Hilda Still Lives Here



463 West Street ny ny

Neighborhood: West Village

I was waiting for the elevator on my floor when I saw a sign on the bulletin board that an elderly painter was going into a nursing home and her work was in the basement, free to residents.

I live in Westbeth Artists Housing in the far West Village; the note was from the management office and it said something about keeping Hilda’s spirit in the building.

Since I needed something for a big vacant wall, I raced downstairs and rummaged through about forty paintings that were stacked up in rows on the walls near the boiler room, where the janitors hang out and sneak smokes.

I selected two large mellow impressionistic works, 4’x5′, one vertical, one horizontal. They looked like companion pieces from the same blue/grey/green series. I lugged one upstairs and then went back for the other. When I got them resettled, I was surprised to notice one was painted in 1981, the other in1985.

Hanging side by side in my living room, the paintings make my 400 square foot loft seem bigger by drawing attention to its high ceilings. And I liked the idea of keeping this woman’s artistic energy in our complex. I had never met Hilda, but she was now part of my home. Her art is the first thing I see upon waking from my convertible couch.

The canvases ripple: grass waves and clouds shimmer upon the water. The shades of blue are calming, meditative. To me, the paintings recall Monet. Several viewers have observed, “looks like lily ponds, without the lilies.”

Several months after I hung them, a resident yenta who must be near 80 rang my door bell about the tenant council election. I invited her in and she gushed over the two paintings. When I explained how I got them, she became teary. She had known Hilda and told me she was now institutionalized with Alzheimer’s.

“Oh, Kate, I am so happy you have her paintings,” my neighbor said, while giving me a perfumed hug. “She is still with us.”

Now I started to wonder, what did it say about me that I was attracted to work created by someone who had lost her faculties? And I wanted to know more about Hilda. I started playing detective and was directed to Mark, her next door neighbor of 20 years, a portly middle aged gay man who works in theater. I’d heard Mark was upset when Hilda was removed from the building, so I expected to discover a sweet old lady. “She was not a nice person,” Mark said, as we sat on my couch and chatted over tea, staring at her gorgeous paintings. “She was nasty and antagonistic and acted superior to others. For years, she wasn’t nice to me, until she got older and needed help. We got friendly about 10 years ago. She was alone and so was I.”

Hilda was 87 when she left Westbeth Artists Housing in 2001. Her walking and vision had been impaired for 15 years, her mind in the last five. Mark felt it was wrong to put her away, but other neighbors disagreed. Hilda had been active in the gallery in the building and left behind about 100 paintings No one from her family wanted them. When she had better sight, Hilda did representational work.

According to Mark, she’d been “in la-la land” since at least 1997, when Hilda was 82, and he greeted her on the street and she didn’t recognize him. She later told a mutual friend that a stranger had talked to her. Around this time, Mark asked Hilda for the number of her uncle who visited and brought food for Passover and Rosh Hashannah.

As her illness progressed, Hilda started knocking on Mark’s door several times a day asking for food- yogurt, oranges, cookies but she mixed up the food names. Soon Hilda was wandering the 7th floor, going door to door, ringing bells, asking for yogurt. “She seemed to think the front desk was like a deli counter,” Mark said, “and she was always asking the guards to get her food, like they were store clerks.”

Suddenly I knew who Hilda was! ” Did she have gray bangs and big black glasses?” Yes, that was her! I recalled a day last year when this older woman got off the elevator and marched up to the front desk and insisted the security guard get a light bulb for her apartment. I thought she was gone. I remembered another time two years ago when I was posting a flyer and I spoke to her about the event, and she was shockingly nasty. It was probably the disease speaking, but her venom was scary.

Mark and another neighbor, Adrienne, offered to grocery shop, but Hilda was stubborn. She insisted upon going to Dag’s herself but when she got there she forgot what she needed. She told Mark money was no problem but he had no idea about her income. Neighbors brought her food and got her into Meals on Wheels, but she resisted the delivery guy. The building social worker arranged for home care, but she threw the attendant out. She let two cooked chickens rot in the fridge while she wandered around he hallway begging for peach yogurt. Near the end, everyone on that floor was talking.

“She could not admit she needed help,” Mark said. “I took her aside and told her ’Hilda, you need help or they will put you away.’'”

“She was like a six year old in an old lady body,” said Adrienne, an abstract painter. “I’d hug her because no one else touched her.” The uncle gave Adrienne money to buy inexpensive clothes on 14th St because Hilda–once immaculate–had stopped doing laundry.

The night the police came with a psych unit, (after Hilda was reportedly walking around exposing her breasts), she went away quietly to St Vincent’s for testing.

Two weeks later, Mark and Adrienne visited her hospital room. Hilda told them she liked her new house; Mark said she looked happy. She did not recall their names but chatted about neighbors from 20 years ago. Hilda now lives in the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale, where two of her paintings hang in her room.

From what I learned, Hilda had no husband, no kids, no significant other, no relationship. She used to read “The New York Times” over the phone to a blind painter every day. She did not spend much money. She walked around the Village and visited Soho galleries. During her normal life, she painted regularly, her easel overlooking Washington Street. Years ago, she sold a painting to someone famous. Early in her career, she lived in Paris and sold her work to private collectors. Hilda studied at the American Art School and the Art Students League and showed in New York galleries in the 60s and 70s.

By all accounts, she was belligerent, feisty, aloof. Family tragedy shaped her personality. Hilda grew up in Brighton Beach. When she was a young woman, her brother became paralyzed from an accident and then committed suicide; after this, her mother lost her mind and was institutionalized. “She had a lot of anger from that,” said Mark. I wonder if she was ever happy.

Hilda moved to Westbeth in 1976, when she would have been 62. I try to imagine her younger, in Paris, in the 1930s or 1940s. I picture her as a lesbian hanging out with Gertrude and Alice. How I would love to have been part of that scene! I asked, but Mark said he had no clue about Hilda’s sexual orientation. I imagine her easel set up along the Seine and her brush strokes capturing its ripples and reflections. Maybe that experience is in my paintings.

The lone caring relative said Hilda had alienated everyone over the years. Her version was that “They’re no good. They never liked me because I was different.”

Perhaps we are kindred spirits in some way. I certainly can relate to feeling different and alienated from my family. Like Hilda, I’ve turned people off with my anger. But I’m from the therapy generation and spent years working out family issues. As I sit on my couch, chilling out, looking at Hilda’s paintings in my studio I wonder how someone so angry could paint so serenely. Maybe it was her release.

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