Monday, July 17, 2017

Judy Penzer & The Art of Deepening the Mystery

Me working on my SPACE mural
Photo by Jami Marlowe
"The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery." - Francis Bacon

THE RELATIVE DISTANCE of memories is a peculiar phenomenon of aging. Think back to when you were a child and how every minute between holidays felt like a month. For most of us, birthdays were the best thing imaginable, our own personal holiday where time and space and gravity bent in our direction. There was a perceived upgrade in status that came with being another year older; we were allowed more and more autonomy of our lives. But in time, most of us discover that our youthful perceptions are warped by inexperience, and every upgrade comes with more and more responsibility. By the time most of us have reached our early twenties, that precipice between the so-called freedom of youth and previously-coveted responsibility of adulthood, we’re just starting to sense the shift in our perception of time.

It happens incrementally, barely noticeable at first. The event we thought occurred a year ago was actually two years ago. A movie sequel is released and we suddenly realize it’s been more years than we thought since the previous installment came out. Someone’s name gets mentioned and it takes a second to recall who they are, then you wonder how you could have ever forgotten that person. Or someone’s name is mentioned and you immediately know who they are, but you suddenly realize how long it’s been since you’ve been in touch. Then the occurrences pick up the pace, but we don’t notice. Babies are born, then they’re talking, then they’re tweens, and we remember buying them outdated gifts for birthdays long passed. In our twenties, we are fully-formed adults in the eyes of twelve-year olds, even though we know we’re nowhere close to that. For them, as it had been for us, minutes are months, but for us now months streak by like minutes, and the clock ticks on. The time swirls into a temporal mural with memories as the paint, and one’s lifetime as the wall it’s applied to.

Downtown Pittsburgh was a very different place in the mid-1990s from what it is now, and from what it had been just a few years prior when I’d gone to school at the Art Institute on Penn Avenue. There were buildings fated to be crumpled which still stood tall, and landmarks that we still pointed to with pride, or derision. The streets were full of business people during the day, but destitute at night as those workers headed out and away from the Golden Triangle. Some long-standing businesses had already started to close up shop, like Horne’s in 1994. But the Civic Arena’s dome still curved atop the skyline, and the last remnants of our red-light district along Liberty Avenue clung tenaciously in place. On Wood Street, the arts and sports worlds collided as an eleven-story mural of local sports heroes Roberto Clemente, Mario Lemieux, "Mean" Joe Greene, Bill Mazeroski, and Jack Lambert reminded denizens of our blue-collar roots and world-class ambitions. It’s been a while, but I see it all like yesterday through a window, with a little mist fogging the glass.

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Sports mural by Judy Penzer
Photo by Gregg Puchalski
I BEGAN WORKING at Kinko’s at 210 Grant Street in 1994, which would be the start of an unplanned nearly two-decade run in print services. In terms of what we were providing and how we did it, there was a certain stasis in that industry. Customer service is the same no matter what day and age, and the best explanation I ever heard for what we were doing was that we weren’t just making copies (despite what Rob Schneider’s Richmeister had most people believing), we were helping people to communicate. That meant something to me. Day in, day out, literally 24 hours a day, my coworkers and I toiled between copy machines and such helping the denizens of the Steel City to communicate their messages, big and small.

We copied and printed everything: legal briefs and concert fliers, business cards and presentation decks, theses and dissertations, quite literally everything from birth announcements to wedding invitations to funeral programs. We saw it all and reproduced it in abundance, and I have to say that we were really good at it. As far as customer service type jobs went, I knew my stuff and was part of a good team.

Before I go further, so you understand what’s to follow, I’ll point out a couple of details of working at Kinko’s at that time. First, in order to insure each team member knew what part of the store they were supposed to cover during a given shift, we had what was called “The Glue System.” The idea was that, once we were in our area – at the front counter taking orders, or the key operator of the main black-and-white machines, or in the production room binding books and mounting posters, etc. – we were to stick to it like glue. (Cute, right?) Some stores were ruthless in following the Glue System; on Grant Street it was more like playing roller derby, for the most part. The upside is we were all cross-trained. The downside is sometimes it became a free-for-all getting work done.

Second, the machines then were incredibly crude compared to what would evolve just a few years later. Nowhere was this more true than with our color copiers and printers. They seemed like magic at the time, because it’s what we had, but satisfying customers who had particular tastes or expectations was a tremendous challenge in the mid-90s. I did enjoy working with most folks back then but, as with any job, there were aspects of the monotonous to it as well. Most customers were easy to please though, so the job was a straightforward one.

Our tentative Glue System typically placed me at the front counter, because I was great with customers. (Back in those days, I was really nice, to the point where an inquiry was once made to my boss about my sanity. True story. I grew out of that eventually.) I also usually ran the color machines. The way our store was set up, they were the ones closest to the front counter which allowed me to multi-task, and I was an artist so there was the presumption that I’d produce better results for customers than other coworkers would. Again, most customers were easy to please, and had standard requests that took a minimum amount of effort to satisfy. But every now and again, there would be a customer who required more time and attention than the majority of the staff had the patience, or expertise, to deal with.

Enter into this scenario Judy Penzer.

Judy was a regional artist of considerable renown and talent. Originally from New York, she was the artist who had designed the sports mural on Wood Street, and had other murals in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and across the country. She carried herself with confidence and directness, and would come to our Kinko’s to get color copies of artwork in progress, or completed projects. I don’t know when she first visited our store. It’s possible that predated my employment. I do know that she was a semi-regular presence there between 1994 and 1996, and we came to recognize her as soon as she walked through the front doors.

I have a fuzzy half-memory of my manager calling me over to the front counter to help copy some artwork for Judy. There was either some aspect he wasn’t quite figuring out, or he’d decided to not hassle with it and knew I was eager and na├»ve enough to not mind taking over. Either way it didn’t matter. It was a challenge, and she was nice, so before long, whenever she came in and had artwork she wanted copied, she specifically requested me. It got to the point where, when she walked in, everyone just knew that I’d be preoccupied with running her order. I don’t remember anyone begrudging me for it – quite the opposite, they were glad to let me take the bullet.

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TO BE CLEAR, I never knew Judy outside of Kinko’s. She was always a customer, and I was always a coworker. That defined our relationship, which was still a very genial one. We spent a lot of time together when she came in because Judy was particular about her work and how it was represented. And I’m an artist too, which she learned, which I think increased her favor towards me. I understood why she needed her reproductions just so, and I couldn’t tell you how many test copies were run to finally get the settings close to acceptable for her. I understood…but, you know, I’m a human being too and it wasn’t easy appeasing her. She was a customer who required inordinate amounts of patience. Her standards were exacting.

But I genuinely liked Judy and appreciated her talents. It’s been long enough that I don’t remember the specifics of what we talked about, but it probably covered our respective projects, and the weather, and sports. (It’s Pittsburgh. I’m sure we talked about sports.) Considering what she was producing, it’s a certainty that she brought in samples of her work on The Bride on Penn Avenue to be copied, but that’s lost to memory. She was tiny, and she smiled a lot, so she wasn’t physically imposing, but she could be blunt. Customers like that often intimidated coworkers, yet I never had a problem with them. I actually preferred the ones who would let me know just what they wanted, even if their standards were near-impossible to achieve.

The Bride on Penn Avenue (trompe l'oeil painting on the far left)

And Judy wasn’t unreasonable. During a conversation with my boss, he told me we’d have to start charging her for more of the test copies being run during her visits. This put me in a tricky position. We had to charge a sometimes prickly customer for waste, and I had to be the one to tell her. Maybe it was because of my age – I was 24, and she was in her late-forties – but that was one of the few times she intimidated me as much my coworkers. Judy wasn’t totally happy about it, but she understood. If anything, it just reduced the number of copies I had to run so it worked out.

There was one great secret I never disclosed to Judy for fear of her reaction: I’m partially color blind. So her favorite Kinko’s coworker, and fellow artist, who she continually entrusted to copy her precious work wasn’t seeing it at all as she was! How did I get around that? It was just a matter of following our procedures to the letter. When Judy would hand me something to reproduce, I’d run a test copy and tweak the settings as best I could to start off, then I’d hand it back and ask her what she thought.

She might look at it and say, “It’s a little too red, don’t you think?”

I’d respond, “Yes, that’s just what I was thinking too!” and then go adjust the settings, reducing the magenta, or boosting the yellow and blue, etc., and eventually we’d get something close to what she wanted. As the color machines became more sophisticated, I had to do less and less of this hiding, but this went on for years with all of my customers; none of them ever caught on. I was especially proud of my ability to hide it from Judy and her exacting standards, a little creative slight-of-hand between artists. Maybe she’d have been amused or appreciated my fortitude. Regardless, I wasn’t about to find out.

And I know some of you might be thinking, “Maybe the reason there was so much waste is because he was color-blind!” Fair enough observation, but no, I was really good at that job. On the occasions when I was unavailable to work on Judy’s projects, the waste copies generated were much higher. Sometimes she would ask my schedule and opt to come back when I could run her jobs. She wasn’t the only person who gravitated to me this way. It was both flattering and maddening, but having a nationally-known artist specifically want you to reproduce their work comes with some credentials of its own. It’s nothing to put on a resume or CV, but it means you got something right.

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Mural artist Judy Penzer
Photo credit unknown.
ON THE NIGHT of July 17, 1996, the local news ran a breaking story about TWA Flight 800, a passenger plane that had crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near East Moriches, New York. It was an international passenger flight bound for Paris which had exploded. As the details emerged that night into the next day, it was learned none of the 230 people aboard had survived. It was a terrible story, even shocking, but I was completely disconnected from it. Like most events of that nature, you never imagine them having relevance to your life. Those are things that happen to other people. In the here and now, our lives go on without as much as a ripple.

Early the next morning I walked into work, and it was quiet as it usually was. My manager was in the production area along with the other first-shift employees, and he addressed me by one of my nicknames when he saw me. “Hey Marquis,” he said, “did you know, your girl Judy Penzer was on that plane that crashed?”

Back then, the Kinko’s on Grant Street was staffed almost exclusively with men, and our overall sense of humor was at times predictably crass and dark, to put it mildly. I didn’t doubt for a millisecond that my manager was joking. However, I was also the Pollyanna of the bunch, the nice one, and thought that was taking the jokes too far. “That’s not funny,” I admonished him. I did a lot of admonishing back then.

Then his tone shifted subtly and he said, “No, for real, she was on that plane,” and the body language of the other coworkers changed too. It wasn’t a bad joke; it was a surreal reality. Judy had embarked on an impromptu trip to Paris, along with Jill Watson, the designer of the Bride mural, and they’d been passengers. The ripples of disbelief travelled through the water from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the shores of the Three Rivers. Soonafter, I clipped a newspaper article which detailed the event and featured a photo of Judy. I kept that article in my locker for the rest of my tenure there. On May 25, 1997, less than a year after she’d died and only five years after its creation, the 24-story building on Wood Street that showcased her sports mural was imploded to make way for a department store. There was allegedly talk of recreating the mural elsewhere, but that never happened. The dust settled and the past was simply relegated to the past.

Kinko’s gradually morphed into Fed-Ex Office, as the machines became faster, with copies flying past just like the years. There were many, many more customers, and while I enjoyed helping them communicate in their various ways, my enthusiasm for the job gradually diminished. My truest sense of satisfaction came from the work I did out in the world, the artwork I produced for myself and for commissions. In 2007 I finally left the company for another print-services job, working in-house for a corporation, essentially doing the same work for better pay. In my spare time, I still drew whenever possible. The projects became more personal, intricate, and professionally fulfilling. More and more people began to take notice of my work, both within and outside of the new company. After five years, when they decided to outsource their print-services work, which eliminated my job, I decided to use the opportunity to lean fully into my vocation for the first time. With some stops and starts, I’ve developed an actual self-sustaining career as a visual artist. I’ve come a long way since Grant Street, but I still have a lot of those old friends cheering me on.

A few months ago I was asked to participate in a local art show, where artists would be live-painting murals in a gallery in Downtown Pittsburgh for audiences to watch throughout the afternoon and evening. I was flattered but also intimidated at the prospect. I have always been a comic-book artist and illustrator. That’s my chosen profession, definitely not murals. Often times people have seen my work and asked me to do other things, like painting designs on cars, or web design. While I am versatile, and have occasionally stretched well beyond my defined scope with impressive results, there are some things I just don’t do. It had been a long time since I’d worked in that media and on a scale that large, and I expressed my reservations to the exhibition’s curator, Robert Raczka.

He assured me that it would be fine. He really hoped that I’d consider participating so, with that level of faith present, I accepted the opportunity. I’d create my first mural to go along with the theme of Storytellers. I just needed to figure out what the subject would be.

Close-up photo of The Bride of Penn Avenue
A few different concepts came to mind, but my thoughts kept drifting back to Judy. Her Bride of Penn Avenue mural still stands, having been restored a few years ago, and it’s one of the more recognizable landmarks in the city limits. It’s bothered me over the years that there is so little information to be found about Judy here where she made a home and her presence was felt on the cultural and physical landscape. Was she the most well-known or celebrated visual artist from Pittsburgh? No. Andy Warhol holds a lock on that claim. But considering that there are still people who remember that big sports mural and, like me, are surprised to know that it’s been gone twenty years now, you would think somewhere there’s significant information about the artist to be found. Something not focused on how she died, which was beyond her control, but rather on how she had lived, which she controlled like a brushstroke. Where is the information about Judy Penzer, the artist?

I searched the internet and was only able to come up with one actual reference photo of Judy, but that was enough. My decision was made. She would be the subject of my own first attempt at a mural.

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Pencil artwork for my mural's concept sketch
ON FRIDAY, JULY 7th, I along with several other Pittsburgh artists created artwork for eight hours at the SPACE Gallery on Liberty Avenue as part of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s monthly Gallery Crawl. If Judy was still here, I’d be curious how my experience creating this small mural compared to hers on any of her works. During the day, all of the artists toiled diligently, interacting with one another in appreciation, but also finding our way along. A few friends and supporters stopped by to see what we were doing, and Robert was on hand making sure we were okay. But as the 9-5 workday ended, things picked up and more people streamed through the venue to watch us work. Some artists wore headphones to stay focused. I chose to interact with patrons while I painted. It was a heady experience.

Part of my mural included parts of Judy’s best known works, The Bride and several of the athletes from the sports mural. Time and again I was asked by attendees what was the story behind my work, and I gave them abbreviated versions of what you’ve now read. For me, it was fascinating witnessing which aspects people most reacted to. Once the painting was far enough along, some people instantly recognized The Bride, a number of them saying how they live in the vicinity of the original. Other people, mostly older, remembered the sports mural and were shocked when I told them how long it’s been gone. A few folks knew who Judy was, but almost no one knew that she’d died or the circumstances.  Everyone liked the concept, and I got a lot of encouragement.

In the end, I was happy with the end product. Not ecstatic, but I could live with it. It didn’t look exactly like I’d envisioned, and I didn’t get anywhere near as far along as planned, but it was complete and recognizable. Normally that’s not the standard I create work by, but for a first attempt while working way outside of my area of expertise, it wasn’t bad. (And I have to mention that a bunch of my fellow artists kicked some serious butt!) The likeness isn’t as on as I’d wanted, and it’s under-developed. Personally, I think that Judy deserves a much more fitting and lasting memorial from hands more skilled than mine. If anyone understood having exacting standards, it was her, but I hope she'd appreciate the effort and intent to create a reminder of an outsized talent that, like this mural, would have benefited from having more time.

The mural remains on display until September 3rd, at which time all of the artists’ works will be painted over so something new can be created. This strikes me as appropriate. Everything and everyone is temporal and temporary, whether we’re here to witness the lifespan or not. Nothing is guaranteed. Today, exactly twenty-one years from when she died, imagine a reality where 70-year old Judy Penzer, celebrated muralist, writes about a young man she once knew who worked at a copy shop on Grant Street, who always got her orders right, and who wanted to one day be a professional artist. It’s all conjecture, of course. Back then, in my eyes she was a fully-formed, confident and experienced adult, twice my age. In the here and now, she's gone and I'm just a couple of years shy from the age she was when she died. Who knows how confident and 'fully-formed" she was internally? This is how it is, this is the life we have, and the clock ticks on.

Maybe we'll get her a more permanent memorial someday, or recreate her sports mural. We could use another victory like that. In the meantime, as the relative distance of memories grows ever farther, I invite you all to visit a hallowed SPACE and come with me to remember Judy Penzer, Pittsburgh artist and storyteller. Hopefully my artwork will momentarily lift the bride’s veil of time so Pittsburghers can be reminded of the work of an artist who celebrated our biggest victories, and by her remaining major work did what the best artists do: she deepened the mystery.

The concept illustration for my mural, drawn by hand, colored via PhotoShop.

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Visit SPACE Gallery in Downtown Pittsburgh
to see their current installation
July 7 - September 3, 2017
featuring the artwork of:


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