the tea drinker


Seven years ago, I came across a man from England who was looking for any work, and he said he was willing to model for a painting.  I sat him down in my studio, which was very dark, and began to paint. At first he was holding a newspaper, but I didn't like the feel of that. So, I put a cup of tea in his hands.  I poured the boiling water into the cup, and he stared at the steam.  He sat upright, stiff, which somehow offset the gentle grasp of the cup.

A while into the painting, I was playing a beautiful, old ballad on the CD player, a song called "The Hands are Cold."  The fellow began to cry as he posed for the painting, and called out "Please change the song!"  I felt so bad, I was very jarred by this, and I quickly changed it.  He wiped his tears away, apologized, and told me that he had just left England to start over, because his wife had just passed away after a long battle with cancer.  From that point forward in the painting, he spoke of her often.

This painting is one of those rare sales, in which a patron stopped by my studio, and bought the painting off the easel.  The buyer actually came to see another painting, a lighthearted one, but instead connected to this piece.  I finished the painting up, and delivered it to him.  And the other day, I stopped by the owner's home, and saw this painting hanging.  It had been a few years since I had taken a close look at it.

I'm not at all interested in painting pain for the sake of painting pain. I'm interested in painting life; sometimes, life is painful.

hands with tea


all things


The pumpkin ales are being poured in the taverns, the smell of burning firewood curls down tree lined lanes glowing red, yellow, and orange, the children go swishing to the bus stop in woolen sweaters, and there's been a mass hanging on Main Street in Islip.  As you might well imagine, hangings are a delight to witness, but they are not all fun and games.  Indeed, there's more to a hanging that just plucking a few random faces from the crowd.  Yes, indeed, you must select the correct people to hang, and beforehand ask them politely if they would enjoy being hung in broad daylight, for all to see.  And you must let these obliging individuals know that once they are initially hung, they will continue to hang there for a month, for the continued pleasure, contemplation, and delectation of the masses.  I must say, once the deed has been done, I found myself laying in bed at night and reflecting, thinking "That fellow truly deserved to hang.  Would have done more, 'twere it in my power."  And though the event happens in just one day, planning a hanging is a long, drawn out process, with many twists and turns, many obstacles to surmount with each step of the journey.  All told, to hang a newly found friend is a joy- here is the story behind the Autumnal Hanging of 2013, or, the "Eight Faces of Islip."

Ten months ago, I set to work ordering canvases, designing the exhibition layout of the canvases, buying paint.  After a few conversations with my wife, we identified eight people who embodied of the town of Islip, each in their own way.  I approached five of them, and received a hearty response from each one.  And I began to paint.

Four months later, my portrait sitters and I had logged scores of hours in the studio.  Some walked slowly up the steps with a cane, some bounded up the steps two at a time, some climbed the steps slowly with the assistance of their spouse.  The days had passed quickly, and I felt that this project had pulled out of me some of my very best work.  In fact, I was approached by many people who felt that a few of these portraits were among my best paintings.  Walking down Main Street in Islip, I was regularly approached by people I'd never met, saying they were following my website, and were thrilled to see how Erhardt's portrait turned out, or how Jack's smile was captured.

Along the way I encountered a difficult scenario, in that the original destination for my exhibition fell through.  It posed a problem, but I held fast to a favorite verse, a verse which has floated me through numerous circumstances: "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose."  I don't take that verse as meaning "everything I touch will turn to gold."  Instead, I understand that if I am in covenant with God, and a diligent steward, that failures can mean new direction.  Small or large, daily or life altering, closed doors give direction.  And when I lose my fear of closed doors, the word failure loses its sting, and I am now simply a steward of a gifting.

And a new door opened.  Or I should say, somebody came and knocked on my door at eight in the morning, and I opened up my front door.  A shop owner had heard of my story, viewed my paintings on my website, and was so excited that she came to my house to see how she could be involved.  Shortly thereafter, this woman connected me to the Islip Chamber of Commerce, and the president of the chamber asked me how the town of Islip might get involved.  Margaret had the idea of hanging the paintings in window fronts of various shops along Main Street, and the president enthusiastically agreed.  Without even being solicited, numerous shop owners came and requested to participate.

The paintings placed in various window fronts, I attached to the bottom of each portrait a condensed biography.  Newsday ran a small article, the Islip Bulletin ran two articles, and the event began with a small walking tour in which I narrated the unfolding of each painting.

Not a day has gone by without a complete stranger approaching me on the street, and telling me how much they've enjoyed the portraits and the biographies.  Oftentimes as I drive down Main Street, I see somebody pausing in front of a window, reading a biography, looking at the painting.  At my son's soccer match today, many strangers approached me with their enthusiasm for the work.  And every other day or so, I get an email from a stranger.  And on several occasions, I have been politely scolded, with inquiries as to why I hadn't selected them as a face of Islip.  The paintings will be up until the 19th of November.

I've been told by Newsday that this January, Steve Parks is running an in depth article, featuring all eight of the portraits, telling a bit of their story, describing the artistic process of painting from life.  Join me this January, the 12th, at 1:30 p.m., for a free portrait demonstration at Islip Public Library.  I'll be painting a portrait for a couple of hours in front of an audience, while my friend and well known performer Mitch Kahn journeys from Manhattan to play classic American tunes on the grand Steinway piano.  And there, in the library, for the first time... all eight portraits will hang side by side.


To reserve a free ticket to the portrait painting demonstration/piano performance, you can either reserve online, or call.  To reserve online, click the link below.  Online, as I understand it, you may have to enter your library card ID number, as a New York State library card holder.  Order tickets fast, as I've seen the pianist Mitch Kahn sell out his solo performances, let alone being accompanied by a brush wielding blatherskite.

Tickets for Islip Library Portrait Painting Demonstration

Or call the Islip Public Library at 631- 581- 5933

jimmy, a face of islip

Early in the morning, every now and then, I hop into my truck with one of my sons and head up to Montauk Highway for some bagels. As my truck sidles along down the road beside Islip High School, there is Jimmy Gaffney, working away at this and that on the grounds of the school. I beep, my son yells "Jimmy" out the window, and Jimmy waves and laughs. Every time it happens, it seems like I'm in a charming Frank Capra film.

And in the evenings, as I look out onto the beautiful grounds of the Islip Presbyterian Church, there again is the figure of Jimmy at work, busy at some task or another.  His movements are slow, yet deliberate.  I call out to Jimmy, and he turns his head up in surprise.  He squints, waves his arm above his head, laughs, and heads over to talk.

So many of us in Islip know Jimmy well.  He's been working as a custodian at the high school for many years, and after his days work at the school he walks over to his second job at the Presbyterian church.  Generations of students and churchgoers alike recall his ever present smile, and his calm manner.  In my conversations with him, he has a knack for always turning a conversation towards an optimistic view of things.  And though he work very long hours, I've never once heard him complain.  On the contrary, after services at the Presbyterian church, as he pushes a broom along the beautiful maple floors, he always spoke of the pleasure he has in being around people.

One of my favorite things about Jimmy is the thing which he himself has never spoken about.  A few people have told me that Jimmy is found one evening a week, every single week of the year, working in a soup kitchen to feed the needy.  He volunteers, and doesn't tell anybody that he does it, but there he is behind the counter, serving food to other people.  And in the New Testament I recall that "pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress..." and "when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing..."

For a long time, I had it in mind to paint Jimmy.  A year and a half ago, I asked him if he'd sit for a painting, and if he did, would he ever grow his beard a little bit for a nice effect?  He laughed at my request, and said he'd certainly grow his beard and hair a bit, if it would make for a good portrait.  Well, absentminded artist that I am, time elapsed, and I forgot about our conversation.  Jimmy and I would bump into each other every now and again, and every time his hair got longer.  And longer.  And longer yet, til he could easily be mistaken for some Old Testament prophet.  Finally, one day I asked Jimmy if he had some free time to sit for a portrait painting in my studio, and he said "I thought you'd never ask.  Once it is done, I can finally cut my hair.  I've been wondering how long you wanted it to get."  I suddenly recalled that long forgotten conversation, laughed really hard, and apologized profusely that I was the reason that he looked like Moses descending from Mount Sinai.  Jimmy laughed pretty hard as well.  The hours flew by as Jimmy sat for his portrait.  He talked about his trip to New Orleans to hear authentic New Orleans jazz, and eat Cajun food where it's made right.  He spoke of his childhood, and his fond recollection of his mother.  And, I spoke about the painting, and how great the beard was for a painted portrait.  Once the portrait was finished, he returned to his clean cut hair, and scraped chin.

Jimmy embodies an aspect of Islip that is wonderful, and yet is fleeting.  It is not mere sentimental nostalgia to reflect on the fact that before social media, before cell phones, before high speed traffic on Main Street, there really was another time.  A time when there were those that would gather at the hardware store to talk before heading over to Poppy's for breakfast, those that would talk politics over pints of beer, those that would stay on the lawn long after church service to chat with friends.


A Time to Talk

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don't stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven't hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.

-Robert Frost

mrs. kivisild, a face of islip

Mrs. Kivisild, final, low rez

When I first came up with the idea of painting various portraits of individuals from Islip, Margaret and I both immediately agreed on Mrs. Kivisild.  And when I asked Mrs. Kivisild, she responded with great enthusiasm, so much so that she was in my studio posing for the painting that very week.

As she sat down, we decided on a simple, natural pose, and we began to talk.  What struck me about her conversation was that her spare moments away from the nursery school were still occupied with talk of the children, of the quality of education that they receive, of the vision of the school in general.  And when she spoke about the school, her vocabulary was devoid of hyperbolic description that oftentimes surround children's education.  In fact, I came to learn that Mrs. Kivisild frowned on distracting trends.  What I always most appreciated about the Islip Community Nursery school was that they didn't make sales pitches with pretentious claims- everywhere I turn these days, somebody is telling me that my three year old can learn to speak French, or learn computer skills, or to get a head start on science, or this or that.  In nursery school, this strikes me as ridiculous, and even coercive capitalistic conditioning.  Mark Twain's young mind was formed amidst wild turkeys and raw pine board floors, but nowadays it seems people believe that iPad navigation skills are more important than knowing how to write a limerick.  And at Islip Community, the children laugh, they build, they come home with paint on their hands, they pet the resident rabbit, they learn independence, they are proud of themselves, and they return home filled with wonder.  The nursery has a vision for character development, rather than just setting a child on an assembly belt en route to their career.  And so, Islip Community Nursery is a special place, and Mrs. Kivisild's vision was at the heart of that.

As a young woman, after years of performing as a vocalist in various venues in the New York area, Mrs. Kivisild married a fellow musician and settled in the Islip area.  She longingly describes the years that passed, her five children all about her, the first home that she and her husband bought.  Before long, an opportunity arose to become the director at the Islip Community Nursery School, and she took the spot.  It was a perfect fit, as she loved working with children, and had a strong idea of what children's education should be.  As director of the nursery school for several decades, she saw several generations of children walked through the doors, among them my wife, and now my sons.

Perhaps my favorite thing about painting Mrs. Kivisild was watching her and her husband interact.  People, like grapes, can only go two ways with age- we either grow sour, or we ferment into fragrant wine.  As Mrs. Kivisild sat for the portrait, her husband tenderly looked on for several hours, grabbing her hand securely as she ascended and descended from the model stand, bringing her water and coffee, asking her if she were warm enough.  Over the next few sittings, it was my hope to imbue her portrait with the vision of how her husband must see her, because he was right.

Mrs. Kiviseld, face, low rez

my wife, a face of islip

margaret, smile, on easel

I regularly listen to Bach as I paint, in particular his violin sonatas, and I usually find myself reflecting on the same thought.  No, I am not reflecting on the polyphonic structure of contrapuntal composition in Baroque violin concertos.  I wonder how the heck Bach had twenty children.

And then I think of my wife.

While I am at the easel, smearing paint on pieces of linen all day long, my wife is scouring the top of our Chambers oven, she is picking up kids from nursery, she is spraying nasal medicine in baby Quinlan's nose, she is powerwashing English Ivy entrails off the back wall of our home, she is singing Liam to sleep, she is buying car seats from Target, she is reading about controlling children's temper tantrums in parenting books, she is folding laundry, she is creating brochures for my portrait paintings, she is laughing at Evan as he runs out the front door wearing nothing but a diaper on his head, she is sweeping, she is plucking ripe tomatoes out of the back garden, she is making Syrian kibbe, she is crying because Quinlan is sick, she is arranging babysitters in the evening so that she and I can go for a walk, she comes to my studio to pose for a painting, she runs to the office to check on an order of linen that is coming in.

That's how Bach had twenty kids, and managed to scribble out a few tunes here and there, as well.

margaret, smile, 2

margaret, eyes


One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
"Vain man," said she, "that dost in vain assay,
A mortal thing so to immortalize;
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wiped out likewise."
"Not so," (quod I) "let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name:
Where whenas death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew."
- Spenser, Amoretti LXXV
ONE day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washèd it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide and made my pains his prey.
Vain man (said she) that dost in vain assay         5
A mortal thing so to immortalise;
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wipèd out likewise.
Not so (quod I); let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame;         10
My verse your virtues rare shall eternise,
And in the heavens write your glorious name:
  Where, when as Death shall all the world subdue,
  Our love shall live, and later life renew.

gene murphy, a face of islip


When Margaret and I were dating, one of the things that appealed to me the most about her was her friends.  She has a small, tight group of girls that she has been close to since pre kindergarten days, and they all grew up on the same block.  I came to really like the girls she grew up with, and their families.  During our dating years, some of our trips took us over to the Murphy's house, right around the block from town hall.

I always looked forward to any visit to the Murphy home, as it meant that Gene Murphy was there, puttering about, serving us food, grilling, making sure we were all comfortable.  But best of all, while he flipped burgers or poured drinks, Mr. Murphy was an endless fountain of knowledge, a brain that teemed over with all sorts of interest.  He was like a big balloon, filled with history and civil engineering and town infrastructure, and all you had to do was poke a hole in one side of the balloon, and "POP"- out came gushing Eli Whitney and the Cotton Gin, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Disaster, and how the New York City Water Tunnel Number 3 was currently drilling at roughly 300 feet below surface of Manhattan, and recent events at the Irish American Historical Society  on lower Fifth Avenue, and how the Milk and Sugar helped transform Bay Shore's Main Street, and how the New York City grid layout so entirely changed the identity of the little island at the tip of the Hudson...  Over the course of time I came to learn that Gene Murphy was the head of zoning, in the town of Islip.  But beyond that, conversations with Gene revealed a position in life that few individuals ever receive- that of having a career perfectly matched to one's gifting.

And as the years have gone by, in speaking to other people in the town, I came to hear of Gene's achievements in the town of Islip.  It's a far reaching job, encompassing a national airport, countless schools, baseball fields, railroad lines, civic centers- and thousands upon thousands of homes.  The one thing that stands about Gene is that he never speaks about himself, or his doings.  It was in speaking with other people that I came to understand the broad impact of his decades of hard work.

One of my favorite stories is the company car, allotted to Gene for use by the town of Islip.  Thing is, Gene lives just a five minute walk, probably a quarter mile from town hall.  And so Gene refused to use the car, but would walk every day.  And so, as I headed off to my art studio, I would always see Gene walking to his office.  It struck me as such a small but good thing to have somebody so civic minded, that they would refuse the creature comfort of a car for personal use.

Thousands of years ago, Aristotle used the word "zoon politicon" when describing human beings, which is to say "social animals."  In order for this social animal to flourish, there needs to be "politikon bion" or a "public life" which enables the human being to realize their maximum potential in the sphere of a healthy public community.  Apart from this public sensibility, a self centered human being withdraws into unhealthy, self serving pursuits.  Thousands of years later, we read Aristotle's words with a pang of worry- the pendulum has swung too far over to the importance of the individual, and we acknowledge need for civic minded individuals.

As the years have gone by, and as Margaret and I have gone from boyfriend and girlfriend, to husband and wife, to father and mother, we still pass the occasional pleasant evening beside the pool at Gene and Pat's house.  And I always think, in leaving the Murphy home, that it is such a shame that all we ever hear of is the corruption of government on various levels, and why doesn't somebody tell the story of decades of service and hard work by good men in the public sphere?  As Gene sat for his portrait in my studio, his eyes lit up when he described the new lampposts which will transform the upper main street of Islip Avenue.  "It will really benefit the business, the shop owners in this often overlooked strip, and I'm just hoping it will really benefit everyone in the area" Gene said, and my brush moved as rapidly as possible to capture the glow on his face.


Gene Murphy, day one progress

 Gene Murphy

Gene Murphy, finished painting

day two of portrait painting



Here's the second day's progress of the portrait painting that I am doing in front of the class that I teach.  I'm trying to preserve the planes of the face, and really trying to reserve my whitest whites for the highlight in the eyes.  Really enjoying painting alongside my students.

erhardt, a face of islip

Born just before the second world war, Erhardt grew up on a farm deep in the countryside in Germany.  Years after the war ended, as a teenager Erhardt decided to pay a visit to some relatives in Bay Shore, Long Island, New York.  He had no intentions whatsoever of staying in the United States for more than a few days, a conclusion which was strengthened by the fact that the young man spoke no English.  He recalls having wandered out of his relatives' home, through the surrounding neighborhood, and jumped into a soccer match with some locals.  Finding the country agreeable, his former conclusions quickly dispelled, Erhardt made the permanent move to Long Island.

When it came time to look for a job, Erhardt found the language barrier to be quite an issue.  "What could you do, with little to no language skills, when you want to work?  I applied as an apprentice at the local butcher shop, out further west on Long Island.  It's easy to understand 'pot roast' or 'three chicken breast' when you speak as little English as I did back then."  As Erhardt worked, he saved.  He eventually came to begin his own business, on Main Street in Islip.

Erhardt was a wonderful sitter, striking a perfect balance between sitting still, and being animated in conversation.  A few years ago, I painted one fellow in a building overlooking Central Park, and as I painted he held himself so still he seemed like he was going to faint- I had to convince that fellow that "still" is not better than "comfortable."  And so it was that Erhardt and I comfortably talked about raising children, about his dislike for strange and exotic meats, about soccer.  "Oh Kevin, you play soccer?" was the question he asked me.  Like any father of three with only past athletics conquests to speak of, I had the insecure urge to relay a glorious, short lived career as a soccer player in a local college- but I decided to keep it honest and tell him how I was second line at a middling community college.  "I got kicked in the face during a soccer match in the Bronx, and well, my nose having been shattered, my brilliant career as the next Pele was quickly eclipsed.  However, this only skyrocketed my role as water bottle/soccer ball toter" I dryly said.  Erhardt began "Well, I was drafted to play for some pretty good teams, even some national things... but I didn't have my citizenship papers in order yet.  That was that."  I'm glad I went the self deprecating route- here was a guy who seems to have been an Olympic hopeful, and I was a first line community college hopeful.  Sheesh.

I've rarely had any sitter so interested in the craft of painting, as Erhardt.  He was fascinated, utterly fascinated, by the evolution of the painting, the mystery of an oil portrait.  But on my end, as I worked I had this nagging feeling that there was a problem.  I wasn't capturing his personality, something was missing.  "Hey Erhardt, do you happen to have that hair cap that you wear when you are in the butcher shop?"  He lit up into a smile.  "I sure do.  I thought you might want to paint me in that."  The moment he put on the cap, the painting was resolved, the portrait was found.  Nobody in this town can think of Erhardt, without his cap.  This portrait was one of those rare works that sang, from beginning to end.

There is a brilliant painting by Anton Van Dyck, that of Cornelius van der Geest.  If you can get past that horrific Baroque ruff around the guy's neck, and if you can look at the eyes- it is just one of my favorite portraits, in the history of art.  Here's why.  There is moisture in the eyes.  When you get close to the painting, you can see these little flecks of flake white paint, that is to say lead paint, which is globbed on ever so precisely.  When you step back, you could swear that the eyes are alive.  And so it was that I walked over to Erhardt's painting, a tiny brush with a single hair, loaded with lead white paint.  Looking at his eyes, then leaning towards the canvas, I placed that touch of moisture onto the linen.  Done.

earhardt, final, low rez

earhardt, eyes, low rez

Erhardt Hardekopf, "The Nine Faces of Islip"

jack, a face of islip

"Hey Jack, so today, I got a problem for you.  My washer busted, spilling its innards all over the basement floor.  It's a soapy mess.  Problem is, this is the second washer in two years, and I think there must be a bigger problem."  "Well Kev, how's your air intake in the system?  Sounds like your washer is having a pump failure, which is probably due do overexertion, which is probably due to no air intake in the outflow.  You can't run a pump in a vacuum for too long.  Come over here, this is the part you're gonna need."

Jack and I sauntered over to the other corner of the hardware store, maneuvering between stands of hoses, push brooms, and sprinkler heads.  "Here it is, good luck" he says in his quiet, steady voice.  Always composed, always pleasant, Jack helped me lift my fixer-upper home out of disrepair, and piece by piece has helped me restore a beautiful pre World War II Dutch Tudor.

Jack was born and raised here on Long Island, and came to run a company that distributed the fruit juice cups with the tear off, aluminum tops.  Once obscure, the aluminum fruit juice container is now ubiquitous, and is extensively used across all industries and markets, from hospitals to airlines to homes.  All while raising a family in Sayville, Jack played a role in growing the emerging industry, brokering large deals with major hospitals.  In his younger years, he married a woman who still occupies nearly every story he tells.  He laughs as he describes old apartments in Greenwich Village, he smiles as he relays tales of traveling in Ireland with his wife and family.  His eyebrows lift when he describes how he and his wife fixed up a few homes, and the tenants and friends that they had over the years.  Now that he's older, he's taken his expertise in other industries, and is that bottomless pit of knowledge, working the counter at the local True Value hardware, serving homeowners from Islip and Bay Shore for over a decade and a half.

One of the most enjoyable things about painting Jack was coming to learn a particular secret that he held.  This warm spoken fellow on the other side of the counter at the local hardware store is one of the most knowledgeable, passionate enthusiasts of Johann Sebastian Bach.  While he sat for the painting, I randomly turned some music on, on a contemporary violinist's interpretation of a well known Bach violin suite.  He jolted in his seat.  I asked him if everything was okay, and he winced slightly.  "It's just that Itzhak Perlman interpreted this passage just a bit differently, than, uh, than the new generation."  He was kindly saying that this piece of music was something delicate, something of beauty, and the performer was somewhat outside the range of the composer's intentions.  I switched over to Yo-Yoma's acclaimed performance of Bach Cello Suite number 2, and all was well.  Jack went on to discuss the era in which Bach composed, the evolution of instruments, and the various interpretations different eras have had of his work.  For decades, his passion has been traveling to hear Bach performed in major venues by various classical musicians, a passion shared by his sister.

To paint a portrait is to pull back a veil.  As I put the last marks on the painting, Jack turned to look at the canvas.  "You captured my eyes.  There's never been a photograph in my life that has captured what my eyes, as I myself feel them to be.  You've painted about me, how I actually feel about myself."  It was wonderful to paint a portrait of Jack, and get to know the fellow on the other side of the hardware store counter.

Jack with painting, low rez

jack, final, low rez

jack, eyes, low rez

jack, face, low rez

Click the following to listen to Yo-Yoma's brilliant performance of Bach's Cello Suite No. 1

teaching and painting in the fall







It was my first day of teaching, here at my studio.  I worked alongside my students, doing the portrait sketch for the first half of the day, the sanguine drawing the second half.  I really enjoy painting, and teaching at the same time.  I think the portrait sketch looks cool, it has a strength, a motion.