By Jakub Lewkowicz
A black bird with a yellow and red tail sings toward the skies with its mouth agape. Its position on the canvas won’t let it take flight. Instead, a sequence of birds spreads diagonally through the rest of the painting. From one shape to the next it’s the same bird yet it is fleeting.
The title of the painting is “Bird Chorus” and it was the Best of Show at the National Exhibition of the Sumi-e Society of America in 2007. That was before the stroke that left the right side of her body paralyzed.
“Bird Chorus” just happens to be Jeanine Klein’s favorite among her countless works because she “loves the movement.”
“I painted it extremely fast,” Jeanine recalled. “I was anxious when I put it into the competition and my teacher came by and told me ‘you’ll be surprised at what you’ll hear.’” It was her first major award in painting.
“That was in 19? 2000?”
Jeanine says her stroke left her unable to remember dates. She gasped and took a pause when she tried to remember her instructor’s name.
She glanced throughout the room. It wasn’t just a living room but rather a fascinating gallery with paintings lining the walls up and down. Some were her early work and some very recent Paper mache, extravagant colors, ethereal shapes were all across the room. There’s always a fresh batch of art just waiting to breathe outside of the busy studio that adjoins the room. A strong scent of paint is the first thing that hits and dwells in the nose. The room with eternally wet paint.
“Oh, It’s right at the tip of my tongue but I can’t remember it,” she gives in.
She wasn’t always an award-winning painter. In fact, the 84-year old woman started seriously painting only ten years ago, when she moved to from the raucous city to a small suburb on Long Island.
Jeanine lives in Stony Brook–a small quaint town on the north shore that transforms into a palate of warm colors in the middle of October, so colorfully diverse it is only matched by her artistic vision. On the outskirts of the bustling Stony Brook University, the area is still peaceful. It’s still a perfect sanctuary for Jeanine’s love of birds and colors.
It is a fairly hidden part of the town with a street so narrow that one car can barely pass through without hitting the dense foliage of branches on either side. Her house stands on a steep incline, as if on a pedestal. Surmounting the long driveway that slants at a 45 degree angle is no easy task.
Jeanine remembered “being different” throughout her childhood growing up as a Jewish Belgian immigrant in Brooklyn. Brooklyn was a much more homogenous community back then. Her memories of those days were were clouded with a sense of isolation. America was a new beginning for the family.
Her aunt was very fond of art and took Jeanine to a variety of galleries when she was still an infant.
“Though I can’t remember it too clearly, it must have left a lasting impression,” Jeanine said.
Her father was a hair goods designer originally from Russia and emigrated from Russia to avoid a draft. An artistic sort of man himself, he loved to sing opera.
“I wish he could see that I’m panting,” Jeanine said. “My mother on the other hand was a very frustrated type of person. I had to create a great distance from her because she always wanted to have her hands in everything in my life. She was very difficult to get away from.”
She was very close to her older brother Armand even though he had a critical eye for anything she attempted. Willy was the other. Handsome, outgoing, very much an “American” boy, Willy had ADD and was never able to finish school. He moved in with Jeanine after the death of his wife but passed soon passed away.
“I was so happy that he was moving in,” Jeanine said sadly. “I wanted him to know that I loved him.”
“Oh, you probably don’t have to say all that,” she would add after delving into memories of her kin and shaking off her thoughts.
While she was in college studying to become a social worker and playing the cello, she decided to travel back to Europe and visit. The cello was sold and Jeanine went off to Belgium in an instant.
Before the pursuit of art, she was working in the city as a social worker and had her own psycho practice. “Mostly marital…that’s probably the reason why I don’t like the idea of marriage so much,” she said with a chuckle. She was also a frequent gallery visitor, just a pastime she loved to do with her friends.
One day after retiring from her psycho practice work, Jeanine found a card she had received from Sun Sook during one of her endeavors and decided to give her a call. Sun Sook was teaching painting at the time and took Jeanine under her wing. The freedom of artistic expression was the flagship principle.
“I learned certain things about letting it go. I couldn’t stand the preciseness and the whole thing just felt so scripted,” Jeanine said. “If it wasn’t for her, I would have never touched a painting.”
The classes were more of a mental exercise that expanded the mindset of the unrestrained painter. Whereas teachers would plop a bowl with fruits at the front of the class and demand a replicated still-life painting when it came to learning classic Western styles of painting, the modern style painting was not constrained by identical reproduction of reality.
Jeanine’s painting went through a series of color evolutions, each time changing the entire contents of her pallette.
“At first everything was black and white,” Jeanine said. “It took quite a while before I started to actually use paint.”
In 2007, when both teacher and apprentice entered their paintings along with hundreds of others, “Bird Chorus” was victorious.
Sumi-e is an ancient East Asian art form. Black ink and careful brush strokes dominate its style. Certain brush strokes created a vivid forest landscape. The forefront of the paintings contain dark ink and gradually the lighter ink color projects a sort of 3D illusion. The paintings have tremendous depth.
Jeanine’s dark ink forests presented an ominous appearance. The forest, an entity so beautiful during the warm summers, turns to bony shadows by winter. It transforms into something only black and white colors can describe.
A few paintings to the left one can see a warm luscious green forest created with almost identical brushstrokes. Each painting reflects the the mood of the day it was created.
The studio is small, no larger than 15 feet long and wide. Yet one can see why this was the chosen room since the view from the solitary window was nothing short of vast. Paintings that could fill an entire gallery are stacked on one another in just one corner. “It’s really ridiculous. There’s just too much of it all.”
Each carefully tailored frame matches the artwork that it holds. A silver frame encompasses overlapping steel circles. A gold frame accents a paper collage covered with eccentric colors.
A year after her painting won the competition something unexpected happened. It was to be a joyful day and a group of friends was to rendezvous at the home. All of a sudden, she had a stroke that left her immobile on the floor.
“I saw my parents then. They were crying,” Jeanine said with a daydreaming gaze as if she were experiencing it each time.”They were pleading with the light and said this is not your time.”
After Jeanine was unconscious for hours, a friend whom she was expecting sensed something was wrong when she wasn’t answering and peered through that same skylight.
In the aftermath, she found it almost impossible to walk or speak and only gradually she could regain physical ability. Painting with the right hand was no longer an option so Jeanine had to assign her craft to its unexperienced twin.
“Painting was the thing that saved me because there was still so many ideas I had left. I don’t have children so that will be my legacy,” Jeanine said. “There’s something there that will keep me going.”
Her most recent paintings present a sort of Jackson Pollock quality with vibrant colors dancing around the page. Each separate, but all in harmony as a whole.
“This is a painting of the universe,” she said while proudly holding up a painting with wild contours.
One can see all of Earth’s elements throughout the paintings in the room whether it’s the soothing blend of aqua blue–a window into the ocean, the chlorophyll-dominant tones of the jungle in another, and the harsh brown hue of the planet’s soil.
She won a Suffolk County award for her contributions to art and constantly has people interested in purchasing her work. The plaque reads“Left Hand Art By a Right Handed Artist: The Wonder of Recovery.”