Neighborhood: SoHo, West Village

Zapkus. His name was almost an onomatopoeia: its electric prod forcing me to sit up and pay attention.

“Design Fundamentals” had to be, in theory, the most yawn-inducing chunk of time in the Parsons School of Design illustration curriculum for Spring 1972. I looked at the course card and envisioned the need to occasionally cut class and dip into the Quad, the tiny 4-Plex movie theater just down the block that always had non-mainstream films. But Mr. Zapkus immediately had me looking past the course title and deep into the world of color, through the art of painters who made choices that were revolutionary for their times and still reverberate today: Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, Joan Miro.

Originally from Lithuania, Kestutis Zapkus was in his thirties, and handsome in a boyish, quirky way. But his seduction lay in the passion and purpose of his teaching. Brimming with intelligence and enthusiasm, he merged art history with the science of value and hue. We all jumped on the color wheel, with him at the controls, and zoomed off into an aurora borealis of learning. I would write letters to my high school friend:

24 April 72
 Dear D_____ ,
 Zapkus has this thing—he’s so enthusiastic in class that when he wants to write something on the board, he knocks over stools—anything in his path. He always looks like he just got out of bed—kind of sleepy-eyed and tousle-headed. And he has this unique way of dressing: unpressed work shirts under corduroy jackets, & nice bells. Very un-put-together, but he gets away with it.

At seven dollars, Color-aid was a pricey item on our art-supply shopping list—a two-inch-thick pad of card stock, each sheet evenly coated with a shade of paint that seemed to represent every color, value, and hue in existence. I shuffled through the deck, careful not to leave fingerprints or scratch the surface, searching for just the right combination to complete the assigned composition. I leaned toward hot-tomato reds tempered with murky mauves, or salmons mingling with umbers and slate blues. Martha Stewart was not yet dictating my color sense, Henri Rousseau was.

I would spend hours at the Museum of Modern Art, planted in front of “The Sleeping Gypsy.” In Rousseau’s naive iconic masterpiece, the huge lion sniffs the peacefully sleeping nomad. The presence of the painting’s sky seeped into my subconscious. Zapkus might have pointed me in this direction, but I had gravitated to “The Sleeping Gypsy” on my own. I am still aware of a certain magical time and place—Manhattan at dusk, underlit by the pinkish-yellow glow of Edwardian-era street lamps and New Jersey sunsets refracted by pollution. As I climb up the subway stairs and emerge into the air, I am in a parallel universe of then—and now.

Our initial assignment was to cut a triangle of Color-aid using three samples, so that an interesting interaction of color, value, and/or hue was the result. I had chosen grey as one. Was that even a color? There were eight shades of grey in the pack, so I knew it carried some weight. I almost held my breath as Mr. Zapkus went slowly around the classroom, choosing and posting on the wall the few that fulfilled the criteria. Mine was one of them. I was starting to feel that I wasn’t just a small-pond fluke who had no business swimming in the deep end. I also had my first (and last) teacher-crush. We all adored and respected him. He was the Pied Piper of Parsons School of Design.

Zapkus treated us as soon-to-be-peers and as adults. He offered a friendly invitation to his world of SoHo galleries and artist bars. At that time what existed down there was fresh, untainted as yet by the bridge and tunnel crowd, real estate predators, “Eurotrash,” or trust fund babies.
A perfect opportunity for symbiosis presented itself in the form of a wall-scraping/painting party. Zapkus had just moved into an almost-raw loft in the netherworld just north of Houston Street, the not-yet-branded NoHo. We—cheap and oh-so-willing labor—would have the privilege of experiencing a loft party hosted by our favorite instructor.

In pouring rain, I walked to the address with a couple of classmates. We made a detour around the block as three guys were in a street fight near the entrance. When all was clear, we trudged up the metal staircase to the music and laughter. Zapkus came striding over in construction boots, knocking over a stool, and floored just about all of us (the girls, anyway). He smiled beneath his little goatee, invited us in for wine, a huge round of peasant bread, and provided us with scraping tools. The loft filled with more student-helpers. Editors for a new magazine called Ms. had a camera trained on us girls, scraping away as Carole King lyrics blended into paint strokes.

I drank a bit more than I worked, and at one point wandered off to lie down on the loft bed. The party was still going strong when I woke up an hour later, sheepish and undefiled. Blushing a perfect Color-aid shade of pink when I showed up at the next day’s class, I got back to the business of learning. I was not sure how to act socially in an era with no rules and felt myself on a retractible leash that still connected me to my hometown former self. If Sodom and Gomorrah lived on my city block, I wouldn’t know which buzzer to push.

Nancy sat next to me in my fashion illustration classes, matching me in background and temperament. We were nice girls from small towns who wanted to be a bit daring. We made a tentative yet intrepid pact to dip below Houston Street and explore SoHo. While the Village was intimate and chummy, SoHo beckoned with hip artist cachet tucked into immense and intimidating warehouses on streets that were often dark and empty.

One night we found ourselves sitting in the brown and taxicab yellow-painted Spring Street Bar, a few blocks south of the apartment on Bleecker. We tried to maintain our cool, as well as our balance on the bar stools, when the thick crowd parted and Mr. Zapkus approached us. Or rather, approached the bartender. He smiled as he greeted his two students.

“Try the Harvey Wallbanger.” So of course we did.

Emerging from the bar, newly minted if slightly wobbly SoHo sophisticates, we made our way home, the drink stir sticks in our fists as souvenirs.


Sharon Watts spent thirty formative years in New York City, all prior to 9/11—rolling with the punches, catching the waves, but mostly soaking up street energy. She’s been, at different times: an art student, a wine stewardess in a kosher-Chinese restaurant, a fashion illustrator, an assemblage artist, and an archivist of things both inconsequential and of enormous meaning. She compiled a book in 2007 – “Miss You, Pat: Collected Memories of NY’s Bravest of the Brave, Captain Patrick J. Brown” as well as a collection of short, poetic, post 9/11 essays in “Back To My Senses” (2013). She is finishing a memoir/scrapbook of her art student days in the early 1970s, “Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams.” But sharing the front burner is a book about the mostly unknown singer-songwriter Bert Sommer, who appeared in HAIR and whose first live gig happened to be Woodstock.

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