I sat at a kitchen table in Hampden last week and traveled to New York City, Germany, the North Sea and India. I heard about brushes with celebrities, working in the bone room at the morgue, a career in theater and dance, and service in the Israeli army. With all the charm, animation and outspokenness of a native New Yorker, Joan Fenrow shared her art, her life, her philosophies, and a lovely bread and cheese platter — all with the same energetic generosity.
“I’ve had a cram-packed life,” she said.
The constant in Joan’s life has been her art, much of which hangs on the walls of her home and adjacent studio. Growing up in the Bronx, Joan found a love for painting at an early age. Joan’s mom bought her a Formica tabletop and crayons in order to keep Joan’s artwork off the walls. Her talents were rewarded when she was accepted into the renowned High School of Industrial Arts in New York. She graduated in 1950.
One of her first jobs after school was in the bone room of the Clay-Adams medical supply company. Her work there included time at the morgue, where she drew body parts for medical journals.
“I was making $50 a week,” Joan said with satisfaction. “That was more than my brother made, and he was an accountant.”
When she left that job, the company gave her a skeleton to take home and practice drawing. She hung it in a closet, neglecting to alert her mother of their new resident.
“Boy, did she scream,” Joan said, laughing. “You could hear it in Brooklyn!”
Joan explored other fields of work and ended up dancing with the Martha Graham School for a while. She also did some acting, directing and drama coaching, but soon decided that there were “too many schmucks” in the theater business. She wanted more freedom to do what she wanted.
Through her various jobs in the arts world of New York, Joan crossed paths with celebrities, including Leonard Bernstein. She once rushed a delivery of a musical score to Bernstein, who was in the midst of a formal dinner.
“I was in my schlumpy clothes,” Joan said, but Bernstein gave her a hug and invited her to join the party, which she politely declined. At another party where she was an invited guest, she danced with a charming Robert Preston, was unimpressed by Andy Warhol (“He was a moron”) and chatted with Ava Gardner.
In her early twenties, Joan moved to Israel. She taught dance for a while, but after seeing some of the devastation in the war-torn country, she decided to join the army.
“I wasn’t supposed to, but I didn’t care.”
After about eight months, the American consulate caught up with her and insisted that she leave the country, but not before she had learned in basic training how to use a machine gun and throw a grenade.
In 1968, Joan moved to Germany for a while with Lynda Marvin, who has been Joan’s life partner for 47 years. From that time forward, Joan’s art has been the focus of her life. She worked in advertising in Europe, and showed her art in private and public galleries, gaining some renown and earning a living through sales.
Back in the states, Joan taught at an art school for 30 years — long enough to teach the children of some of her first students. She also continued to show her work in galleries in the U.S. and abroad.
But in 2009, Joan and Lynda were ready to retire. Like many before them, they had fallen in love with Maine’s scenery and pace of life during summer visits, so they moved here in 2009.
The first thing that struck me about Joan’s paintings was the variety of style.
“A lot of artists fit their subject to their style,” said Joan, “but I use the style that fits my subject. I’ve had too many experiences in life to have one style.”
Joan’s travels, particularly her visits to India, inspired a great deal of her work. But she also finds inspiration closer to home. Wildlife, dramatic seascapes, spiritual representations, human portraiture, and deeply evocative, interpretive pieces are all featured on Joan’s first website, joanfenrow.com, a labor of love created by her only current art student, Ray Costlow, a local teen who has become “like family.”
It is in keeping with Joan’s indefatigable spirit that she did not mention her cancer until the end of our visit. Last month, Joan was diagnosed with inoperable, stage four lung cancer. It has slowed her down, she said; she spends less time in her studio. But her primary goal, in addition to seeing her art get some notice, is just to make the most of whatever time is left to her. Joan makes friends fast. Her conversational warmth, her frankness and her endless stories draw people instantly toward her.
“I still continue in my crazy way.”
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at email@example.com.