaf and decided to take a break to show a reporter some of his other work in the neighborhood. He left the leaf, most of which still looked like wrinkled foil, to dry. A few blocks away stood his Sistine Chapel, the restaurant Balthazar, its windows adorned with gold leaf signs with letters rendered in matte and shiny gold leaf, and lined in red paint. Elegantly dressed people pushed out the vestibule of the restaurant's bakery, brushing up against Mr. Pagane, who was dressed in Levi's and an old jacket. He gazed at the windows, which spoke French in gold leaf: "BAGUETTES, CROISSANTS, BRIOCHES."

Then it was into a cab to see a retrospective of his work -- besides gold leaf, Mr. Pagane has gained attention for his acrylic paintings and wood block prints -- at the Clayton Patterson gallery, which is open by appointment only. It was a few blocks away, on Essex Street.

"Sax Street," Mr. Pagane told the driver.

The driver said he had never heard of it.

Mr. Pagane looked surprised. "Really?" he said. "Sax Street. Five block away." It took some repeating to iron out. The driver was cross. Mr. Pagane didn't notice.

The gallery had some pieces of Mr. Pagane's gold leaf work; there was a giant "J" resembling a letter in an illuminated manuscript, but one about three times as wide as its creator, and taller. But most of the pieces were his wood block prints he had made that showed life on the Lower East Side the 1980's: fires, drug addicts, homeless people and a woman who used to appear in Tompkins Square Park with a bird on her head.

Clayton Patterson, the gallery owner, grinned wolfishly, revealing gold-capped teeth, and said that Mr. Pagane's scenes of firefighters rescuing people from burning buildings were the product of Mr. Pagane's own story: abandoned as a baby, he was rescued from a life in institutions when a foster family took him in when he was 14.

Mr. Pagane said, with some irritation, that the rescue themes had nothing to do with his childhood.

But Mr. Patterson had the facts about right. Mr. Pagane, who was born without ears, was abandoned by his mother the day of his birth (Dec. 24). He bounced through institutions and temporary homes, then, at 14, became the foster child of Robert J. Simonds and his family (Edie, his wife, and five biological children) in Mount Lebanon, Pa.

By then, Jerry had endured 27 operations to create ears from skin grafted from other parts of his body, and still he could not hear.

Mr. Simonds, now 80 and living in Manhattan, said he worried whether Jerry would take to his family. The Simonds were tall (Jerry stood 5 feet 2 inches when he came to them) and thrived on Scrabble and palindromes. But that proved a strangely useful metallurgy for the foster son's adaptation to his new home.

There was the day Mr. Simonds came home and heard from the bathroom the whirring of the electric clippers with which he gave all his sons crew cuts. Jerry, small and wiry, emerged with his ears, created with skin from his pubic area, covered in blood.

"Have hairy ears," Mr. Simonds remembered Jerry saying. "Other kids don't have hairy ears. Want to be like other kids."

After the trip to the gallery, over a slice of pizza on Spring Street, Mr. Pagane said again that his prints of rescues had nothing to do with his childhood. It was just a coincidence, he said. Later, when he returned to Sissy, it was dusk and the gold leaf had dried. The wrinkled leaf had become as smooth as the glass, and it winked back at the dab of gold on his forehead.


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