Nonfiction: Helena Writes #66_On writing the places where we know ourselves best

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
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Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 66th post, Helena reminisces about her formative time painting at Pratt Studios, and remembers the 1965 blackout in New York City. Enjoy!


Pratt Studios

I loved that place, its old paint smell, its painty, sludgy-with-turpentine long, porcelain sink. Four of us could clean our brushes at the same time, and wash our hands, long before understanding that pouring turpentine and paint thinner down the sink would poison the water table, years before that awareness would enter the culture and people took it seriously. The floors of the painting rooms were caked with years of oil paint. Like a forest floor, no disorder, just beautiful paint, dripped and spilled and dropped over the years of painters, including painters whose work, by my time in those rooms, hung on museum walls. The floors were Jackson Pollack.

Somehow, I’d heard that the building had been a shoe factory around the turn of the last century. I don’t know how Pratt acquired it, but all the studio buildings were old, the school of architecture, the school of design. I couldn’t have understood then the caliber of people I was surrounded by, teachers and students. I didn’t yet realize what it took to get into Pratt, then. And there I was, admitted on the home test, a group of assignments sent in a big, manila envelope to our address in Queens, where I still lived with my parents. No portfolio required. Though I say it with pride, I still can’t really take it in. But it was apparently so. I had what it took to be accepted to Pratt, and not only to be accepted, but to become part of a group of artists who were singled out to work with a set group of teachers that would confer with each other about every one of us, and coordinate their assignments, tune them to our group—I was in Foundation G, something of a legend. It was an experiment, and so intense that most of us dropped out, including me. I was sixteen, it was too intense to sustain. And I was pregnant with Theo. I don’t know how many of us in Foundation G came back to Pratt, but I did, three years later, when Theo was two. I remember feeling that my life depended on it. I was right; my life as an artist did depend on it. I’m still assimilating what I learned at Pratt. And so did my life as a teacher. It was my chance to make something of myself. Something I knew then I’d have to do. And no one could have dissuaded me from believing that painting was my destiny.  

I have spent my life as a painter. That ought to be evidence enough for me. But even now it is hard to take seriously the word destiny, and writing about it helps. I don’t think anyone really sees themselves. How can one understand their capacity, except to register what they’ve manifested. And how to understand the mysterious drive to paint but to acknowledge that I am a painter?


The ceilings in the studios had to have been 20 feet high. I loved the corner where I painted, lit by a tall, old window that was stuck closed with time, and by old light fixtures that hung low on chains, switched on after dark. I loved the oak easel I used that could be folded flat. I remember how heavy that easel was. Rickety, it swayed, but I could put one foot on the platform as I painted to brace it. I’ve seen pictures of Robert Henri’s women’s drawing classes—1900? No later than 1910, certainly, women in floor-length dresses and cotton painting jackets, uncut hair pinned into beautiful chignons. And those oak easels. Yes, I remember those easels—my friend Robert and I secreted away two of them, one night, after classes had ended, before graduation, and piled them into Robert’s car. Like the fruit of all such crimes, that easel became an albatross. I used it in my foyer studio in my tiny apartment in Queens for a few years after I’d moved from my parents’ apartment to a place nearby. I eventually put it out on in front with furniture I couldn’t take with me when I moved back to Brooklyn.

Those were the years I still didn’t know how to finish a painting—another stage of development that took me years to arrive at. That was after the oak easel, but still, I see myself and Robert, my good friend, lifting, stumbling, dragging, bumping our stolen prizes down the stairs of the Pratt Studios, looking over my shoulder, and I feel the sting of it, feel the thief I was, and confess it here. Oh, crime! It does not pay.

We entered the studios through a brick, double-arched doorway and old planked-wood doors, walked, shouldering our art supplies, up two flights of stairs to get to the floor where my painting room was. I unpacked my canvas, paints, and brushes, and settled myself into that corner. I was tucked there in the corner with my canvas and paints—the open road—painting. We all painted abstractly then, the influence of Hans Hoffman, the painter with whom my teacher had studied. Me and Kenny Newman, who painted next to me, near that window, whose paintings I admired. Kenny was a real painter. He painted in chromatic grays, grays mixed by using only color, no black. A painterly painter. Perhaps even a painter’s painter. Gorgeous brush strokes, and those grays. He was quiet. He didn’t smile, yet we were comfortable together. And he knew what he was doing when he painted. He was immersed, his face smudged with those grays. It would take me years and becoming a color teacher to understand how to mix and use such rich, mixed grays. Kenny painted with them intuitively. I wonder if it was his gray palette that so influenced my later work. I think it must have been. I saw those grays again, after art school, in the paintings of Fairfield Porter, in Mary Cassatt’s paintings and pastels, in Milton Glasier’s work, Will Barnett’s, and finally in my own paintings. I’m still exploring grays.

I still see Kenny’s paintings and wonder if he became a painter, as I actually did.


When I work now, there is some kind of overlay, a sensation, of being in Pratt Studios, being in two places at one time. Time. Einstein glimpsed it, but who understands it, really? Here in upstate New York, painting in my studio, and there painting with Kenny, in that corner. Washing my brushes in the bathroom sink, and there, at Pratt, washing brushes at one of the faucets, no hot water, at that gorgeous paint-caked sink, lathering them with soap in a circle in the palm of my hand, scrubbing them against the pitted old porcelain around the brass drain of that industrial sink, rinsing them under my kitchen or bathroom faucet, until there is no color in the soap and the water runs clear. It was in Pratt Studios where I learned the Way of Washing a Brush—that ritual, that sacred rite—part of the holy act of painting. Paintings are stacked up in my studio, as paintings were stacked in the storerooms of Pratt Studios. Pratt Studios, a place, as my house is, of painting.

I live in both places at once. I am 21, with wild red-brown curling hair; I’m here now, my hair gone white. Then my studio seems so right, not so cluttered, the pine board floor, laid down when I had the studio built, colored with the reds and greens and blues, and with those grays and mixed browns. A floor beautiful, natural to my eye. My place doesn’t then seem so odd, or different, when I foolishly compare it to other houses I visit. My studio is a little Pratt Studios, the place where I know myself best. Cans of brushes, the smell of oil paint, still life paintings lined up on my painting table, all of those things that led me to the other place I later came to know myself, too. Writing. It was painting that led me to words.


The Blackout

When my daughter, Theo, was two, I stood drawing the figure at one of those oak easels. I can’t remember who we were drawing; maybe it was beautiful Anna Henz, with her red hair, who reminded me of Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithographs of Jane Avril. The room was quiet, all of us lost in the struggle to capture the model’s mysterious presence. The overhead lights dimmed to brown, then went dark. I can remember our murmuring, moving slowly to the door of the room. Seeing that the hallway and the stairwell beyond it were dark. We went back to our easels, put down our drawing materials, packed them, closed our newsprint-paper pads, put on our coats. I say we, because the group had become a collective, startled and dumb, moving together, in a place suddenly strange. It was 1965. We descended the stairs in silence, a river of people pouring out into the halls. The stairwell had the same tall windows as the studios. Pratt faced the Manhattan skyline. The city was dark. I could see its silhouette, that mass of skyscrapers I knew so well. The shape meant home, I could see that skyline from my parents’ living room window in Queens, where we moved when I was 10.

I remember one lonely voice, speaking into the silence just behind me as we walked down those stairs—a woman’s voice, heavily accented with German.

“Do you think it could be sabotage?” She spoke quietly, as if to herself. And who could have answered her question? I felt like I was in a movie. The voice was Sybil Maholy-Nagy’s. Sybil was the head of the Architecture Department. A legend, a quiet celebrity at Pratt. She’d been married to the designer, Lazlo Maholy-Nagy, who had died before Sybil’s time at Pratt. The Maholy-Nagys were part of the group of artists who had founded the Bauhaus School, painters and color theorists, designers of furniture and buildings. It was they who had set the tone for the art, design, and architecture of the twentieth century. The Maholy-Nagy’s, along with the rest of the artists of the Bauhaus School, had fled Hitler. Pratt’s curriculum was based on the Bauhaus, as most art school curriculums were by the sixties.

It was like being in a film to hear that word, sabotage, spoken, I realize now, with controlled terror, just behind me, into my ear, the world gone dark. I told the story of that eerie scene for years. It had a certain charm and was so remote as to be unreal. But I know the tone in Maholy-Nagy’s voice unsettled me. Surely, we were all afraid, just moving in that moment. But we weren’t terrified in the way Sybil must have been. We were still innocent.

I read that it was a faulty relay that caused the blackout of 1965, and I have also read that people in government feared sabotage. But then, to ordinary people, if artists are ordinary people, it seemed an exotic fiction. We exited into the cold night.

People moving like shadows on the unlit streets became our source of information, our radio. The subways weren’t running. I was stuck in Brooklyn, my two-year-old in Queens, at a neighbor’s.

A group of us found each other and went to our friend Loretta’s place to sleep on the floor. Somehow, we ate. The telephone was slow to connect, the wires echoed weirdly, with distant rings and voices, but it was working, and I reached her, I reached my girl. She was sad, and I was sad, our voices holding onto one another, but that’s all I can remember. Our voices, but not a word we spoke. Theo sounded worried, but brave. I remember I tried to sound brave, too. But I couldn’t get to her. That was the terrible truth—the blackout itself spoke. Blackout. The word was sinister. I was trapped and couldn’t get to my two-year-old child. I don’t know if I tried to reach my parents that night, I must have. My parents could have gotten to her; they had a car. That is not what happened, though I can’t think why. Yet it hardly would have mitigated the primal thing the blackout touched in me. I couldn’t have gotten to any of them.

I hardly slept. The lights came on the next day. I took the subway home. I picked up Theo at my neighbor’s.

I see us, Theodora and me, heading up the street home to our garden apartment. “I sold flowers, Mommy!” she declared. She grasped the sign that she’d lettered in crayon, letters backwards, misspelled.

“You did?” I said.

My girl nodded. “I stood in front of our house and called, ‘Step right up and get your free flowers!’” Her beautiful childhood wasn’t lost on me even then. She was skipping. Theo had stood, not in front of my neighbor’s house, but had walked down the street to our house, our house, dark with its locked door, her mother in Brooklyn. The image still terrifies me.

It never occurred to me to ask where she’d gotten flowers in November. Maybe my neighbor gave them to her. Maybe she drew them. Maybe I’m putting two memories together.

But here’s what I do remember—the feel of her small hand in mine. Her face with its dark brown enormous eyes looking up at me. Our laughter. My relief.

We were joyous.


What is the place where you know yourself best? Have you ever written about it? What did you think of Helena’s latest column? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

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