REVIEW by MICHELLE O'DONELL:
Glass for the Canvas and Gold on the Brush
published in: 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.
A version of this article appears in print on Jan. 31, 2005, Section B, Page 1 of the National edition with the headline: Glass for the Canvas And Gold on the Brush; An Artist Finds a Niche Making Gold Leaf Signs, Using a Technique Created Centuries Ago.