Poor Us: The Great Depression 2.0

April 18, 2009

A Fable: Crash Takes NY Street Artist from Hard Times to Happy Days

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — debacled @ 5:55 am

Picture via My Life On (and Off) the GuestThis is a fairytale for anyone who has toiled away at any endeavor-–science, art, invention, entrepreneurship, love—without pay, or recognition, and, especially in these bleak times, with diminishing hope that your creation will ever catch on. 

Artists struggle, they starve, they die believing themselves to be failures only to become posthumous geniuses whose newly understood masterpieces rake in praise and fortune the artist never sees. That’s why it’s called dying for your art.

Even the tiny handful of artists who find fame while alive enough to enjoy it apparently are still required to suffer.  Not too long ago Poor Us posted about photographer Annie Leibovitz who pawned her life’s work—past, present and future–to pay off her debts.

 Boom2Bust blogged that the art market has plunged 35 percent during the first quarter of the year “as cash-strapped collectors looked to unload works by postwar masters that had earlier boomed in price along with the stock market. “

It’s a harsh reality, which is why the story of artist Peter Zonis is so very gratifying  on the face of it.  Let’s start with his life before the crash as reported by The New York Times in October, 2008.

Mr. Zonis is no stranger to financial hardship. 

“With all of my talent,” he said, “until I was in my mid-40s I had never sold any work.” Mr. Zonis, who grew up outside Boston, said that after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, he moved to New York in the early 1980s. His first job was on Wall Street designing corporate reports for an investment firm while studying at the Art Students League.

He was working at the Museum of Modern Art bookstore, making $10 an hour, he says, when fate intervened and Elle Petrincic, an Australian redhead who is now his manager and muse, came into his life.

The two met on a park bench about eight years ago during Mr. Zonis’s lunch hour. At  the time, Ms. Petrincic said, she was checking coats at the Monkey Bar and looking for her 30th restaurant job. She also needed a place to live because the 67-year-old man she was staying with was chasing her around the apartment, calling her his “birthday present.” Peter zonis at Gallery

Mr. Zonis offered to let her stay in his Brooklyn studio, where Ms. Petrincic slept on the floor in a sleeping bag amid his hundreds of paintings. Ms. Petrincic said that what followed started as revenge. She suggested that he paint all of the expensive restaurants where she had worked as a hostess and had less-than-fond feelings for. She gave Mr. Zonis copies of Vogue magazine so he could sketch “the fashionistas” who now populate his Madison Avenue landscapes.

She told Mr. Zonis that he needed “to draw Barneys, the store I love more than anything else in the world.” She also persuaded him to peddle his art in front of the store, where she had often spent hours trying on clothes she could not afford. (More)

You get the general idea: He had no money, made no art, had no prospects until he met a woman on a park bench who needed a place to stay as much as Zonis needed a muse, which she became and remains.

Let Reuters pick up the story from there.

For most of the past decade, New York City street artist Peter Zonis has sold his oil pastels to the rich and famous from a sidewalk outside Barneys, an upscale department store on famed Madison Avenue.

Zonis’s paintings sell for about $500 to $10,000, and well-known buyers have included former baseball star Reggie Jackson and television host Pat O’Brien.

But his big break may have come with the financial crisis.

“Being a street artist and going through some hard times in the past, I could see people becoming nervous with the economy and stop spending money," Zonis said. "But at that point, the best thing to do rather than to focus on the negative of the situation would be to transform what was happening into art."

“Yesterday, David Chapelle was looking at my stuff — he didn’t seem uptight about the prices,” said Mr. Zonis, 50, who lives in a penthouse apartment in the East Village. “When you sell on the street, you can feel the economic vibe better than anybody.”

So there is no doubt that street artists like Mr. Zonis are among those feeling the fallout from the economic crisis. But the very nature of making a living by being a street merchant means, he says, always having “the fear factor propel you.”

Now, Mr. Zonis is harnessing the “nervousness” in the air as inspiration for his newest work, which focuses on the turmoil on Wall Street.

“I’m dealing with money, temptation and greed,” said Mr. Zonis, describing a new drawing in which “people are fighting for money, gold, coins.” In one composition, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is shown falling from the sky in a storm of cash.

Indeed, Mr. Zonis’ art work began generating interest with New York real estate moguls, and pretty soon a curator at the Durst Organization offered an exhibition. At the end of March through April 10 a series of his large-scale, recession-themed paintings called "Metropolis Now"  were  exhibited in the lobby of the Durst Organization building in midtown Manhattan.

So there’s the fairytale, a man finds a muse, he follows her advice and his artwork sells to lots of shoppers and many celebrities, they move into a penthouse and then just when the rest of the country is suffering economic catastrophe,  our hero is plucked from the street to mount a successful one-man show of his financial-crisis themed works.   It’s a story that many may find inspiring, hopeful and maybe even motivating. “Yes I can!”  Of course, not everyone is so highly-evolved, and some could find that this “feel-good” story leaves them feeling bitter, jealous and aggrieved. “No I can’t and I never will.”  I understand, but you’ll recall this is a fable, not a fairytale, which is an important distinction when you get to the end.   Happily-ever- after is not a requirement, which is a good thing because as it turns out …

Zonis has his disappointments:

The 50-year-old artist, who grew up near Boston and moved to New York in the 1980s after graduating from design school, has yet to gain acceptance from curators in places such as The Museum of Modern Art.

"Unfortunately for some, being a street artist can carry a certain stigma … as if you were not a serious one," Zonis said. "That’s something I’m trying to change."

And his “muse” does, too:

Zonis seems quite happy, but as usual, Petrincic sneers at his complacency: “I’ll wring Ben Stiller’s neck if he doesn’t play Zonis in the movie.”

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