Like so many others businesses that have closed in the last decades, Gem Spa in NYC’s East Village couldn’t sustain its business and closed in early May 2020. Although they had financial problems over the years, and most recently in 2019 after losing their lottery and tobacco license, the current owners said the COVID-19 pandemic was the last straw. If you read my blog, you may know that NYC is like a second home to me. The closing of Gem Spa feels like one other place of my youth has slipped away. Although I’m also upset that Jeri’s Grill closed in Chicago, NYC will always be associated with a magical time in my early adulthood when I was spreading my wings creatively, intellectually, and emotionally. This was before sky-high rents forced so many businesses to close and prior to gentrification stripped the Big Apple of much of its gritty character. Unfortunately, Gem Spa isn’t the only thing that has changed on this once incredibly hip intersection of the East Village. When I visited in 2018, I thought St. Mark’s pretty much resembled many other somewhat gentrified NYC streets, albeit with a few vestiges of its storied past. Located on the corner of St. Marks Place and Second Avenue, the beloved and iconic newsstand dates back to the 1920’s. It operated under a different name until 1957 when the name changed to the Gems Spa – at some point the S was dropped in Gem. It was a favorite hangout of Beat poets, hippies, punk rockers, local residents, and tourists. They sold local newspapers and magazines, including a wide array of international and underground papers and magazines, except for pornography. The little corner business was also famous for its egg creams (a NY drink made from milk, chocolate or vanilla…
My obsession with Patti Smith began in 2011, after reading Just Kids, her brilliant, touching memoir about coming of age in NYC with Robert Mapplethorpe. When I was an art student at RISD, I was aware of her music because my freshman roommate Katherine played Horses over and over again. Her music back then was too raw and visceral for my immature tastes, so I did not worship her like many of my art school peers. However, by my senior year, I worshipped Robert Mapplethorpe – strictly for his bold imagery – which inspired my marble carvings of nude muscular males. I met him at the Young Hoffman Gallery in 1982, where he was standing all by himself – a handsome, soft-spoken cowboy whose demeanor completely belied his promiscuous sexual proclivities and frank sexual imagery. As I wrote in a prior blog, by a stroke of serendipity, I briefly talked to Patti Smith in December 2012 at a little Nepalese boutique in Soho that was going out of business. When I read Just Kids, I found myself sobbing at times, and it was this poignant book that provided my opening line, so I endeavored to maintain some composure. While she was nice enough to engage me for a few seconds, she turned her back before I was done talking and clearly wanted her privacy. I will never forget this chance encounter, as fleeting as it was.
My love for NYC goes back to when I was a teenager and visited my older sister, who at the time was living in her first dive apartment, a 3rd floor walk-up on Sullivan Street north of Houston. However, it was during my four years at RISD, from 1976-1980, that I became immersed in NYC. I have written about this before in Reflections on a New York City Christmas and The Times Square of My Mind. I have photographed the gritty streets of NYC going back to my RISD years. Every time I return, another small or large chunk of my youth slips away, swallowed up by gentrification and cookie-cutter commerce.
“The work she produced in her short life is 100 times better than anything you have created or could ever create!” Those were the cruel, harsh words that were hurled at me from my 20-year-old daughter’s insolent lips in 2007. The occasion was a visit to the Tate Modern in London and the discovery of an Artist’s Room dedicated to Francesca Woodman. It was hard to process everything I was feeling when I saw those photographs. Difficult because my daughter’s post-teenage angst overshadowed what became a trip from hell, but also because I had somehow forgotten about Francesca in the context of my four years at RISD. I am not sure why it has taken me so long to write about this – perhaps I needed the distance and perspective of the passage of time. Or the sheer volume of online content could have dissuaded me – 567,000 Google hits on Francesca as of April 2015, and counting.
There have been many short articles about celebrities who also happen to dabble in the visual arts. But I have to say, with the risk of sounding like an art critic, that many of these folks are not very good visual artists. Come to think of it, some of them are considered mediocre at their primary pursuit – whether politics (guess who?) or acting, while others are considered pure genius. In either case, the best of their fine art would be considered the work of somewhat talented amateur hobbyists by anyone who is a trained fine artist or art critic. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is wonderful for anyone to pursue the visual arts – what I object to is when famous people who are art hacks gain renown for mediocre work simply because of their celebrity status. The purpose of this article is to shed light on a few special celebrities who have not been heralded as much for their visual art, but in my opinion, deserve to be. Viggo Mortensen This strikingly handsome actor who made many hearts melt as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is quite the Renaissance man. In 2002, Viggo Mortensen founded the Perceval Press to publish the works of little-known artists and authors. In addition to being a talented actor, Mortensen is a gifted photographer, painter, jazz musician, and poet. As far as I can ascertain, he is self-trained in the fine arts. This site has a lovely description of his visual art talents.
When I told Jeff three weeks ago that I wanted to go see Bret Michaels at Frontier Days, an annual local festival in Arlington Heights, he was a bit dumbfounded. So was I, quite frankly, because my musical taste, while eclectic, is more closely aligned with the likes of Regina Spektor, The Lumineers, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground … you get the idea. In any case, I think I was curious because Bret Michaels is above all a gutsy survivor. Regardless of the cheesy Rock of Love with Bret Michaels reality show or how one feels about his music, it is undeniable that this guy is scrappy. So what if I was the lone person (with hubby in tow) out of 22,000 folks who wasn’t there that night to rock out, get drunk, and boogie down. I wanted to see firsthand this cool country cat who must have been blessed with nine lives. If you don’t know Michaels’ story, I urge you to read on. In addition to coping with juvenile diabetes, a series of life-threatening medical events turned Michaels’ life upside down starting in April 2010. On April 12, 2010, Michaels was admitted to the hospital with intense stomach pains that led to an emergency appendectomy. About 10 days later, Michaels was rushed to the hospital with an excruciating headache. Doctors discovered that he had suffered a massive subarachnoid hemorrhage – or cerebral aneurysm. Only 30 percent of patients survive such incidents and many are left with permanent deficits. Miraculously, just 2 weeks later, his neurosurgeon Joseph Zabramski of Barrow Neurosurgical Associates, announced that Michaels was indeed one of the lucky few to survive and he would make a full recovery. However, he wasn’t out of the woods yet.
In the course of my PR career in the health and medical field, among the many things I did was research diseases, conditions, and injuries of celebrities and/or their close relatives. This research fell into two primary clinical areas based on the associations I worked for at the time – vision and neurosurgical, respectively. When I worked at Prevent Blindness America, I actually had the privilege of interviewing quite a few celebrities. These were typically done via the celebrity’s agent and submitted as written interview questions that I scripted. The completed interviews were published in the organization’s magazine. The power of celebrity goes a long way to increasing disease/injury prevention and awareness. Case in point – Angelina Jolie’s recent admission that she underwent a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction to avoid the same tragic fate that befell her mother and maternal aunt. Jolie revealed this in a brave New York Times Op/Ed article titled My Medical Choice, published on May 14, 2013. She carries the BRCA1 gene and her doctors advised her that this fact, along with her family history of breast cancer gave her an 87 percent risk of developing the disease. Jolie has always been considered one of the most beautiful and sexy actresses in America, but it is her charitable, philanthropic work and intelligent frankness that set her apart.
Just before I lost my high level position as director of communications for a national medical association in mid-June 2011, I read Just Kids by Patti Smith. In the darkest days after losing my job, I found inspiration and salvation in Patti Smith’s words. Just Kids also sparked a rediscovery of her groundbreaking music, but with a more appreciative, mature ear than I had at RISD when my freshman roommate played Horses day and night. Her cutting-edge punk rock music was a bit too hard for me back then, but listening to it some 30 years later made me fully comprehend the sheer genius and depth of her musical poetry. Below is a collage I created in homage to Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe that I exhibited in a group show at Studio 659. During my depths of despair, I played several Patti Smith songs over and over as if I was once again a young adult coming of age. Well, I guess in essence I did go through a rebirth of sorts spurred on by losing my high-paying job. Having more time on my hands enabled me to get back to my fine art and exhibiting my work. Gloria, Dancing Barefoot, People Have the Power, and the brilliant Horses among other songs inspired this burst of creativity … that continues to this day. While I haven’t had a major solo gallery show, I feel promise looming on the horizon.
As an impressionable young woman, I journeyed to fabled Manhattan from my relatively sheltered life as an art student at RISD in Providence, R.I. Upon alighting at Penn Station for the very first time, there was a bit of a glitch. My older, worldlier sister who had already been living in the Big Apple for 3 years had not given me clear instructions on where we were to meet. Those were the days before cell phones – there was no way to get in touch with her. I was an innocent 18-year-old in New York City wondering what the hell had happened to my sister – after about 40 minutes or so I decided to go search upstairs and there she was … my street-smart sister nearly as frantic as I. For a good part of this visit I was on my own – marveling at the gritty, wonderful streets of NYC. Camera in hand, I attempted to summon the spirits of dead immigrants on the Lower East Side, admired the Art Deco lines of the Empire State Building – imagining King Kong and Fay Wray at the top, and prowled Canal Street for Vintage. A longtime admirer of the photography of Bernice Abbott, Jacob Riis, Walker Evans, and Helen Levitt, I too desired to capture a moment in time in “The City that Never Sleeps.”
Top 20 Grouches Losing my director-level position and being unemployed for the first time in 20 years in a dismal job market My sister Janet losing her glamorous Hollywood job 6 weeks after me Jeff’s scary February car accident on an icy treacherous stretch of road in Long Grove My July 4 ER visit caused by art-related X-ACTO knife blade slip and resulting ugly scar Far-right politicians pulling out all the stops to sabotage Obama – hurting all Americans Mom suffering needlessly years after a botched appendectomy Incessant and overblown media coverage of Tim Tebow Kim Kardashian and her clan Mom falling while on vacation in NYC and suffering a nasty head wound Samantha incurring a permanent facial scar at the hands of an incompetent oral surgeon Wall Street Volatility – making investing wisely a total crap shoot Grossly overpaid CEOs, athletes, and celebrities North Koreans’ brainwashed adoration of a monster dictator upon his sudden death Nancy Grace June 23 ComEd power outage affecting our humble abode for 17 hours People who text and talk on cell phones while driving – especially on the highway Charlie Sheen Rained-out August garage sale after months of preparation – never again Financial worries caused by loss of income and health insurance The annoying Ozzie Guillén – adiós in 2011 Top 20 Purrs Pepper’s snuggles and unconditional love Jeff walking away uninjured from his terrifying car accident A lot of free time to play tennis and exercise Photographing and painting my site specific works Legions of oppressed people in the Middle East overthrowing horrific regimes The deaths of Osama Bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi Leisure time to hang out downtown with Samantha Detoxing after losing my incredibly stressful, office politics-ridden job Discovering the superb Breaking Bad and devouring 3 seasons of episodes within a month Humility learned from being unemployed Amanda Knox being freed in October after 4 years of imprisonment in Perugia The magic of movies including Hugo, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Drive Watching Dark…