Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Out and About in the East Village

In this weekly feature, East Village-based photographer James Maher provides us with a quick snapshot of someone who lives and/or works in the East Village.

By James Maher
Name: Sharon Jane Smith
Occupation: Shopkeeper and Writer
Location: A Repeat Performance Antiques, 156 1st Ave. between 9th Street and 10th Street
Time: 2 p.m. on June 4

I’m originally from a little town in Minnesota. I came here in 1982. Art and love brought me to the city. We are familiar with the city from movies. We saw it always in movies. We’re not conscious of it but it was the background to many movies in the 1940s or 1950s. We’ve absorbed it, those of us who didn’t live here ... and when we come here it’s familiar. That’s what I felt, amazingly, when I got here and it surprised me.

I started to do theatre work with Beverly Bronson, the British woman and our illustrious owner and boss who started this shop. Beverly has branched out into a home in Kathmandu, Nepal, where she is on her way to now to do renovations and hunker down for the monsoon season. It’s the place that had the earthquake. The house is still standing and the kids are camped out in the yard, waiting for the house to be retrofitted. She’s there to offer support and she doesn’t even like to camp, but she’s camping out in the monsoon. God bless her.

I started at this little neighborhood theatre, WOW Café Theatre on East 4th Street. That was great. It was basically what you would call autobiographical theatre. I got to work with a woman named Holly Hughes, who became notorious amongst writers, and Carmelita Tropicana. I got to work with quite a few illustrious underground theatre personas. Oh it was a great time. There was more freedom because you had more time, because your rent was lower. There was a formula there with how much time you had to spend to make your rent.

I did all types of things there, including the tile jobs in the bathrooms. Jim Powers and I got the tile bug at the same time and we egged each other on. Jim moved on to the larger world and I stayed put as a shopkeeper.

So I’m a shopkeeper who writes and works in the glass world. I write basically stories that get adapted to the stage. It is the storytelling format. You know the Moth storytelling series that happens on public radio? That has been going on for years and I am of that school, theatrically speaking, with additional props and, of course, a set.

I got involved in this shop in 1987. Beverly started it with her partner around 1980 on St. Mark's Place and then she moved it over here and bought out her partner. We started with lampshades from England and lamps here from New York and expanded out from that theme. It’s a combination of our tastes. She goes to London and other outer areas of England to shop and I go to the Midwest to shop, and of course the best is already here in New York. We do props for theatre and for movies. That can really save you. Of course the arts are in our best interests. I think it’s in all our best interests, in all its forms.

I dream of finding, and I do find, that art of New York artists who’ve perhaps been undocumented in the world of art. That’s what I seek out. It’s perhaps a sublimated version of my own artistic needs, but nonetheless I’ve seen it happen a few times. It’s exciting. I have some paintings where I don’t know that I’ll ever know who these artists were, although in New York there’s always the possibility of finding it out. Some of my theatre works are based upon experiences like this, the uncovering of a person based upon their objects.

I sold 20-30 — maybe more — paintings that were all done by this gentleman [referring to a painting not seen in the photograph]. I will be sexist in that judgment. All of the portraits were of African-American New Yorkers. I never knew his name and I have not been able to find it out. The painting here dates back to 1926. None of them had a signature. They were a gift to Theatre for the New City and we were helping them run a shop there. My assessment was that a storage unit was emptied and no one had any attachment to it and no one knew the name of the artist. I know all those portraits are out here in the neighborhood. I don’t know where they went in the last 20 years, but they’re out there.

James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.


Anonymous said...

I like this series of "portraits" of EV long-timers. However, I do not understand how this woman's judgment of that set of paintings, as she had put it, were "sexist." Because she'd jumped to the conclusion that the anonymous painter had been male? That doesn't qualify as sexism.

I've always found the designation "women artists" to be sexist, either as though artwork should be given carte-blanche esteem because it was done by a female, or as though to connote that it's "pretty good, for a girl."

Maybe the paintings had been by a woman who "painted like a man?" Or a Caucasian male who'd painted "pretty good, for white boy?"

marjorie said...

Lovely interview! The arts ARE in our best interest -- amen, amen, amen. And it's always inspiring to see that there are still artists in the East Village, when it so often feels like the soul of this neighborhood has departed.

Anonymous said...

great interview; great lady; great shop! thanks for posting!

Anonymous said...

Sharon is very special, and definitely a clear reminder of the characters that once filled the East Village. When my kids were 2, they zeroed in on her store and her, and liked to visit ,even though there are many breakables in the store. Somehow they knew she was interesting and cool. They baked cupcakes for Valentines Day and said, "these are for the little things lady".

Bev said...

This is Beverly writing from Nepal where I run a children's home called House with Heart. I am blessed that Sharon Jane runs the shop for me as I spend five months a year here. We are having a tough time at present, and we are grateful to our Repeat Performance customers who have donated to our Earthquake relief fund. A Repeat Performance is well known and much loved we know, but love and notoriety do not pay the rent and we are struggling like many other EV businesses. We appreciate everyones custom and support. For more info on our orphanage please visit Many thanks for the write up EVGrieve.