Volume 75, Number 19 | Sep. 28 - Oct. 04, 2005

Villager photo by Clayton Patterson

Jerry Pagane with an 8-foot-tall gold-leafed “J,” for Jerry, above, that he created, and, below, with one of his figurative paintings.

A gold-leaf craftsman paints dark city in his art

By Sara G. Levin

Sketches of melting red, blue and pink circles illuminate a pensive face, tacked onto artist Jerry Pagane’s wall — a self-portrait study for his newest painting.

Though not many New Yorkers would recognize Pagane by his wiry hair or pointed nose, a very different side of his work has become a staple of the city’s landscape. In dozens of storefront windows, the gold lettering that adds a touch of antique elegance, like at Balthazar on Spring St. in Soho or the Trump Building on Wall St., is his trademark. One of only a handful of gold-leaf artists in New York City, Pagane has decorated hundreds signs in his lifetime and is working on a 7-foot white-gold logo for the new Abercrombie & Fitch store at 720 Fifth Ave. this week.

When asked if it’s difficult to get work, Pagane, in his mid-50s, shook his head and said that he’s constantly being solicited for projects. “Everybody knows me,” he chuckled in his unique drawl, a result of growing up deaf. “Everybody knows I’m a gold-leafing guy.”

But littering the walls of his cramped Seventh St. apartment, the colorful self-portrait and prints of harsh city scenes, like tenement fires, reveal that sign painting is only half of this craftsman’s passion. Embodied in his other work is an intense drive toward self-expression and portrayal of more intense and painful New York landscapes.

Such a dual sense of the beauty and the grotesque in the city might also be a reflection of Pagane’s own personal history. Born on Christmas Eve with a physical defect that left him deaf, Pagane was abandoned by his mother on the steps of a Pittsburgh church on Christmas Day. At the age of 14 he was adopted by a large family and went on to pursue art through a scholarship at Carnegie Mellon University. When he arrived in New York in 1983, he learned the painstaking art of gold leaf as a way to earn a living, but also devoted his talent to portray the cityscapes around him. In the 1980s he was invited to Gracie Mansion to showcase his chaotic depictions of fires that plagued the Lower East Side.

Born without ears, after many surgeries and by means of a device that picks up sound vibrations and through lip reading, he is able to decipher what people are saying. He lives on E. Seventh St.

Inspired that Pagane overcame such daunting hurdles to carve out a niche for himself in the New York City art world, filmmaker Andrew Rossi is completing a short documentary about him called “Sign Man.” Rossi hopes to enter the film in various festivals this winter as it follows Jerry through creating his largest gold-leaf project yet — an 8-foot-high “J” (for Jerry).

“I wanted to do a film that was less commercial, more personal,” said Rossi, who met Pagane while shooting his debut documentary, “Eat This New York” (2004). Pagane painted the window of Moto, the restaurant in Williamsburg that was the subject of the movie. “I found that [Pagane’s] back story being a foster child is very moving to me and going into the making of the film I didn’t realize it would be part of the movie, but it became clear that though his work isn’t directly connected always to that, it’s clearly a way to express himself.”

Painted on glass at the Clayton Gallery & Outlaw Art Museum on Essex St., Pagane’s initial is like a modern version of medieval illuminated capital letters, mixing ornate designs and colors. In one of “Sign Man”’s most touching moments, the painter travels to Wisconsin for a family reunion where he gives each of his five siblings a stained-glass window with their initial leafed on it.

“We’re a very close family,” Pagane said. His father, Robert Simonds, recalled the moment he and his wife heard, while attending church services, about Pagane as a boy with a physical disability who needed a family. The couple had always wanted a big family and already had five children when they took him in.

“It was difficult at first to adjust to the situation,” Simonds said. “My wife and I were writers and our kids grew up with crossword puzzles, etc. and suddenly this very nonverbal type had dropped into our midst.” The family had a wonderful caseworker, Simonds said; when Simonds asked how to know if he and his new son’s relationship would be as good as it could be, the caseworker answered that one day Jerry would lash out at him, trusting that the Simonds family wouldn’t throw him out.

After a year of living under their roof, Pagane and his father had a screaming fight over dinner. Afterwards, the young man said it bothered him that whenever Simonds introduced him to someone it was always as his “new son” and not just his “son.”

“I’m proud of all my kids,” Simonds said. “But I have a special pride in Jerry because he’s had so many obstacles to overcome.” He added that growing up in a group home during his early years likely made Pagane more streetwise. “He’s got a very special kind of radar. When one sense is lacking, other senses can compensate for that, he knows who he can trust.”

Pagane graduated with honors from Carnegie Mellon and has had over 50 shows across the United States. Black-and-white prints that portray dark cityscapes contrast with newer colorful but wrenching depictions of scenes remembered from 9/11.

In his newest series of paintings, Pagane is experimenting with bright, competing colors. “No white or black” even to mix in, he said. “Just pure color.”

In “Sign Man” Rossi attends a retrospective show of Pagane’s work held at the Clayton Gallery. One observer, who had previously contracted Pagane to paint the window of her Downtown vintage shop, stood before one of his paintings, fascinated.

“It’s noisy, this art,” she says. “Jerry lives in such a silent world and these images scream out at you.”

“I don’t know where I’m going. I just explore and follow. Mark after mark, color after color,” Pagane said. In his cluttered studio, he withdrew from a box a sheet of gold leaf to show how delicate it is and part of it blew from his brush across his face.

Nimbly swiping it back, he said, “You can eat gold. It’s edible,” and laughed.

Juxtaposing the letters he is known for, so precise and aloof in the Balthazar window — “specialtés de vins” — with the emotionally charged, loud, weighty street scenes scattered across his studio, it might seem that Pagane’s deft hands are telling two separate stories. With one he makes the city streets more beautiful, but the other knows the same streets have a dark side too.

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